On this day, December 21, 1887 in Rochester history…
On the afternoon of December 21, 1887, the Vacuum Oil Works attempted to transfer 14,000 gallons of naphtha (petroleum ether) through a pipeline running underground to the Municipal Gas Company on Canal Street (one mile from the falls). Unfortunately, the companies were unaware that construction on the sewers at Atkinson street (a mile and half away from the falls area) had ruptured the pipeline.
The flammable gas filled the sewers and drifted down the line towards the High Falls/Browns Race district. There, it collected beneath Rochester’s industrial section. Worker’s complaints of gas odor in the various factories went largely ignored for hours.
Operations in a factory on Platt Street caused an ignition of gas drifting up from the sewers. It triggered explosions that lasted two hours and stretched for two miles as pockets of gas throughout the sewers were ignited. Most of the damage happened right around in the High Falls District. Man hole covers were blown into the air to land hundreds of feet away. Flames erupted in great pillars from the newly opened man holes.
A large crater opened up at the intersection of Browns Race and Mill Street (the spot flagged on the map above). Debris from the explosions blasted through the air to rain down on people outside. Three mills along the falls were lost during the disaster. The Jefferson Flour mill was almost completely blown apart and two other mills (Washington and Clinton) partially exploded and then burned down. It resulted in $250,000 in damages.
Many people were injured and written accounts differ on how many were killed or went missing in the incident. The number of missing/fatalities range from three to around a dozen. Many of the injuries resulted when people ran into the streets to see what was happening. Injuries and deaths varied from trauma from debris or the outright concussive force of the blasts, to people burned in the numerous fires to folks being injured jumping from burning/exploding buildings.
The scene was one of complete confusion and chaos, as nobody would know the cause of the explosions until the following day. The explosions were initially mistaken for an attack by anarchists or an earthquake. It likely seemed like Armageddon to those present in the streets.
Sources and further reading:
Tags: Atkinson Street, Browns Race, Canal Street, Clinton Flour Mill, High Falls, Jefferson Flour Mill, Mill Street, Municipal Gas Company, naphtha, Naphtha Explosions, New York, New York Times, NY, NY Times, petroleum ehter, Platt Street, Rochester, Rochester disaster, Rochester history, Rochester NY, this date in Rochester history, Vacuum Oil Works, Washington Flour Mill
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