Disasters in U.S. schools: March 18, 1937, New London, Texas, gas explosion

March 18, 2019

Most high school history students don’t know about it.  Most high school history students in Texas don’t know about it.

New London School, New London, Texas, before the 1937 disaster. Photo from the New London Museum

New London School, New London, Texas, before the 1937 disaster. Photo from the New London Museum

I wonder, sometimes, how many Texans remember at all.

I wonder, too, if there are lessons to be learned from the New London tragedy, while the nation debates what to do to prevent recurrences of school shootings.

No one in New London, Texas, bore ill-will towards children, or schools, or other New Londoners. Some good came of the disaster, but as we’ve seen, with animosity towards schools and school safety in Texas today, and a lackadaisical approach to dangerous substance control and accident prevention in West, Texas, and other places, lessons learned were not learned well.

The deadliest disaster ever to hit a public school in the U.S. struck on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas explosion destroyed the new school building at New London, Texas, killing about 300 people — 79 years ago today.

The remains of the London School after the exp...

The remains of the London School after the explosion of March 18, 1937. Mother Frances Hospital archives

Noise from the blast alerted the town, and many people in the oilfields for many miles.  Telephone and telegraph communication got word out.  Oil companies dismissed their employees, with their tools, to assist rescue and recovery efforts.  Notably, 20-year-old Walter Cronkite came to town to report the news for a wire service.

Investigation determined that a leak in a newly-installed tap into the waste gas pipe coming from nearby oil fields probably allowed natural gas to accumulate under the building.  A spark from a sander started a fire in gas-filled air, and that in turn exploded the cavern under the school.  School officials approved the tap to the waste gas line to save money.  (Hello, Flint, Michigan!) Natural gas is odorless.  One result of the disaster was a Texas law requiring all utility natural gas to be odorized with ethyl mercaptan.

Though the Great Depression still gripped the nation, wealth flowed in New London from oil extraction from nearby oil fields.  The  school district completed construction on a new building in 1939, just two years later — with a pink granite memorial cenotaph in front.

Today, disasters produce a wealth of litigation, tort suits trying to get money to make the injured whole, and to sting those at fault to change to prevent later disasters.  In 1937 official work cut off such lawsuits.

Three days after the explosion, inquiries were held to determine the cause of the disaster. The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the scene. Hearings were conducted. From these investigations, researchers learned that until January 18, 1937, the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company. To save gas expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and superintendent, had tapped a residue gas line of Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong because the use of “green” or “wet” gas was a frequent money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfield. The researchers concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was accumulating beneath the building, although on other days there had been evidence of leaking gas. No school officials were found liable.

These findings brought a hostile reaction from many parents. More than seventy lawsuits were filed for damages. Few cases came to trial, however, and those that did were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence. Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion. The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people could be warned by the smell. The thirty surviving seniors at New London finished their year in temporary buildings while a new school was built on nearly the same site. The builders focused primarily on safety and secondarily on their desire to inspire students to a higher education. A cenotaph of Texas pink granite, designed by Donald S. Nelson, architect, and Herring Coe, sculptor, was erected in front of the new school in 1939.  (Texas Handbook of History, Online, from the Texas State Historical Association)

Of about 500 students, more than 50% of them died.  Once the new school and memorial were built, and the law passed requiring utilities to odorize natural gas so leaks could be detected earlier, survivors and rescuers rather shut down telling the history.  A 1977 reunion of survivors was the first in 40 years.

New London School shortly after the March 18, 1937, explosion. Photo from the New London Museum.

New London School shortly after the March 18, 1937, explosion. Photo from the New London Museum.

Because of that scarring silence, the story slipped from the pages of most history books.

Trinity Mother Frances Hospital treated the victims; a 2012 film from the hospital offers one of the best short histories of the events available today.

New London, and the New London Museum, work to remember the dead and honor them.  Work continues on a film about the disaster, perhaps for release in 2013:

Now, more than 75 years later, the London Museum, across the highway from where the original school was destroyed, keeps alive the memory of much of a generation who died on that terrible day.

