‘All of the buildings in front of us turned red’: Learning From the 1956 Tidewater Grain Elevator Explosion

[SUMMER 1956, CORN GROWING ON SITE OF FORMER TIDEWATER GRAIN ELEVATOR AT 31ST AND MARKET STS. PHOTO SOURCED FROM THE PHILADELPHIA BULLETIN COLLECTION, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY URBAN ARCHIVES]

Maybe because the specter of urban terror has a true presence in our lives, historic urban catastrophes have assumed new tangibility.  Sadly,  we know the physical shape and contours of urban terror—the lexicon and the vocabularies of destruction.  The explosions, demolitions and other acts of the city’s dissolution probably strike us with more potency now than ever before.  Based on the commentary on this site about the March 30, 1956 explosion of the Tidewater grain elevator at 31st and Market Streets, this building’s violent end still resonates among those who lost family or escaped certain death.

Despite their apparent connection to the serenity of agriculture, grain elevators are exceptionally dangerous places—the grain dust produced when moving, sorting, and distributing the commodity is highly combustible.  Despite our modern technologies of electrostatic precipitators, filtration systems, security doors, and other dust suppression mechanisms, safety enforcement of the hundreds of elevators around the country is spotty.  The City of Philadelphia had cited the Tidewater Grain Company a hefty $10.00 just 9 days before the blast for not improving dust suppression.  Elevators are still exploding around the country.

The explosion of Tidewater also represents a grave failure to plan our city—the failure to apply a sense of order to a city whose reason for being was to produce, make, and sell.  While three persons were killed and nearly 80 injured in the blast, it could have been far worst considering the proximity to 30th Street Station, the Market-Frankford El and Drexel University.    And while we feel more enlightened today with our apparently neat segregation of commercial, industrial, and residential uses, the cheek-by-jowl situation of the liquid natural gas plant to its Port Richmond neighborhood suggests otherwise.  This mingling of sometimes dangerous worksites and homes is one of the cruel legacies of Philadelphia’s hapless built environment.

While I’ve received a couple requests for information about the Tidewater explosion, a comment on this site by Donald Koch got me thinking about how we move through a sometimes violent city ignorant to the small choices and decisions that spare us from grave harm:

Finally got around to writing this up.

Everyone can remember some date when a decision or direction taken essentially impacts the rest of your life. Many people have more than one. I have had several but one that is particularly vivid in my mind occurred on Wednesday, March 28, 1956, the Wednesday before Easter. For reasons I do not recall, I did not have school that day and had decided to visit my childhood friend in Philadelphia, Pierce Callahan. I do not recall what we did most of that day but recall that we were walking towards Center City so that I could catch the bus back to New Jersey. We had stopped for a time at the Southwest corner of the new Bulletin Building, just sitting on a wall chatting when I glanced at my watch and said to Pierce, “we had better get moving so I can catch my bus.” We were about 18 blocks away from the bus stop. So we started moving again walking along Market Street.

We passed the 30th Street Station where the trains come into Philadelphia. I recall there was deconstruction taking place as a portion of the subway/elevated train tracks were being removed. The subway/elevated trains prior to this time came out of the ground at the 23rd Street portal and would now remain underground up to 43rd Street where a new portal had been constructed. All of the elevated structure from that point out to 43rd Street was to be removed. As we approached the Market Street Bridge across the Schuykill River, there were orderly piles of steel girders that had been removed and were apparently awaiting transport elsewhere.

As we started across the bridge, all of the buildings in front of us turned red and I recall reacting by grabbing Pierce’s arm and shouting, “get down.” As we were dropping down behind some of the steel piled there, I felt a shock wave blast of air go over my head. As it did, I could hear glass breaking all around us and as the shock wave hit the buildings in front of us, I could hear breaking glass there. I looked back the way we had come and there was a huge fireball about two blocks away in the vicinity of the Bulletin Building but across Market Street. We could not imagine what had happened. One speculation was that a plane had crashed. Another was that some kind of bomb had gone off. We walked closer but debris was everywhere and we did not think it was particularly safe. So after about 20 minutes trying to figure what had happened we headed back toward Center City. Pierce was able to use another route to get home.

The next day we found out that there had been a grain warehouse with three silos directly across the street from the Bulletin Building. The news speculated that the warehouse had a grain dust explosion that obliterated the grain elevator, killed four people and caused injuries to hundreds sufficient for them to seek medical attention at a hospital. The cause was later confirmed by fire department officials. The Bulletin Building was severely damaged as were buildings at Drexel Institute. The place where Pierce and I had been sitting when I looked at my watch and decided it was time to move on, was buried under about 10 feet of debris. There is no doubt in my mind that had we continued to sit there for another 10 minutes, I would not be writing this today. The property damage was extensive. My Guardian Angel was working overtime that day.

About a year later, the Bulletin published a photograph of the explosion site and there was corn growing on the vacant lot that was left.

[Comments on the Tidewater Grain Elevator Explosion on NFR]

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