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When the Gas Lights Flickered

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 09, 2010

I probably linked to this in January when it was published in the Tribune, so it may be familiar to some:

March 7, 1905 was a Tuesday, the traditional evening for gatherings of Mormon youth who were members of the Mutual Improvement Associations. For the youth of the Granger Ward, whose chapel was at 3200 West and 3500 South in the Salt Lake Valley, it was one of their twice-monthly “conjoint” sessions when the young men and young women met together.

Lambert Bawden,19, arrived at the chapel early to fill his responsibilities as janitor. After sweeping and putting the chapel in order, he went downstairs to start the acetylene gas lighting plant. The chapel lights had gone out before the end of Sunday’s services, so he knew the plant’s two calcium carbide canisters were empty. He filled both canisters with the chemical crystals and turned on the water feed. Coming into contact with water, the crystals generated gas, which began to build in volume and pressure under a glass bell as Lambert went back upstairs and lit the gaslights in the chapel. They burned brightly.

Others began to arrive: Lambert’s cousin Willard Bawden, 18; Vivian Wallace, 16, and her brother Sam, 20; brothers George and Joseph Fairbairn who lived across the road from the chapel; Eunice McRae, the bishop’s daughter; Nellie Mackay, 21, who planned to sing that night, and her accompanist Annie Horne. In all, about 60 young people gathered for the meeting which opened at 7:30.

About 15 minutes into the meeting, the lights flickered – nothing unusual for the Granger ward which had had trouble with its lighting plant ever since it had been installed two years earlier. Nellie Mackay and Annie Horne went to the organ, and Nellie began to sing “When There’s Sunshine in Your Heart.” The lights grew dimmer and dimmer as she sang.

In the gas plant below, the glass bell caught on something, perhaps the rod controlling the water feed. Ordinarily gas was trapped beneath the bell, building the pressure that forced gas into the pipes and up to the flames of the lighting fixtures above. But tonight, with the bell at an angle, gas escaped into the basement and the pipes emptied, causing the lights to dim and go out. When the lights gave their last dying flicker, vacuum in the empty pipes sucked flame backward, and a spark reached the gas built up in the basement.

Nellie had just sung the lines “…and his burden you will share, as you lift his load of care,” when spark reached gas. In an instant, the building exploded in yellow-green flame. Walls were shifted from their foundations and the floor tilted dangerously toward the basement. The roof was blown aside, its beams raining down into the sanctuary. The organ was blown upward where it hit the remains of the ceiling; as it fell, Nellie was crushed beneath it and Annie was caught in its tangled wreckage. Doors and pews and window jams disintegrated, as broken glass sprayed the scores of young people in the chapel. The top of the heating stove blew off, live coals and the threat of fire adding to the panic of the victims.

Outdoors, horses tied to wagons and rails whinnied their terror as they struggled to break free. Neighbors ran to the scene carrying lanterns, as young people began crawling out of the holes left by vanished doors and windows. Nellie’s fiance reached the wreckage in time to see her carried into the Fairbairn home across the road, where she died within minutes.

Annie Horne suffered a wrenched back and shock; Vivian Wallace lost her hair to burns, as did Lambert Bawden. Mabel Mackay, Nellie’s younger sister, broke her leg while Roy Peterson suffered a broken arm. Shock and internal injuries and cuts requiring stitches affected about half of those inside, some seriously, but in the end only Nellie was fatally injured.

Three weeks later, Granger Ward commenced a new building on the same site. Within three years, acetylene generators had all but vanished from the marketplace, the demonstrated risk of explosion being too great.



1 Comment »

  1. Yikes!

    Comment by Jacob J — September 12, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

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