This video was produced by Michael Brown Productions of Arlington, TX as a prelude to a feature documentary on the explosion and its aftermath which is planned for
the spring of 2013.  . . .


What are the lessons of the New London Disaster?  We learned to remember safety, when dealing with natural gas.  A solution was found to alert people to the presence of otherwise-odorless, explosive gases, a solution now required by law throughout the U.S.  Natural gas explosions decreased in number, and in damages and deaths.  Wealthy schools districts, cutting corners, can create unintended, even disastrous and deadly consequences.  Quick rebuilding covers the wounds, but does not heal them.

Remembering history takes work; history not remembered through the work of witnesses, victims and survivors, is quickly forgotten — to the detriment of history, and to the pain of the witnesses, victims and survivors.

New, New London School and granite cenotaph memorial to the victims of the 1937 explosion

New, New London School and granite cenotaph memorial to the victims of the 1937 explosion. Photo from Texas Bob Travels.


Houston’s KHOU-TV produced a short feature on the explosion in 2007:

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

True story: Yellow Rose of Texas saved Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto

April 21, 2015

This is mostly an encore post, for the 179th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto.

After suffering crushing defeats in previous battles, and while many Texian rebels were running away from Santa Anna’s massive army — the largest and best trained in North America — Sam Houston’s ragtag band of rebels got the drop on Santa Anna at San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836. Most accounts say the routing of Santa Anna’s fighting machine took just 18 minutes.

San Jacinto Day is April 21. Texas history classes at Texas middle schools should be leading ceremonies marking the occasion — but probably won’t since it’s coming near the end of the state-mandated testing which stops education cold, in March.

Surrender of Santa Anna, Texas State Preservation Board

Surrender of Santa Anna, painting by William Henry Huddle (1890); property of Texas State Preservation Board. The painting depicts Santa Anna being brought before a wounded Sam Houston, to surrender.

San Jacinto Monument brochure, with photo of monument

The San Jacinto Monument is 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument

How could Houston’s group have been so effective against a general who modeled himself after Napoleon, with a large, well-running army? In the 1950s a story came out that Santa Anna was distracted from battle. Even as he aged he regarded himself as a great ladies’ man — and it was a woman who detained the Mexican general in his tent, until it was too late to do anything but steal an enlisted man’s uniform and run.

That woman was mulatto, a “yellow rose,” and about whom the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was written, according story pieced together in the 1950s.

Could such a story be true? Many historians in the 1950s scoffed at the idea. (More below the fold.) Read the rest of this entry »

Orchestra of New Spain, performance calendar for 2013-2014

September 11, 2013

Some e-mail is more worthy of sharing than others.

You’re in the Dallas area, and you’re not familiar with the Orchestra of New Spain?  We do have several very good musical organizations around town bending towards the classical, apart from the big professional companies — including the Dallas Wind Symphony, the Arlington Master Chorale, the Turtle Creek Chorale, the Dallas Bach Society — so that finding a place to listen should NOT be a problem.

But I keep running into people who don’t know about these groups.

I got the schedule for the coming year from the Orchestra of New Spain — you really should go see them, and listen.  They’re good, and these events are fun.


