77th Anniversary of the New London School Explosion
By Dana Goolsby
NEW LONDON- On March 18, 1937, a day much like any other in the unincorporated districts of London and New London, in Rusk County, a generation of East Texas was lost. For many years New London residents did not speak of the tragedy, but today they are telling their stories of that tragic day in East Texas and how it changed history.
Unlike many other parts of the United States, oil money flowed through East Texas, which spared the region from the full force of the Great Depression and was reflected in the region’s school systems. In 1937, New London, Texas, in northwest Rusk County, had one of the richest rural school districts in the United States. The campus of the consolidated London and New London district covered several acres and boasted seven oil wells and a number of buildings of brick and frame construction.
The junior-senior high school was the centerpiece of the New London School campus, built in 1931 with additions in 1934. It was set on sloping ground so that, even though it appeared from the front to be a one-story structure, anyone approaching from the rear would see two stories, since the basement was at ground level on this side.
Early in 1937, the school board cancelled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company’s residue gas line in order to save money. This practice, while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies, was widespread in the area. The natural gas extracted with the oil was seen as a waste product, and since there was no value to the natural gas, the oil companies turned a blind eye. This “raw” or “wet” gas varied in quality from day to day, even from hour to hour. Untreated natural gas is both odorless and colorless, so leaks are difficult to detect and may go unnoticed. Gas had been leaking from the residue line tap, and built up inside an enclosed crawlspace that ran the entire 253-foot length of the building’s facade. Reports state that students had been complaining of headaches for some time, but little attention was paid to it.
March 18th was a Thursday. Friday’s classes had been cancelled to allow for students to participate in the neighboring City of Henderson’s Interscholastic Meet; a scholastic and athletic competition. First through fourth grade students were dismissed early and most of the younger students were headed home, although some had to wait for their parents, who were attending a Parent Teachers Association (PTA) meeting in the gymnasium. The students in the junior-senior high school were about to cast their ballots in the school elections. It was just after 3:00 p.m., and the school day was practically over. By most accounts, at 3:17 p.m. the students and teachers of the New London Independent School’s Junior-Senior High School became the victims of one of the worst school disasters in history.
In the high school’s basement woodshop, the shop teacher walked over to a wall socket approximately 2 feet from a particular open door leading to the building’s concealed space which was filled with odorless natural gas. He unplugged an electric sanding machine which ignited a flash of brilliant light and heat, and a thunderous explosion blew the floors and roof of the building skyward.
The blast produced a low, rumbling noise, which occurred with horrific suddenness and ferocity. All witnesses agreed there was only a single explosion, which smashed the atoms of the floor of the main structure (an 8-inch concrete slab), and sent it through the roof by way of the occupied classrooms. Debris from the floor, roof, and walls came plummeting down on any would-be survivors.
As workers in the nearby oil fields watched in stunned disbelief, the parents and staff attending the PTA meeting rushed out of the gym to see debris falling on a mound of rubble that had, just moments before, been the junior-senior high school. Onlookers reported seeing the building “go up like smoke” and the earth shaking.
Just outside the building, students in the day’s last physical education class ran for cover. Some were injured by falling debris, but all survived. Their instructor was not as fortunate, however. Mr. A.W. Waldrop had just reentered the building for a moment, only to be caught in the full fury of the blast. Onlookers in the vicinity at the time of the blast were in danger from falling debris. One automobile 200 feet away from the school was crushed under a 2-ton slab of concrete hurled from the exploding school building. Altogether, falling stones wrecked 50 cars. Some of the flying wreckage included children’s bodies thrown through the air from the school.
Very little of the structure remained standing after the explosion. In the most remote parts of the building’s three wings, portions of walls and roof remained intact, sheltering a few small pockets of survivors. But for most that day, death was immediate. Many of the victims were crushed under tons of debris and those near the origin of the blast were dismembered.
As soon as the violent energy of the blast had been fully expended and the debris had settled, bystanders began to attempt whatever rescue was possible. The scene quickly became one of chaos. Desperate parents swarmed to the scene, shocked and hysterical. They stood around the rubble, making their misery and grief known to those searching through the debris.
