Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on September 1, 2016.

Rail Yard Blast



IN 1915, ARDMORE, OKLAHOMA, WAS a relatively new town. The business district had been gutted by fire in 1895, but the town rebuilt and had become an important trading hub. Its proximity to the Healdton oil field suggested that the town would continue to flourish.

In late September 1915, a tank car arrived in the rail yard at Ardmore for storage until it could be delivered to a nearby refinery. The car contained volatile casing head gasoline—a condensate of the natural gas produced by oil wells—and sat in the yard overnight and through the heat of the following day. Weather reports for the third day noted temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.

As the day warmed, the liquid gasoline turned to vapor and began venting through safety valves. In the morning the odor of gasoline could be detected in the rail yard, and by early afternoon the vapor venting through the safety valve was visible; eyewitnesses described a “gasoline mist” in the air. Alerted to a possible disaster, rail yard workers were posted to divert cars, locomotives, and passersby who were smoking cigars—anything that could cause ignition—away from the dangerous vapors.

At around 2 p.m. on September 27, railroad employees were working to remove the cap on the dome of the tank car. “Suddenly … in the fleeting part of a second all was changed,” wrote the authors of The Ardmore Disaster, issued by Ardmoreite Publishing in 1915. “A roar, as of a thousand of the most terrible engines of war ever invented by man, rent the air . . . and a withering blast as from the very gates of hell swept up the streets of Ardmore, with the angel of Death waving her black banner in the fore … On the busy streets, where a few moments before neighbors and business associates had met and exchanged pleasantries, lay twisted timbers, distorted things that had been perhaps parts of proud buildings.”

It is unknown what sparked the explosion. At least 43 people were killed and 22 more seriously injured. Most buildings within 400 feet of the tank car were destroyed or were so structurally compromised that they were later razed. Newspaper reports indicated all buildings, including businesses, schools, and homes, within 12 blocks of the rail yard showed evidence of the explosion. Remarkably, the majority of the damage was from the explosion itself—only a few fires were triggered by the blast, and the fire department prevented the fire from spreading.

Once again, the town rebuilt. Within two months, 900 of the more than 1100 claims had been settled and paid. Ardmore would continue to grow and thrive, and at one point became one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing cities in the Southwest.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is the manager of Library and Informational Resources at NFPA. Top Photograph: Fonville