August 1901: All Hell Breaks Loose on Locust Street

Damage Done on the North Side of Locust Street (Philadelphia Inquirer, August 7, 1901)

August 6, 1901. “With an appalling roar that made buildings quake a quarter of a mile away, an explosion demolished five houses on Locust street between Tenth and Eleventh, last night. The extent of the death and disaster spread by the catastrophe could not be estimated—probably twenty were killed, and the burned and maimed reach scores.”

“Residents of the neighborhood…say that the first flash emanated from MacClemmy’s store, at 1014. The block stretching from Alder street to Warnock comprises six brick houses, all three stories in height, with dormer windows. Following the first flash came an all-pervading roar, a burst of flame from other shops and the whole block, all but the two dwellings at the Alder street corner fell a mass of brick and mortar. Houses on the opposite side of Locust street had windows and doors blown in.”

The massive explosion occurred just as the city was settling down for the summer evening. The cause: a tank of gasoline stored in the basement of MacClemmy’s grocery store.  “In an instant the block of buildings was in flames. So great was the force that two woman’s bodies were blown clear across the street, and the dormer window of 1018 Locust was thrown upon the opposite roof. Telegraph and trolley wires were destroyed and windows were broken as far away as Ninth street and Eleventh street.”

“Locust street . . . was instantly a mass of flaming debris, and men and women ran screaming hither and thither, entirely unable to control themselves. Mothers were calling their children, wives for their husbands, husbands for their wives. None seems to know, and everybody fears that some near and dear one was among the injured—or dead.”

“Lizzie Watkins, as she appears in her cot at the Pennsylvania Hospital (Philadelphia Inquirer, August 7, 1901).

Twenty injured survivors were taken to the nearby Jefferson Hospital and at least eleven more to Pennsylvania Hospital. Among them: Lizzie Watkins, who rescuers dug out from the debris nearly five hours after the incident.

“It seemed as if the world had come to an end,” Watkins told an Inquirer reporter from her hospital bed. “I went upstairs to my room in the rear of the third floor over Gale‘s restaurant, at 1012 Locust St., about 9 o’clock. It did not take me long to get to bed, and when the explosion came I was sound asleep.

“The first I knew I saw blinding flash of light and then the walls of my room begin caving in. In an instant I felt myself falling, falling, and could see bricks and broken glass flying all around me. All it wants I came to a stop in my flight downward. But the bricks and timbers, which I could see plainly, did not stop, and not knowing what else to do, I threw up my arms to protect myself. Whether or not this did any good I don’t know. All I know is that while the lower part of my body felt as the lower part of my body felt as if it was being crushed by the bricks and other things, my head and shoulders were free from weight.

“I laid in the position for a year, it seemed . . .when I heard voices above me. Then I heard a sound as if axes were chopping at timbers.  I kept looking up, and all at once I could see sky. The next thing I heard a voice asking me if I did not want something to drink.

“I replied that all I wanted was to do was get out of where I was. I have hardly gotten the words out of my mouth when a class of liquor was handed down to me, with instructions to drink it. I did as I was told, and then laid back, waiting for them to take me out.

After the Explosion – Locust Street, west of 10th Street [August 1901] (PhillyHistory.org)

“Blind? No, thank God. I can see. I am badly burned on the right side of my face, and the lower part of my body is sore and bruised. But I guess I will pull through all right. Lucky? Well, I guess I am. . .

Indeed. Early on the morning of August 15, Lizzie Watkins was well enough to make her way to Broad Street Station to board the chartered charity train reserved for 400 city children and 75 mothers hosted at the Seaside Home at Cape May, courtesy of the charity Children’s Country Week Association.

A different fate awaited grocer George M. MacClemmy, the man whose actions paved the way to the fatal explosion. The city coroner charged MacClemmy with “criminal negligence in the storage of gasoline in his store, 1014 Locust street.” Only four months earlier, City Council had criminalized the unregulated storage of gasoline in quantities more than a gallon.

Officials put the injured MacClemmy, who wasn’t expected to fully recover, under house arrest in his home near 46th Street and Baltimore Avenue.

[Sources: “Ordinance Prohibits Storage of Gasoline,” Inquirer, August 7, 1901; “Many Killed and Injured in Locust Street Explosion,” Inquirer, August 6, 1901; “Lizzie Watkins Tells of Her Experience,” Inquirer; August 7, 1901; “Mc’Clemmy Put Under Arrest,” Inquirer, August 14, 1901]

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