It was only recently that I learned about the New London school explosion. A terrible terrible loss.
On March 18, 1937, the sun rose over the East Texas horizon to reveal a beautiful spring day. The skies were blue, and the warm temperatures whispered that the heat of summer was not far away. It was Thursday, a day much like any other in the unincorporated districts of London and New London, located in the Northwest corner of Rusk County, Texas.
Unlike many other parts of the United States, oil money flowed through the region, sparing it many of the problems that the Great Depression had visited on most other parts of the world. Some of his prosperity was reflected in the region’s school systems. The campus of the consolidated London and New London district covered several acres and boasted seven oil wells and a number of detached buildings of brick and frame construction. Overshadowing the grammar school, gymnasium, band room, domestic science building, and several other structures was the junior-senior high school.
The junior-senior high school was the centerpiece of the campus. Built in 1931 with additions in 1934, the steel-framed structure was designed in the California-Spanish style, with hollow tile and brick trimmed in stone. It was set on sloping ground so that, even though it appeared from the front to be a one-story structure, anyone approaching from the rear would see two stories, since the basement was at ground level on this side.
By the middle of the afternoon that March day, the grammar school classes had been dismissed. Most of the younger children had headed home, although some had to wait for their parents, who were attending a Parent Teachers Association meeting in the gymnasium. Two hundred yards away, the students in the junior-senior high school were about to cast their ballots in the school elections. It was just after 3:00 p.m., and the school day was practically over.
In the high school’s basement woodshop, a student named John Dow watched his shop teacher walk over to a wall socked approximately 2 feet from a partly open door to the building’s concealed space and unplug an electric sanding machine. Suddenly, there was a flash of brilliant light and heat, and a thunderous explosion blew the floors and roof of the building skyward.
At 3:08 p.m., only 7 minutes before classes were to be dismissed, the students and teachers of the New London Independent School’s Junior-Senior High School became the victims of one of the worst school disasters in history.
The blast, which produced a low, rumbling noise, occurred with horrific suddenness and ferocity. Every witness agreed that there was just one explosion, the terrific force of which smashed to atoms the floor of the main structure, an 8-inch concrete slab, and sent it through the roof by way of the occupied classrooms. Moments later, debris from the floor, roof, and walls came tumbling down on any would-be survivors.
As workers in the nearby oil fields watched in stunned disbelief, the parents and staff attending the PTA meeting rushed out of the gym to see debris falling on a mound of rubble that had, just moments before, been the junior-senior high school.
“I saw the building go up like smoke or dust,” said F.B. Doles, an onlooker. “It was just one great big puff.”
“I was in the home economy building about 60 yards from the school when I heard a terrible roar,” 18-year old Martha Harris later stated. “The earth shook, and brick and glass came showering down. I looked out a window and saw my friends dying like flies.”
Just outside the building, the students in the day’s last physical education class ran for cover. Though injured by falling debris, all of these bewildered youngsters survived. Their instructor was not so fortunate, however. Mr. A.W. Waldrop had just reentered the building for a moment, only to be caught in the full fury of the blast.
Very little of the structure remained standing after the explosion. In the most remote parts of the building’s three wings, portions of walls and roof remained intact, sheltering a few small pockets of survivors. But for most, death was immediate. Many of the victims were crushed under tons of debris. Those near what would later be considered the origin of the blast were dismembered.
Even onlookers in the vicinity at the time of the blast were in danger from falling debris. One automobile 200 feet away from the school was crushed like an eggshell under a 2-ton slab of concrete hurled from the building. Altogether, falling stones wrecked 50 cars. Some of the flying wreckage included children, thrown through the air like broken rag dolls.
As soon as the violent energy of the blast had been fully expended and the debris had settled, bystanders began to attempt whatever rescue was possible. The scene soon became on of subdued chaos. Desperate parents swarmed to the scene, shocked and hysterical, and stood around the rubble, making their misery and grief known to those searching through the debris.
About 1,500 oil workers rushed without hesitation to the blast site, and worked relentlessly for hours, looking for bodies. Many were afraid that they would find their own children, who had been inside the high school when it went up and were now missing. In the oil fields, these men were appropriately named “roughnecks,” but during the relief work, they were given the title of “angels”.
Fire apparatus from the local rural districts and the nearby oil companies also responded immediately, but fire fighters were relegated to searching for survivors and dealing with human carnage. No fire followed the explosion, presumably because the amount of combustible material in the school was small. The main structure had been built of concrete, steel, and tile, and the windows were metal factory sash. Apart from the furniture and the interior wood trim at the doors, everything was practically non-combustible up to the wooden roof deck.
From Warm Springs, Georgia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched a telegram promising that “the Red Cross will do everything possible. You have my authority to call on every agent of the government to aid.” The medical director for the American Red Cross was immediately dispatched to Texas, and Red Cross workers soon began arriving to help the injured and comfort the bereaved.
