Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Madison Street Laundry Explosion -- March 11, 1901

The remains of the Doremus Laundry (National Engineer, April 1901)
Chicagoans woke up on this date, March 11, just as they did every morning, aware that they were beginning a day in one of the most vibrant and fastest-growing cities in the world.  At 8:14 in the morning the danger that occasionally accompanied such a life was vividly brought forth when a boiler explosion at the Doremus Laundry at 458 West Madison Street rocked the west side, killing 9 people and injuring more than 50.

The explosion completely destroyed the laundry, at which employees were just getting ready to start the day.  The sidewalks were crowded with people hurrying to work, and the streetcars were all overloaded.  The explosion was so powerful that it blew the west wall from the Waverly Theater, leaving the auditorium exposed. 

Preliminary investigations revealed that the front end of the boiler had been blown 30 feet away from its original position with the rear section blown nearly as far away in the opposite direction. The boiler had originally been built for the Board of Trade and used there for 11 years before being carted over to the laundry five years earlier.  [The National Engineer, April 1901]

Small fires broke out in several places, but quick work by the fire companies extinguished them, at which point firemen and policemen directed their efforts toward rescuing those trapped in the wreckage.  A number of women were pulled out quickly, but the task became more and more grim as the workers dug deeper into the wreckage.  All told, nine bodies were pulled from the ruined building.

The shock of the explosion was felt for a mile in every direction.  The Tribune reported, that buildings on both sides of Madison Street, in Throop Street, and Waverly Place were shaken to their foundations, and scores of plate-glass windows were left without a piece of glass in them throughout the area.  [Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1901]

The front end of the boiler 30 feet away from its original position
(National Engineer, April 1901)
The coroner’s inquiry into the causes of the explosion was extensive and its findings were given at 5:30 p.m. on March 27, 1901.  The owner of the laundry, Abram Doremus, was ordered arrested, and he was taken to the Criminal Courts building.  That, at least, provided a person for the public to blame.  “I am a law-abiding citizen and I must take the result of the investigation philosophically,” Mr. Doremus said.  “I am not guilty of any carelessness or negligence in this matter.  All I want is justice.  I will be able to prove that I am not guilty.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 28, 1901]

The grand jury voted on May 1, 1901 against sending Doremus to trial, and he was sent on his way.

More troubling, though, was the city’s laxity in inspecting the hundreds of boilers toiling away throughout the most populous parts of Chicago. George B. Ballard, a stationary engineer, called to testify at the inquiry, told the jury that during his thirty years’ residence in the city he had never seen a boiler properly tested by the city officials.  The Doremus boiler had not been tested since March 13, 1899.

There was one bright spot to emerge from the terror of that morning on Madison Street.  On April 29, 1901 Alfred B. Chandler, a victim of the explosion, went to the county clerk’s office and, using his left hand, because his right was still bandaged and his arm in a sling, applied for a marriage license.  The bride, 17-year-old Sarah N. McArthur, eleven years Chandler’s junior, had also been injured in the explosion and both the prospective bride and groom had been patients at the county hospital since the explosion.  [Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1901]

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