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The 1937 New London School Explosion-America's Worst School Disaster

Updated on October 6, 2012
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BEFORE | Source
AFTER | Source

A Dark Day in Texas

The great State of Texas is synonymous with excess. The men wear big hats and carry big guns; the ladies have big hair and extravagant clothing. Following this tradition, the great oil boom of the early thirties gave Texas the ability to withstand the Great Depression. The oil many oil wells in New London Texas would top 170 million barrels in 1937. A few towns, areas and people were affected but for the most part Texans were enjoying life.That was about to end in a most horrific manner.

The New London School provided education for children in grades five through eleven (there was no 12th grade but students could return for more education). It was a new and modern school, costing a million dollars in a time where that was a tremendous amount of money. The new building was designed to use oil, costing between $250-300 a year to heat the school. But the nearby oil derricks produced a by product called waste, or raw, gas which was useless. The heat factor was low and it had no market value. So when people and business tapped into the lines, the company really didn’t care and looked the other way. One of these legal poachers was the New London School.

Like bureaucrats the world over, the school board wanted to save money by using the waste gas to heat the school for free rather than spend the funds for oil to heat the building. Their intentions were to be good stewards of the taxpayer monies but for weeks children and teachers alike complained about sickness, headaches and allergy symptoms. The gas lines were carefully checked for leaks but nothing was found to be amiss so a regular school schedule was maintained.

Then on Thursday, March 18, 1937, just before the dismissal bell rang, life literally ended for more than 300 children and teachers. It was a dark and tragic day for a small Texas town and the sorrow quickly spread throughout Texas and indeed across America. Yet, few people outside Texas now remember the event that forever changed a community, taking almost half of their children in one split second.

At 3:17 PM, the instructor of the shop class turned on a sander in the basement. He had no idea the crawl space below was filled with the odorless waste gas. A tiny spark from the sander set off an explosion underneath the school, flying along the 250 length of the basement feet and ripping the schoolhouse apart, instantly killing hundreds of children and injuring many more. The sound of the explosion was like a bomb, heard up to four miles away and sending a four thousand pound slab of concrete hurtling 200 feet through the air.

The tapped gas line had indeed been leaking and the attempt to save money and school expenses had ended up costing more than a few hundred dollars. It had cost taxpayers the most valuable thing they had, their children. More than a quarter of the town’s children were killed that day in one instant.

Later investigations showed the explosion had the same power as seventy pounds of dynamite for each square foot of floor space. There was no hope of escape as it all happened in the blink of an eye. The ones who survived did so because they were sheltered by items such as bookcase, outside running errands or in an area that miraculously suffered less impact. Others were flung out of the building and while injured, survived because of that violent eviction. All were covered with a grayish mixture of concrete dust, blood, dust and tears.


The Immediate Aftermath

Members of the PTA were meeting at the gymnasium which was not attached to the school building and rushed to the carnage. Dirt and dust clouds were swirling like thick fog yet frantic parents and rescuers tried to climb into the collapsed building to find children, carrying them out dead or alive.

News of the disaster was relayed over telephone and Western Union lines. Oil workers from the eleven oil rigs on the school property rushed to the scene to help with the emergency. Texas rangers and other police agencies came to help plow through mountains of stone, rocks and walls that had been blown apart by the explosion.

The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Boy Scout troops, dozens of doctors and volunteers from many oil companies came to assist in the rescue and salvage effort. The International-Great Northern Railroad sent workers and twenty five embalmers arrived on the scene to care for the bodies while a local hospital cancelled dedication services to help the injured students and teachers.

When children were found alive but hurt, they were rushed to hospitals anywhere and everywhere within the district, some up to twenty miles away. This caused even more chaos due to parents not being able to locate their children and fearing them dead under that awful covering.

A local school bus driver had just left the area when he heard the burst of sound. Looking back, he knew something terrible had happened but remained focused on his job. He delivered panicked but uninjured elementary schoolchildren home (they were dismissed before the older classes). Then he rushed back to the scene because all four of his own children were in that school. His youngest son died while three others were seriously injured.

Five hundred and forty people were in the building, two hundred ninety eight of them died. Most were students but sixteen teachers died and eight visitors who were in the building at the time of the explosion. More people died later from injuries bringing the believed total to 311 deaths.

The exact total is unknown because an eyewitness who was a boy at the school states some bodies were never recovered and that some parents took their children away and never returned. That was an era when people came and went at will and many were temporarily in New London working the oil rigs. Some likely took their lost children to their hometown to bury them.

