In March of 1905, with spring weather coming, the operators of the R. B. Grover & Co. Shoe Factory in Brockton, Mass. decided to switch off their new high-pressure boiler, installed just two years earlier in 1903. It needed maintenance after a hard winter of work. And that was the decision that touched off the 1905 Brockton Shoe Factory Disaster.
To keep the factory heated and operating, the firm's older backup boiler, built in 1891, would be restarted. The boiler had been maintained, but David Rockwell, chief engineer at the factory, was a cautious man. He worried that the old boiler was not up to handling the pressure required. He had worried about that for several months, his wife would recall.
Nevertheless, Rockwell had given the order to make the changeover. Rockwell ordered the night watchman to light the fires in the old boiler early on Sunday morning so that it would have plenty of time to slowly warm up before it was needed.
Seventeen feet long and six feet high, the interior of the old boiler had been inspected about one year earlier. The exterior had been inspected just a month before. On the outside of the boiler a label certified that the steel used in construction of the boiler was capable of containing pressures of up to 60,000 pounds per square inch.
At 7:25 a.m. on Monday morning, March 20, Rockwell had arrived at work to find the old boiler firing marvelously. Awakened from its long period of slumber, it seemed to be operating well. It had warmed up slowly, so as to limit stress on any of the steam pipes or fittings in the plant. A water gauge on the side of the boiler showed it held adequate water. The boiler was rated for operating at 90 pounds per square inch and it was set that day to operate at 80 pounds per square inch, safely below its rated capacity.
Rockwell was having a pleasant morning. He had checked the fires in the boiler and was pleased. His friend, an engineer at the city's sewer plant, had stopped by for a quick chat. Channing Howard, head of the plant's shipping department, had stopped by to borrow an oil can to oil a piece of equipment and had returned the can.
Just before 7:50 a.m., Rockwell sat back in his wooden chair, his hands clasped behind his head, for a rare moment of rest. In the house he shared with his wife, about 100 feet from the boiler room, Rockwell's wife looked out the window and saw her husband comfortably seated. It was the last time anyone would see of him alive.
Lap Joints and Boiler Pressures
The boiler at the shoe factory, which covered nearly an acre of land, was constructed with lap joints. Two pieces of steel are joined by having one piece overlap the other for several inches and they are held together with steel rivets. The weakness in this particular design is that if a crack exists in the edge of the steel that is overlapped with the other piece of steel, it can be hidden from inspection between the two plates. Inspectors for the Hartford Boiler Insurance Company had very keen eye for cracks. Each year they found thousands of them and ordered repairs.
But inspectors could not see between the two layers of a lap joint and that's exactly where the old boiler in Brockton was showing its age. A crack in the steel, perhaps imperceptible when it was constructed, had slowly widened under years of strain. As the boiler heated and cooled, the crack widened and gradually the steel weakened until it gave way in a massive explosion.
When the riveted plates let go, one end of the boiler tore away and blew completely through the factory wall. It careened through the engineer's house, tearing off the roof, though sparing his wife, and smashed into the house next door where it punched a hole in the wall. Hannah Hood, the house's occupant, was unhurt but shaken.
The factory had four floors constructed over the boiler room. The initial explosion brought those floors and the workers in them crashing down, trapping workers in the debris. The explosion brought curious neighbors outside to see what the loud whump sound was. Coals from the boiler's fire pit were scattered by the explosion. The plant's water tower then collapsed onto the roof. Most of the five story plant soon came crashing down, each floor collapsing onto the one below it like a stack of pancakes. A sprinkler system in the building was instantly rendered inoperable by the collapse.
Within moments of the first, a second explosion had occurred. The factory maintained a small shed at the rear of the boiler room where it stored naphtha, gasoline and cement. It was the naphtha that most likely exploded first. Flaming debris showered down on the wooden factory's remains, setting in motion a race against time for workers to escape.
Escaping the Brockton Shoe Factory Disaster
Some 300 to 400 workers were at the plant when it blew up. Many escaped largely unhurt. One stitcher reported that she was working on the top floor of the factory when the explosion collapsed the building underneath her. Stunned by the drop, she began crawling only to discover she had crawled to safety right out onto the ground outside. Many others were not so lucky. Screams of the workers trapped inside could be heard a half mile away as the fire spread through the building.
John Twoig and Billy Mannix were outside when the plant exploded. They ran down the street and found a ladder, which they brought back to the plant to begin the process of extracting trapped people. They rescued several girls before they had to stop. When the firefighters began arriving, the factory was almost completely engulfed in flames and they were only able to rescue a few people before they had to focus exclusively on trying to stop the fire.
After more than two hours the factory fire was extinguished and the gruesome process of retrieving the dead began. Fifty-eight people died in the fire, more than 150 were injured. The medical examiner undertook a painstaking process to try to identify the bodies recovered from the fire, but 18 of the missing were never identified. Their names are on a monument to the victims of the fire in Brockton's Melrose Cemetery. The Brockton tragedy was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in New England history.
The factory was owned by Robbins Grover, who had gotten his start as a shoemaker supplying soldiers in the Civil War. The public face of R. B. Grover was Emerson Shoes, sold at a chain of some 30 Emerson Shoes stores around the United States. The factory, which stood at the corner of Main and Calmar Streets, and several buildings nearby were destroyed by the fire.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the Boot & Shoe Worker's Union paid out more than $100,000 in insurance benefits to the families of the dead. R.B. Grover, insured for just $135,000, suffered more than $225,000 in damages. It declared bankruptcy. A criminal investigation turned up no criminal wrongdoing and civil courts ruled the explosion was an accident for which the company was not liable.
Thanks to: The Engineer's Review.