Chicago, IL Oatmeal Mill Explosion, Dec 1888


Fearful Destruction by Explosion in Chicago.

Oliver's Oatmeal Mill and Several Other Buildings Destroyed, Involving the Loss of Three Human Lives – Narrow Escapes.

CHICAGO, Dec. 11. -- An Explosion, at first supposed to have been that of the boiler, shattered the building at the corner of Halstead and Fulton street, occupied by DAVID OLIVER as an oat-meal factory, at a few minutes before two o'clock this morning. The shattered walls fell upon and crushed the saloon of CHARLES MURPHY and the wagon factory of JACOB PRESS, adjoining, and in a moment all three buildings were in flames. Four men were known to have been in the oat-meal mill at the time of the explosion, and all but one were instantly killed. Those known to have perished were:
ERNST COOPER, a millwright.
JOHN HOLMES, who was working in the second story of the building, was blown through a window to the opposite side of the street and was taken to the County hospital in a dying condition.
How the MURPHY people escaped without harm is remarkable. There were in the corner building asleep CHARLES MURPHY, proprietor of the saloon, his father GEORGE, his brother JAMES, his mother and three children, LIZZIE, JOE and GEORGE, ten, eight and six respectively. They had hardly been awakened by the report of the explosion when there came a crash that almost turned the building over on its side. The family who occupied the upper floor were thrown violently against the wall as brick and timber came crashing through the roof, crushing it in and throwing the building over so that it slanted at an angle of forty-five degrees. The entire roof immediately took fire, and then commenced a fearful struggle on the part of the family to escape from the wreck. Pinned down by great beams, and hemmed in on every side by debris of every sort, this was found difficult. CHARLES MURPHY seized his little boy, who was sleeping beside him, just as his aged mother came crawling into the room, half blinded by the smoke, to see if he was safe. As she saw her son and grand-child she fainted, and MR. MURPHY had to carry both his mother and son down stairs, and, after considerable difficulty, made his way to the street. The rest of the family escaped with a few bruises in a similar manner. JOHN HOLMES, the man who was blown out of the window, was found about sixty feet away from the mill. He way lying on a pile of brick with his face fearfully mangled and his body a sickening mass of burns and bruises.
Adjoining the mill at the west was a two-story frame building occupied by N. P. LAWSON. The ground floor was used as a restaurant, while on the floor above lived the restaurant-keeper, his wife and baby, the cook and the waiter. The explosion threw all these people out of bed, stunning them for several seconds. When they recovered sufficiently to make an effort to escape they went to the back stairway, but it had been blown down and they were obliged to stay in the second story of the building until the firemen took them out on ladders. The restaurant was wrecked. A large hole was blown in the roof, every window was shattered, the chimney was toppled over, doors forced from their hinges and the plastering shaken to dust. The streets for a block in every direction were strewn with debris of every sort. There was not a whole pane of glass in any building within a quarter of a mile of the mill. Lake street for a block east and west of Halsted street was sprinkled with the glass of demolished windows. Here and there the panels of a door were blown out. And this was one of the curious features of the accident. The glass and woodwork were pushed out instead of smashed in, as one would naturally expect them to be.
What caused the explosion could not be ascertained. Several people who claimed to have been familiar with the interior of the mill thought it was a boiler explosion, but Marshal MURPHY was positive that it was an explosion of oatmeal dust, and that no boiler could cause an explosion so terrific as to cover the neighborhood several feet with debris.
GEO. BARBER, the day engineer, said that when he left the building at evening the engines and boilers were in proper condition, and he did not think that the wreck was caused by a boiler explosion. The losses will aggregate $150,000. Eight horses were burned to death.
An immense crowd gathered on the scene of the disaster to watch the work of clearing up the debris. By nine o'clock the fire department had succeeded in extinguishing the fire, and the work of excavating in the ruins was begun.
Up to ten o'clock no bodies had been recovered.
In prosecuting the excavation the boilers were found to be intact. This does away with the theory that the explosion was the result of the bursting boilers.
About 10:30 o'clock the body of a man supposed to be that of Engineer MILLER, was found in the north drive-way of the mill. It was covered with about three feet of debris. The lower part of the body was covered with bruises and burns and the face was so mangled that it could not be recognized. The unfortunate man had evidently been blown from the engine room clear to the drive-way.

The Rolla New Era Missouri 1888-12-22