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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Memphis Gas Explosion of 1921

Posted By on Thu, Aug 12, 2010 at 12:19 PM

I've read so many books on Memphis that I thought I was familiar with most of the major disasters and crimes that have taken place here — mainly because the Lauderdale family was usually involved in them, in some way or another.

So I was more than a bit surprised when I was roaming through the Lauderdale Library the other night, seeing if I had tucked away a bottle of Kentucky Nip on one of the high shelves, when I pulled out a dusty bound volume of RAILWAY AGE magazine and began to read it.

And there, for the first time, I learned about the Memphis Gas Explosion of 1921 — a horrendous event that killed 11 people here, injured more than a dozen others, and leveled houses and business for blocks around. How is it possible that I have never heard of such a thing?

Here's what RAILWAY AGE had to say:

On January 24, 1921, vapors from a tank car of gasoline on the Union Railway spur on Front Street, Memphis, Tennessee, became ignited and resulted in a blast that killed 11 people and badly injured 19 others. Probably 40 or 50 men, women and children received slight injuries from falling debris or from burns. The explosion wrecked an oil plant, leveled a block of frame buildings, and broke window panes within a radius of five blocks, the estimated loss being $200,000.

So what caused this disaster?
"A workman at the plant opened the tank car without relieving the pressure within." According the story, the wind carried these vapors "across the street ... and the vapor became ignited by open fires in the frame buildings on that side of the street. Instantly there was a terrific explosion which demolished every house on the west half of that block, as well as destroying buildings in the blocks north and east.


"This explosion was followed by a second and more muffled one, which was made by the flame flashing back to the tank car, where vapors issuing from the dome caught fire and burned as they came out. The damage on the west side of the track was due largely to the fire that followed. This fire caused the destruction of a warehouse containing four automobiles, the ruin of a warehouse of sheet-iron construction, and the loss of several hundred barrels of oil and grease stored within. These drums caused several minor explosions and, upon breaking, burned with intense heat."

What's frustrating about this account is that it doesn't say where, exactly, all this took place. A couple of grainy photographs, which I have reproduced here, show a scene of total chaos and destruction. But since everything is destroyed, I can't see any landmarks that might tell me just where on Front Street this occurred. You'll note that the account mentioned "frame buildings" on one side of the street — private residences, apparently — but without digging through old city directories, I can't say where such homes would have been located on Front Street, which seems to have been lined with businesses since the early 1900s.

The story concludes with a fairly obvious observation: "The serious results of this explosion demonstrate once more the need for ceaseless vigilance in handling tank cars or gasoline or other volatile liquids which may explode."

If I can find out more information about the Memphis Gas Explosion (in back issues of the local newspapers, for example), I'll post it here.

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