About 1,500 oil workers rushed without hesitation to the blast site, and worked relentlessly for hours, searching for bodies. In the oil fields, these men were known as “roughnecks,” but during the relief work, the community called them “angels.” Fire apparatus from the local rural districts and the nearby oil companies also responded immediately, but no fire followed the explosion.
From Warm Springs, Georgia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched a telegram promising, “the Red Cross will do everything possible. You have my authority to call on every agent of the government to aid.” The medical director for the American Red Cross was immediately dispatched to Texas. Doctors and nurses from as far away as Fort Worth, Little Rock, Houston, Shreveport, and Dallas also arrived, ready to apply their much-needed skills.
In the nearby community of Tyler, plans were being finalized for the dedication ceremony of a brand-new hospital, scheduled to open the following week. After receiving a phone call reporting the explosion, the staff went into action a week early. More than 100 children, many of who had suffered serious head injuries, were transported to the new medical facility, although it had only 60 beds.
As word of the disaster spread, thousands of automobiles blocked the highways into the community. The state police and American Legionnaires had initially rushed to the scene and taken charge, but crowds estimated at more than 5,000 threatened to overwhelm them. Though the onlookers were united by hope and the best of intentions, they were making it impossible for rescue vehicles to get to the scene. To remedy the situation, Governor James V. Allred ordered the Texas National Guard to the scene of the New London School to keep the roads to the site open.
Walter Cronkite, a young green reporter at that time, was also sent to New London. Later in his life Conkrite said, “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”
Classes resumed just 10 days after the explosion. Of the 500 students and forty teachers in the building, approximately 298 died. Some rescuers, students, and teachers needed psychiatric attention, and only about 130 students escaped serious injury. Those who died received individual caskets, individual graves, and religious services.
A new school was completed in 1939 on the property, directly behind the location of the destroyed building. The school remained known as the London School until 1965 when London ISD consolidated with Gaston ISD, the name was changed to West Rusk High School, and the mascot was changed to the Raiders. A large granite cenotaph on the median of Texas State Highway 42 across from the new school commemorates the 1937 disaster. The majority of the victims of the explosion are buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery, near New London.
Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty. The connection had allowed gas to leak into the school, and since natural gas is invisible and is odorless, the leak was unnoticed. To reduce the damage of future leaks, the Texas Legislature began mandating within weeks of the explosion that thiols be added to natural gas in order to make leaks quickly detectable. The practice quickly spread worldwide.
Shortly after the disaster, the Texas Legislature met in emergency session and enacted the Engineering Registration Act (now rewritten as the Texas Engineering Practice Act). Public pressure was on the government to regulate the practice of engineering due to the faulty installation of the natural gas connection; Carolyn Jones, a nine year old survivor, spoke to the Texas Legislature about the importance of safety in schools. Over 70 lawsuits were brought against the school district and Parade Gasoline Company, all of which never made it to trial or were dismissed. The court ruled that neither party could be held responsible for the explosion.
Over the years, the New London School explosion received relatively little attention given the magnitude of the event. Explanations for this are speculative, but most center around residents’ unwillingness to discuss the tragedy. Today, New London residents and Trinity Mother Frances are telling their stories of that tragic day in East Texas, when a generation was lost.
A video was produced in observance of the 75th anniversary of the New London natural gas explosion. WATCH THE VIDEO NOW.
Monday through Friday: 9am – 4pm
Saturday: March 1st thru August 31st – 10:00am – 3:00pm
Fountain service is available during those hours.
The Tea Room is open from 11:00am – 2:00pm
Groups wanting to visit on Saturdays must call ahead for arrangements.
Large groups should call ahead for any day to set up a time for their visit so volunteer tour guides can be arranged.
ADMISSION – $3 for adults and $1 for children.
INFORMATION – For more information or to make reservations, call 903-895-4602.
DONATIONS – Those interested in making donations to the museum can contact theLondon Museum, P.O. Box 477, New London, Texas, 75682.