Doctors and nurses from as far away as Fort Worth, Little Rock, Houston, Shreveport, and Dallas also arrived, ready to apply their much-needed skills. In the nearby community of Tyler, plans were being finalized for the dedication ceremony of a brand-new hospital, scheduled to open the following week. After receiving a phone call reporting the explosion, the staff went into action a week early. More than 100 children many of who had suffered serious head injuries, were brought to the new medical facility, although it had only 60 beds.
As word of the disaster spread, thousands of automobiles blocked the highways into the community. The state police and American Legionnaires had initially rushed to the scene and taken charge, but crowds estimated at more than 5,000 soon threatened to overwhelm them. The curious and would-be rescuers were elbow to elbow with parents of children still missing.
Though the onlookers were united by hope and the best of intentions, they were making it impossible for rescue vehicles to get to the scene. To remedy the situation, Governor James V. Allred ordered the Texas National Guard to the scene to keep the roads to the site open.
Among those who converged on tiny New London was a cub reporter, fresh from his university schooling, who had just been assigned to the Dallas bureau of United Press International (UPI). The young man’s name was Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was one of the first reporters to reach the scene, having been dispatched as soon as he received confirmation of an advisory from the Houston bureau that a major story was breaking in New London. He got his first inkling of how bad the incident was when he saw a large number of cars lined up outside the funeral home in Tyler.
To make sure that he could get to the site, Cronkite hitched a ride on a fire department searchlight truck that had just arrived form Beaumont, Texas. When he finally reached the scene, it was dark and raining. Floodlights were being set up, casting long shadows from the big oil field cranes that had been brought in to help remove the rubble. Workers were climbing up and down the piles of debris like ants, instinctively going about their grim task.
From the perspective of a news reporter, this was a tragedy of epic proportions. The UPI team that eventually joined Cronkite set up a news bureau in the Western Union office in nearby Overton, and, for 4 days, Cronkite used his car for what little sleep he could catch. He called CBS Radio in New York City from a pay phone to describe the events, and they put him directly on the air each time he called.
Thus began his career, one that would eventually include his Emmy Award-winning role an anchorman for the CBS Evening News. Decades later, as his life in the public eye was winding down, Cronkite said, “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.”
Cole, Peggy, “New London School Explosion,”Junior Historian, Henderson High School, May 1948
Harris, Martha, “Saw Children Blown Out Through Top of Building,” Boston Daily Globe, March 19, 1937
Associated Press, “425 Bodies Found,” Boston Evening Globe, March 19, 1937
“New London Tragedy Recalled by Cronkite,” Tyler Courier-Times, Tyler, TX, March 18, 1977.
Cenotaph Memorial with the names of those who died in the New London School explosion.
NEW LONDON — A monument to the people who died in the March 18, 1937, London School explosion was, in part, the nationwide effort of schoolchildren who donated their pennies, nickels and dimes to the effort.
John Davidson, volunteer docent at the London Museum, said the London Cenotaph, which was commissioned in December 1938, was a small part of the outpouring of sympathy from East Texas, the nation and the world. The museum chronicles the explosion.
The monument contains the names of 293 people who were killed in the school explosion, Davidson said. Since the victims of the disaster are buried elsewhere, he said, the cenotaph is an appropriate type of monument. It sits in a median on Texas 42 directly between the school and the museum in the Rusk County community of New London.
Cenotaph, a Greek word meaning “empty tomb,” is appropriately given to the monument.
On March 26, 1937, a group of people who were residents of the London School District met at the London Elementary School Building, which had escaped the explosion, and organized the London School Memorial Association.
The association elected a board of directors composed of M. H. Marwil, Henderson; John Lumpkin, New London; Mrs. Faye Beidelman, London; Mrs. Polk Childress, London; Sam Warren, Overton; Mrs. Claude Jacobs, London; and Mrs. H. B. Whittington, Overton.
Davidson said the cost of the monument was about $20,000.
In December 1938, a contract for the building and erecting of the monument was awarded to the Premier Granite Quarries of Llano. Donald Nelson of Dallas was appointed architect for the project. After a competition in which seven Texas sculptors submitted preliminary models, Herring Coe of Beaumont was awarded the task of making the model for the sculptural block.
The sculptural block of Texas granite depicts 12 life-size figures, representing children coming to school, bringing gifts and handing in homework to two teachers.
The massive granite block weighs 20 tons and is seven feet high and four feet thick. It is supported by two monolithic granite columns with fluted sides. These 20-foot high columns rise from a granite platform which is reached on two sides by granite steps. Overall, the cenotaph monument is 32 feet high, according to information provided by the museum. [article by Mike Elswick, “Cenotaph Honors Those Killed in School Explosion”]
The Texas Rangers were also at the explosion site.