It was the year that the Hindenburg exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing thirty-six people; Amelia Earhart and co-pilot Fred Noonan vanished over the Pacific Ocean on their Round-the-World Flight; Japan invaded China; the Golden Gate Bridge was completed; and, Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize.
It was also the year that New London, a small town located in East Texas, exploded into the hearts of people worldwide on March 18th.
In 1937, New London had one of the wealthiest rural school districts in the United States. Although the Great Depression was in full swing by the mid-30’s and held its’ grasp on the American people, an oil boom in Rusk County boosted the local economy, causing the population to soar. Because of the migration of families to the small oil-booming town, education spending increased, thus The London School was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $1 million (approximately $15.75 million today).
The school was built on a slope with a large dead air space beneath the structure. Original plans to install a boiler and steam distribution system was overridden by the school board, and instead, gas heaters were installed throughout the building.
Earlier in the year, school board members canceled their natural gas contract, instead having plumbers install a tap into the gas company’s residue line. While not an authorized practice, it was commonly done in order to save money. Gas company executives rarely, if ever, balked at the practice of tapping into lines, turning a blind eye, because natural gas was seen as having no value and was usually burned off as waste. However, untreated natural gas is odorless and colorless, therefore making leaks difficult to detect. Apparently, gas had been leaking from a line tap beneath the school, causing it to build up in the crawl space below, which ran the entire 253 feet length of the building.
Unknown trouble was brewing and on March 18, 1937, sometime between 3:05 pm and 3:20 pm, instructor Lemmie Butler turned on an electric sander, which created a spark and ignited the gas.
Witnesses reported that the school walls bulged as the roof lifted off of the building, and crashed back down on the structure. Approximately 600 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time. Death toll estimates to this day vary from 296 to 319. Back then, there was no way to determine an exact number, because it is believed that many oilfield workers possibly collected the bodies of loved ones and took them home for burial before the official count could be determined. Also, many bodies were blown to pieces and unable to be recovered.
Journalist Walter Cronkite found himself in New London on his first assignment with the Associated Press. Years later, even after covering World War II and the Nuremberg Trials, he was quoted as saying, “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.” **
The school has since been rebuilt and a memorial erected for those who were lost in the explosion. A cenotaph (Greek word, meaning, “empty tomb”) was placed in front of the school with the names of the victims inscribed at its’ base.
The school is enormous and almost feels out of place in a town whose population now hovers around 987.
A local museum is located across the street from the school and contains memorabilia and artifacts from that tragic day. Upon entering the building, I felt as if I was carrying a heavy weight on my shoulders and instant sadness consumed me.
We continued to walk through the museum and as we stopped to view and read about the artifacts, our silence only grew stronger, unable to form any words.
My mom turned to look at more artifacts on the back wall as I stood transfixed on the toy motorcycle in front of me, repeating the description about Eugene Eakes, a 6th grade victim in my head. Suddenly, I looked in her direction when I heard her gasp and say, “Look at this.”
I couldn’t believe it. Adolph Hitler of all people. It was then that I knew this tragedy had impacted not only local citizens, but people around the world, even the most evil. There were many, many telegrams from all over, but the one above stunned me the most.
Below is a picture of a dress and some shoes recovered from the body of a 4th grade girl. At the bottom of the dress is a hole, where a steel beam ripped through her body.
I came across the following picture (see below) drawn by Swedish students and sent to those who had survived. When I laid my eyes upon it, I could no longer hide the tears streaming down my face.
I turned to find my mom, but all I saw was the closing of the entry door into the museum. I was alone. I took one more look around and left as well. Back in the car, we sat silent as we drove down the two-lane country road. After about 10 minutes, she finally spoke, “I couldn’t stay in there any longer. It was so depressing.” I agreed and said that my entire body felt heavy as we entered and the eerie feeling didn’t leave until I passed the threshold to the parking lot.
It wasn’t until later in the day, after looking through some literature about the explosion, that I found out the museum is housed in the historic McConnico’s Drugstore and Soda Shop that once served the New London Students so long ago.
It makes me wonder if their spirits still congregate there, unable to leave their own memories, possibly talking about the way things used to be over an ice cold vanilla coke or malt.
Mom and I both agreed that New London should be seen at least once, since it’s a huge part of our history. It will, without a doubt, leave an indelible mark on your heart, but mom and I were positive that we couldn’t go back a second time.
Side Note: In the aftermath of this tragedy (within weeks), the Texas Legislature mandated that thiols (mercaptans) be added to natural gas. This is the reason that you’ll now notice the strong odor of a natural gas leak. It is now a practice used worldwide.