Dear friends and subscribers,
The 2013-14 Season of the Orchestra of New Spain begins on October 10 in the City Performance Hall, Dallas Arts District. The season brochure is on its way and will arrive in your mailbox in a few days. While awaiting it’s arrival please peruse our offerings below, or in more detail at:
Thanks to all of you who are already subscribers. If you haven’t made your move you may consider this prime time to subscribe, and enjoy premium seating, even assured seating for some of our intimate events.
To subscribe, or renew your subscription, please visit us online, mail a check, or call the office.
And NOW, the
25th Season of the Orchestra of New Spain
Thur, Oct 10, 8 pm, City Performance Hall
Latino-Barroco Fusion Ensemble
Fri, Nov 8, 6:30 pm, North Dallas Home of Margo & Jim Keyes
Home and Garden concert
Fri, Nov 22, 7 pm, Christ the King Catholic Church, Preston & Colgate
Requiem for a lost leader
Sun, Dec15, 5 pm, Christ the King Catholic Church, Preston & Colgate
Christmas at Christ the King
          Sun, Jan 19, 6 pm, The Annual Courcelle Dinner
          TBA (not included in subscription)
Sat, Feb 8, 6:30 pm, Meadows museum
Sorolla, Falla, Lorca and Flamenco: preview
Fri, Feb 14 & Sat, Feb 15, 7:30 pm, City Performance Hall
The Rise of Flamenco: Lorca, Falla, Sorolla
Sat, Mar 29, 7pm, Zion Lutheran Church, Lovers Lane
Villa y Corte – Town and Court
Thur, May 15, 6:30, place TBA
Home and Garden concert
(If you have not received our brochure in the past or suspect you are not on our snail mail list, please request you brochure by mail the moment you read this, and before they are mailed next week!)
Orchestra of New Spain
One can learn a lot about the great, lesser-known performance spaces around Dallas just following this bunch.  Who knows when that will come in handy?

Willie Nelson Blvd.

August 12, 2012


Willie Nelson Blvd, Austin, Texas - IMGP2228 photo by Ed Darrell (please attribute)

Waiting for the bats in Austin, and I looked up to find I was on Willie Nelson Boulevard!

A star on the sidewalk in Hollywood is nice, I suppose.  But how many recording or film artists get streets named after them in the capital city of their home state?

And, can you list that as a good reference on your sentencing report on a possession charge?

Details, from the Austin American-Statesman:

2nd Street renamed for Willie Nelson

By Sarah Coppola | Thursday, May 27, 2010, 10:55 AM

Part of Second Street will now bear the honorary name Willie Nelson Boulevard.

The City Council approved the change this morning as a tribute to the singer, who has lived in the Austin area nearly 40 years and sold more than 50 million records.

The city will install Willie Nelson Boulevard signs this summer at every block along Second Street from Trinity Street to San Antonio Street. The formal name, mailing addresses and street signs for Second Street will stay the same, but residents and businesses along the street will be able to receive mail using the Willie Nelson Boulevard address, said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who proposed the idea.

A nonprofit group, Capital Area Statues, is raising money to put a full-size statue of Nelson on Second Street, in front of the new Austin City Limits studio. That nonprofit commissioned the sculpture and unveiled a smaller version of it earlier this month.

More Willie Nelson

Robert Johnson’s centennial, May 8: Memorial to the blues

May 8, 2011

May 8, 2011, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of bluesman Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson, hat and guitar

Robert Johnson -- one of two known photographs of the Delta blues legend

In a fitting tribute to Johnson and an important coming-of-age coming-to-senses moment, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas announced plans to save the old Brunswick Records Building at 508 Park Avenue, a site where Johnson recorded songs in 1937 that changed the blues, changed recording, and left us a legacy of Johnson to study from his short life.

(On at least one day of those 1937 recordings, Johnson could have brushed shoulders with the Light Crust Doughboys, the Texas Swing legends, who were recording in the same building.  The Doughboys set their own pace and gave birth to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.  Two of Texas’s greatest music legends, in the same building on the same day, both just stepping on the platform of the train to immortality.)

Saving 508 Park Avenue vexed Dallas for a couple of decades.  First, blues is not the music of Dallas cognescenti, though the world class musicians in town including Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Jaap van Zweden tend to support the eclectic music scence and honoring musicians of all genres (and Texas is loaded with different music genres).  Second, while Park Avenue may have been a bustling business district adjunct once, Dallas’s city center suffered 50 years of decline after school desegregation.  Parts of downtown and Uptown begin to look prosperous again, but the southern peninsula of the city, away from the now-packed-with-performance venues Arts District, a freeway and ten blocks away from Uptown, with its back up against another freeway, part of Interstate 30 and the famous Dallas Mixmaster.

508 Park Avenue, Dallas, Robert Johnson's early recording site, photo by Justin Terveen for the Dallas Observer

508 Park Avenue, Dallas, Robert Johnson's early recording site, photo by Justin Terveen for the Dallas Observer

Plus, the building is directly across the street from the Stewpot, a kitchen operated by First Presbyterian Church to serve Dallas large and unfortunately thriving homeless population.

