Friday, February 6, 2015

Archer Avenue Disaster -- February 6, 1902

Tribune illustration of the fire on Archer at 22nd Street
February 6, 1902
Chicago was reeling on this day, February 6, in 1902 as a result of a gas explosion at the Trostel Meat Market at the intersection of Archer Avenue and Twenty-Second Street, a disaster that claimed eleven victims.  The three-story Trostel building, where the explosion originated, and the home next door collapsed and were totally involved in flames by the time the first fire companies arrived.  Two more structures on Twenty-Second Street were ablaze before the fire could be contained.

Underground explosions that blew manhole covers from the streets as flames leaped high from the sewers below complicated the efforts at the chaotic scene.  The Tribune reported,

One of the narrowest escapes from death was that of Timothy Moynihan, engineer of engine company No. 2.  The engine responded to the fire at the first alarm, and as the heavy apparatus approached the fire the manholes began to blow up.  The horses had just cleared a manhole in front of 2218 Archer avenue, and the engine was directly over the cap, when the gas in the main exploded.  The engine was raised several inches from the ground, and the flash of fire that followed enveloped Moynihan, while at the same instant he was thrown into the street.

Moynihan, stunned, managed to pick himself up, chase after the engine, and, despite, his burned hands, help to put the engine into service before he was taken away to have his injuries treated.   [Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1902]

An Ashland Avenue streetcar was also traveling in front of the Trostel building when the explosion occurred.  Every window in the car was shattered and the glass cut many of the passengers aboard the car.  Both the conductor and motorman were thrown from the streetcar and injured. Another streetcar with over 75 passengers on board was derailed by the force of the explosion even though it was a half-block away. 

“It was the greatest shock that I ever experienced,” said Conductor Collins of the Ashland Avenue car.  “Everything happened in an instant, and I was unable to tell whether the explosion occurred in the middle of the track directly under the car or whether a building had fallen on top of the car.”  [Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1902]

John MacLeod, who ran the saloon next to the meat market, was behind the bar when the back wall of his building blew in.  “I was thrown over the bar, and a second later the bar was thrown across the room and upset the stove.  The hot coals immediately fired the building.  I recovered for the minute and thought of my little boy, Douglas. The last I had seen of him he was playing near the stove.  I called out and the child answered me.  I ran to the boy, and, catching him in my arms, rushed to the front window.  I shoved the boy through the broken pane and a citizen caught him up.”

The Coroner’s Jury reached a verdict on February 21, concluding that a leak in a pipe leading into the Trotsel building from the People’s Gaslight and Coke company’s main caused the initial explosion.  The pipe, called a Pintsch pipe, compressed gas before it entered a building.  The jury also found an oily substance in the sewers along Archer Avenue and Twenty-Second Streets.  The origin of the substance was not pinpointed, nor was it directly tied to the sequence of events, but the jury strenuously stated, “We demand on behalf of the people of the section in which the explosion occurred that the city sewer department without delay proceed to investigate the sewers and catch basins in that vicinity, especially those on the premises of manufacturing plants, until the source of this oil is traced and discovered.”  [Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1902]

The jury also strongly recommended that mechanical ventilators be place in all sewers and conduits, a plan endorsed by the lead attorney for the People’s Gas and Coke company, J. F. Meagher.  “It is one of the safest things in the world . . . I want to say right now that the gas company will be glad to cooperate in placing these ventilators.”

In a period of a dozen years between 1890 and 1902 172 Chicagoans had been killed in explosions of various kinds.

Two days after the explosion that claimed the entire Trotsel family The Tribune observed in an editorial on February 7,

. . . the accident illustrates the dangers which constantly lie in wait for the dwellers in large cities and which when least expected are liable to involve serious disaster to property and fatality to life . . . Nor considering the defects of existing political systems is it reasonable to expect perfect inspection.  Careless inspection is quite as frequent as careless construction.  The public, however, has the right to expect that these dangers shall be minimized, and some of them can be entirely removed by frequent and faithful inspection.

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