The Lost

  • 5th Grade -67 Children Killed
  • 6th Grade-87 Children Killed
  • 7th Grade-34 Children Killed
  • 8th Grade-31 Children Killed
  • 9th Grade-11 Children Killed
  • 10th Grade- 16 Children Killed
  • 11th Grade-23 Children Killed
  • Teachers-16 Killed Killed
  • Visitors and Workers-8 Killed
  • Total 293, more would never be found or died later

How Could This Happen?

Untreated natural gas is odorless and colorless, undetectable. The headaches, nausea and other complaints the students and teachers had suffered for months was because of the gas that had built up underneath the building. One of the first things done in the mornings was to open windows for fresh air.

This disaster had only one benefit. A new law was passed in Texas which was quickly picked up by the other states, requiring gas to be treated so it is easily smelled by anyone. That is why it now has a sulfur (rotten egg) odor.

The normal cost to heat the school was about $250-300 a month. That was too high for the officials who decided to tap into the waste or raw gas lines to save money. It was a mistake that ultimately caused the explosion and taking many lives.

Actual Video and Interviews

Why Revisit This Tragedy?

I believe when we remember, we keep alive the memories of lost ones. In doing so we are intentional in planning so these things never happen again. It is important that we be proactive, not appalled at our lack of foresight.

I have chosen not to give details of the gruesome scene. The human body is not designed to withstand explosives. That is enough for anyone to know.

This divider was created by me and is free for anyone to use without attribution.
This divider was created by me and is free for anyone to use without attribution.


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  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hello Wayne. You are right. Between the tow of us, readers can understand this awful moment in time. I firmly believe people must never forget. This still impacts people today. I appreciate you leaving a comment. Be blessed friend.

  • wayne barrett profile image

    Wayne Barrett 4 years ago from Clearwater Florida

    Hi Brenda.

    I was just going through my bookmarks and came across this piece. I remember finding it when I was researching my article and intended to read it later, but as I so often do, I forgot it. Well, that's why I bookmark the ones I really want to read! I am very glad to see that someone else has taken the time to bring this terrible catastrophe to the public attention. You did a great job bringing out many of the details that I did not present in mine.

    Between the two of us I think we helped those poor souls to be remembered once again. Thank you again dear, for this informative piece.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hllo ComfortB. I will go read Wayne's Hub. This account is so little known and I feel that is a shame. So many families were destroyed. I appreciate you stopping by to read and comment on this Hub and for letting me know about Wayne and his daughter. Thank you.

  • ComfortB profile image

    Comfort Babatola 4 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

    Ironically, I was reading an account of the same event from a fellow hubber when I came across some mention of your name.

    You did a very good job with the details of this terrible event. Many lives were obviously lost on that day, and they do need to be remembered. Thanks for bringing this to light.

    The hubber is wayne barrett. He's a relative of some of the victims of these terrible day. His daughter, who is also a hubber, wrote a poem about this event.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi there RTalloni. You are so right, out of sight out of mind. The attention and retention of the American public is very short and greatly focused on what Hollywood actors and musicians are doing. To me something like this is far more vital and part of what shaped our history and laws. I am so pleased you came by to read this article and to leave such great comments. Thank you.

  • RTalloni profile image

    RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

    It really is important to remember those lost in disasters and to take hold of the lessons we need to learn from them. I was recently thinking about how people seem to think that there were no comparative disasters in the past, but that relatively, major catastrophes are a part of history. The problem is that people treat history as out of sight out of mind. Thanks for highlighting facts about this explosion for us.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Thanks suzettenaples. This type of story is so very hard to write about. One must remember that lives were lost and somewhere a loved one might still be remembering. The internet is a big place and if that person found my story, I would want them to know I respect their family and privacy. Thank you for your own sensitivity.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hyphen: You certainly are a talented writer! You do handle these horrible stories with such sensitivity. It is sad, but this is what school systems have always done. Their budgets are always on a string and they look at horrible ways to save money. This incident should never have happened. I had not heard of this before this article. Thanks for writing this and I admire your caring and sensitive attitude toward the situation. Kudos, Hyph!

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi mckbirdbks. I know this is not fun reading. It was most difficult to research and write. I am always amazed that these things have been largely forgotten by America and hard as it is to know, the forgetting is more so.

    Hello Eiddwen. Thank you very much. I am glad you found this important Hub.

  • Eiddwen profile image

    Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

    You have created this one brilliantly out of such horrors.You are indeed so talented my friend and here's to so many more to follow.


  • mckbirdbks profile image

    mckbirdbks 5 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

    Hello Hyphen. I read your title and did not want to rush over and read this sad piece of hitorical writing. I do agree that these memories and lessons learned need to stay learned and diligent work such as this is one way to do that. This is the second such historical piece you have done. There is a researcher inside you that finds interesting items to share with all of us.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi teaches12345. Remembering is crucial to prevention. Thank you for reading about this awful moment in history.