Who wants to renovate an abandoned building that has homeless people as scenery for the better part of the day?

Big news this week:  508 Park Avenue was sold to First Presbyterian, who have plans to save the building (and recording studio!), add a performance amphitheatre at one end of the block, and a park at the other.  This is people-friendly development well ahead of its time — there is not a resident population in that part of the city to support such a venue — yet.

Last summer, it was the neighbors, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, who made an offer to buy 508 Park Avenue and the adjacent building and empty lot. But the deal was contingent on the city allowing the church, which also operates the Stewpot, to tear down an unrelated building next door, at 1900 Young, and replace it with an outdoor amphitheater for church socials and concerts. The Landmark Commission went into last Monday’s meeting with angels on one shoulder and devils on the other: The commission’s task force suggested approval; city staff, denial. The latter would have sent 508 Park Avenue back into purgatory.

But Landmark OK’d the plan, and the church says it will restore 508 Park Avenue to its former glory, inside and out—including the construction of a real recording studio where Johnson once sat and played “Hell Hound on My Trail.”

The church promises: It has musicians lined up to participate, but it can’t yet reveal who. The church promises: 508 Park Avenue will be resurrected.

One hell of a birthday gift for a man who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.

The second authenticated photo of blues legend Robert Johnson

The second authenticated photo of blues legend Robert Johnson

So, on Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday (assuming he wasn’t really born in 1912 . . . another mystery for another time, perhaps), the news is that the legendary bluesman who burned out like a shooting star helped save one of the few examples of art deco building decoration in Dallas, when a group of Christians who help the homeless, decided to step in an update their downtown Dallas campus.

Every step of the way, it’s an unlikely story.  Truth is, in this case, much, much stranger than fiction.

Ovation Music released to YouTube the video of Eric Clapton playing and singing “Me and the Devil,” at 508 Park Avenue, in the same room where Robert Johnson sang for a record early on.  Johnson recorded the song at that same location on Sunday, June 20, 1937.

508 Park Avenue, Dallas, is already a memorial to Robert Johnson, to the blues, and to the city where these early blues hits were made.  The struggle remains to make the memorial accessible, and not threatened with destruction.

More, resources: 

Quote of the moment: Doug Sahm on Texas music

April 14, 2011

Doug Sahm, Magnet Magazine photo

Doug Sahm, 1941-1999, Magnet Magazine photo

“I’m a part of Willie Nelson’s world and I love it, but at the same time, I’m part of the Grateful Dead’s world. One night I might be playing twin fiddles at the Broken Spoke and the next night I’ll be down at Antone’s playing blues. In that way Texas is a paradise, because all that music is here.”

Doug Sahm, 1975

Tip of the old scrub brush to Un Perla, Por Favor.

Big balls in Cowtown . . .

February 7, 2011

”]Farm trucks at the Worthington, Ft Worth Stock Show 2011 - Import 01-22-2011 029Photographer error makes these less than perfect — but I still like them.  Panorama shots in very bad light of four enormous farm pickups, parked in the valet parking area usually reserved for the Jaguars, Mercedes and occasional Bentley, at the Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth.  Stockmen come to Fort Worth every January and February for the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show — these are the Caddillacs and Lincolns and Mercedes of the big-money farm set.


”]Trucks at the Worthington, during the Ft. Worth Stock Show 2011 - Import 01-22-2011 030None of these trucks was as small as a Ford F-250.  These are duellies, crew-cab monsters.


When I saw them I immediately heard Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys singing:

Big balls’ in Cowtown!  We’ll all go down.
Big balls’ in Cowtown!  We’ll dance around.

I wish the sound on this clip were better, featuring several of the original Texas Playboys performing in 1999 (Bob died in 1974):

Listen to Asleep at the Wheel’s true-to-Bob’s-spirit version, featuring Johnny Gimbel, one of the Texas Playboys:

If you can afford to gas one of those rigs, you can afford to dance a bit.

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