Friday, February 18, 2022

One Killed When Blast Flips a Chicago Manhole Cover on Saturday, May 29, 1937.

Fire department officials were investigating the possibility that naphtha[1] or other inflammable materials dumped into the sewers by cleaners in defiance of the law was responsible for this disastrous sewer explosion on Fullerton Avenue.
When a subterranean explosion tossed many manhole covers on Fullerton Avenue into the air, one of the lids was blown high and crashed down the elevator shaft of the Hollander Storage and Moving Company at 2418 North Milwaukee Avenue, killing the elevator operator, Albert C. Day. Two others on the freight elevator were slightly injured. The dotted line shows the manhole covers trajectory.

The blast, which caused panic in the Fullerton and Milwaukee avenues business district, blew seventeen manholes from the Fullerton Avenue sewer over a stretch of a mile between Kedzie and Western avenues. 
The arrow indicates the location of the Hollander Storage and Moving Company at 2418 North Milwaukee Avenue. The map reflects the stretch of Fullerton avenue between Kedzie and Western avenues, where 17 sewer covers were blown off.

One of the 155-pound covers hurled to the top of the five-story Hollander Storage Warehouse building at 2418 North Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square fell through a skylight and down the elevator shaft, killing an elevator operator. Another cover barely missed a streetcar.
155 Pound Chicago Manhole Cover.
While great importance was attached to the theory that waste material from some of the many cleaning establishments in the district caused the explosion, some investigators believed that illuminating gas, seeping in from leaks in the mains, was responsible.

The city has strict regulations against dumping inflammable or explosive materials into the sewer, and they are as rigidly enforced as possible. However, officials said it would be virtually impossible to completely prevent such dumping or detect it immediately.

For some days, a gas odor had been detected in the neighborhood. Gas company officials said they had investigated it and found it was caused by naphtha or gasoline. Shortly before the explosion at 10:05 am, the odor was said to have been particularly strong.

Witnesses said they first heard a low rumble, then a clap like that of thunder, that resounded along the avenue. Although there was no fire, a white vapor burst from the sewer as the manhole covers began flying into the air.

The most significant force of the explosion was felt at the intersection of Fullerton and Milwaukee avenues. Near this intersection in the Hollander Storage Warehouse, Albert C. Day was preparing to take his elevator from the first to the third floor.

Albert C. Day
Two men who had just loaded the elevator with furniture were with him. Suddenly there was a crash as a manhole cover plunged through the skylight and down the shaft. It struck Day, a man of 57, residing at 5642 West Melrose Street, killing him instantly. The others escaped with slight injuries, although the furniture was knocked down upon them.

At that exact moment, another manhole cover crashed through the roof of the Milwaukee Avenue Motor Sales service building at 3030 West Fullerton Avenue. It fell beside two employees without touching either.

Mrs. Madeline Kramer, 59, was on the telephone in her apartment at 2953 West Fullerton Avenue when a piece of debris broke her window and struck her arm. In the Dame building, Mrs. Genevieve Christianens was knocked to the floor by another fragment from the blast.

Hoping to prevent a repetition of the explosion, Thomas B. Garry, superintendent of sewers, sent out men to replace the covers with new perforated ones. He said these would allow gas to escape before it could cause serious damage.
A Modern Chicago Sewer Cover.
There were a few reports of similar events in other Chicago neighborhoods over the years, but it’s probably not fair to call it common. In 1920, a “pillar of fire” burst from a manhole in Bronzeville fed by gas from a leaking main. In 1939 in the Austin neighborhood, sewers exploded in flame, severely burning one woman when the catch basin caught fire and shot a sheet of flame through her home, breaking all the windows. And in 1955, a manhole cover in the Irving Park neighborhood blew off of a ComEd manhole due to a short circuit in the electrical cables underneath it. 

It still happens occasionally, particularly in New York City, where there were 32 reported “manhole events” in 2014.

As for Chicago, the most recent manhole event was in 2012, when an explosion in a ComEd vault blew off a manhole cover near Grand and Armitage. Luckily, no one was injured in that event.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Naphtha is a flammable oil containing various hydrocarbons obtained by the dry distillation of organic substances such as coal, shale, or petroleum.

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