    Hello Mar.

    I wish we could ask many of the people who lived then. Personal stories add so much value. Thanks for your great heart.

    Alastar! Yes, it was a time to save every penny. No one could have anticipated such a terrible consequence. The entire community was emotionally wounded and in horror. May we never see such a thing again. But without knowledge of the past it could happen. Thanks for your ever insightful comments.

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

    Hyph, you really know how to tell a story, even a tragic one like this. What a catastrophe of major proportions this New London incident is, all the more so for the many children involved. The Great Depression was a time of cutting corners and the natural gas explosion here is a warning of how volital methane and the other components in it can be. You've done a fine job of honoring these victims and bringing to light again this sad but important story, well done Brenda.

  • marcoujor profile image

    Maria Jordan 5 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

    Dear Brenda,

    I wish I could ask Mom if she remembered. She would have been 10 years old growing up in Georgia... To think that my Momma could have been one of those innocent lives lost.

    Yes, we do need to remember and be informed of these senseless acts to keep moving towards better times. Voted UP and UABI. Hugs, Maria

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

    Such a sad tale. You have done a great job bringing out the details of this disaster. I have never heard of it before. I agree that we must remember the loved ones who have passed on.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hello dear always exploring. I knew your precious, soft heart would be devastated over this. The fact that it happened decades ago does not minimize the loss does it? I am so glad you watched the video. I was hoping most folks would. Yes, the questions and pain still continue. That is sad all over again. Thank you for being you. I so appreciate who you are.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi kashmir. I didn't know either until I ran across this story somewhere on the internet. Why do we not know of these things? They are important and a vital part of our history. I am glad the Hub enlightened you. I thought the old photos are awesome too.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Thank you aviannovice. I worked hard on this article and for days and days. It broke my heart to know all those precious lives were lost and in such a violent manner.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi Frank. It was just beyond comprehension. Even after decades my mother's heart can ache for those parents who lost their children. That kind of fear and loss never goes away. Thanks for reading and for caring.

  • always exploring profile image

    Ruby Jean Fuller 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

    What a terrible tragedy! I had never heard of this. I watched the video, people are still hurting after all these years. A sad way to learn about the gas waste. Thank you Hyphen. Well written indeed..

  • kashmir56 profile image

    Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Great well written account of this great disaster and well researched, i have not heard of this before so in writing this you helped bring it to my attention and helped me learn about the great lost suffered . Loved all the old photos to ! Well done !

    Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi Perspy. We really do need to be aware and not allow tragedies like this to ever happen again. Repairs and update save untold numbers of lives. Thanks for reading the Hub. Let us stay on authorities to upgrade and be proactive.

  • aviannovice profile image

    Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

    Your coverage of this horrid disaster was very well and discreetly done. Up and awesome.

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

    wow this was a devasting reminder .. and how accidents could really stain our hearts and our history.. thanks again for letting us revisit this horrible explosion with you Hyphen.. so we won't forget what happened back in 1937 in New London School... :(

  • Perspycacious profile image

    Demas W Jasper 5 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

    This is a timely reminder that our infrastructure on gas lines is woefully overdue for repair and upgrading. Good job.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi Mhatter. I don't remember here I came across this story. I have had the Hub ready and holding for quite a while. I know there is information on the internet once one begins a detailed search. Thanks for reading about this. I think it is important for us to know and remember.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi midget. Yes we have much more knowledge and resources now. Thanks for the votes and for sharing the Hub. I am glad you liked the Hub.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Hi tamarawilhite. Yes, after the explosion Texas required a scent added to natural gas and the rest of the country soon followed.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Thank you billybuc. Myhope is to open eyes and educate people when I run across these obsolete stories that should be in our history books. Thanks for your support.

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

    Amazing report. How did you ever hit upon it? Thank you for bringing back to life.I passed it on.

  • midget38 profile image

    Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

    What a senseless accident that could have been prevented with more care, and thankfully these days we have more resources, Hyph. Sharing!

  • tamarawilhite profile image

    Tamara Wilhite 5 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

    Is this why natural gas now has that horrible odor in it?

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

    You told this story very well, and said all you needed to say. I have never heard of this disaster, but now I have, and like you said, the memory lives on. Great job!

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Thank you Becky. I have been holding on to this article while deciding where to publish it. HubPages won out since I love this place. Every time I run across some story like this I feel the need to write about it so we all can be aware and honor the ones lost who have taught us such hard lessons.

  • Becky Katz profile image

    Becky Katz 5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

    Beautifully and sensitively written. The love and hurt you feel for these families shines through in your writing. May another tragedy like this never happen again.