Saturday, March 30, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History March 31

New London Methodist Preacher Tells of School Explosion, April 1, 1937

The New London School Explosion of March 18, 1937, ranks among the saddest tragedies in Texas history.    At 3:05 p. m on that day an instructor switched on a sander in one of the school’s shops.  The spark from that switch ignited natural gas that had filled the basement of the building.  The result was an explosion so great that is hurled a two ton slab of concrete 200 feet, collapsed the walls, and killed at least 298 students, parents, and teachers.  Many more suffered injuries.  

New London was one of the towns in the East Texas Oil Field which had boomed as a result of the wildcat discovery of the prodigious “ocean of oil”.  Workers from all over streamed to East Texas to find jobs at a time when the Depression was in full swing.   This was the era of unregulated and poorly regulated oil production.  Derricks in Kilgore and New London were erected on any open space available, including church parking lots.  

Residents of New London participated in the prosperity and showed it by building a new, modern school building.   The new building would be heated with natural gas, and why not?  Gas was often a troublesome by product that would be flared off anyway.  The school trustees could save $300 per month by using residue gas.  Tragically there was a bad connection that leaked the gas into the basement.  The odorant mercaptan was not required at the time.  

About two weeks later, the Rev. R. L. Jackson of the New London MECS wrote to the Texas Christian Advocate about the events. 

The ushers, the secretary of the Sunday School, the secretary of the Church Conference, the janitor, the majority of my high school class, and most of my intermediates, a teacher in my primary class and several of the teachers who belonged to our church, transcended in the blast that took its toll of 455 victims in our school one block from the parsonage.  Probably no schools could have giver up this number where there was a higher percentage of Christians.  Most of them active in their churches.  A large percentage of those killed were buried at former homes. 

Words cannot describe such a tragedy.  Rulers of war-ravaged nations paused to send condolences. May this mass of torn and bleeding humanity bring about a greater assurance of peace.    

From every section came ministers who rendered a service that comforted.  Looking back now as the funerals were held in relays, I can see how much they meant.  I cannot call them by name for there were too many.  Our phone was soon tied up and the broadcasting and I was rushed from home to home of my people and not chance to answer messages or to call on help. 
These heroic Christian parents have assured me they will be at services Easter Sunday.  They have urged me to go on with the revival meeting that has been delayed from Palm Sunday to Easter.  

A few weeks and we shall be larger than ever for no one blames God and the ranks will be more than filled.  Texas Christian Advocate April 1, 1937

On a personal note---My grandfather was serving Arp when this tragedy occurred.  Arp is 8 miles from New London, and my grandmother had relatives who had come to New London for employment.   One of those cousins, a fifth grader named William “Billy” Childress” was one of the victims.  My father was in Tyler, the county seat of Smith County, at 3:05 for the “County Meet.”  The University Interscholastic League had not yet been created to organize such competitions so students from all over the county competed without regard to student population of the schools. 
Memories of the explosion were still fresh when I was a child.  When we drove by the cenotaph erected in honor of the victims in 1939, my father would tell me the stories of that horrible day.   


Blogger Frances Jackson Freeman, Ph.D. said...

This is a moving first hand account of an event I have heard about all my life. My family were educators, and for them this was an intimate tragedy.

11:54 AM  

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