Prest-O-Lite Explosion - December 1907

Prest-O-Lite was the breakthrough product that propelled the fortunes of Indianapolis Motor Speedway founders Carl Fisher and James Allison to elite levels. Both were established businessmen when they founded the corporation, originally named Concentrated Acetelyene CompanyFisher owned one of the first automobile dealerships in the country and Allison was president of Allison Coupon Company (founded by his father Noah in the 1880's) and founder of James Allison Manufacturing Company selling watches and fountain pens, most notably the Allison Perfection Pen
Despite their previous business success, both men took their wealth and influence to new levels through the 1904 introduction of Prest-O-Lite, the first truly effective headlight for automobiles. Headlamps prior to the advent of Prest-O-Lite were basically lanterns.
The Prest-O-Lite technology was not based on electric lights which would not be effectively introduced for several years (Cadillac is credited with this in 1912), but compressed acetylene gas ignited by a sparking switch. Allison and Fisher were introduced to the idea by entrepreneur P.C. Avery who had purchased the patent for compressing the gas in a canister that was fitted to the running boards of automobiles and then delivered to the headlights through tubing.
Acetylene was well known in the industry prior to the formation of Prest-O-Lite but manufacturers were wary of its use due to its volatile naturePrest-O-Lite canisters proved safe for use on cars but the charging process in company factories was a far more iffy proposition. In addition to becoming known for the breakthrough of providing effective headlights for night driving, the company developed a reputation for being reckless and Fisher spent a good portion of his time in legal courts. Explosions occurred at company locations across the country.
The articles attached below concern the company's second major explosion in Indianapolis on December 20, 1907. There was a previous fire at the same factory location in August 1907 and a subsequent explosion at another Indianapolis location in June 1908.
This first two attachments below contain two views of the same article, published December 21, 1907, in the Indianapolis Star. The article describes the second major explosion at the Indianapolis factory at Pearl and East Streets on December 20, 1907. Note that this blast cost the life of employee Elmer Jessup. The second article (attachment PrestoNews122007) is from the Indianapolis News, an evening paper, and was published the day of the fire.
The Indianapolis Star article starts with a call-out box listing the dead and injured. In addition to the fatally-injured Elmer Jessup of 323 South New Jersey Street, another man, John Van Garder of 532 West Thirteenth Street, was reported as having facial burns. Two other men had less serious injuries. O.H. Skinner of Market and East Streets was reported to have suffered slight burns to his face and hands but refused medical attention. Charles Hall had singed hair and an injured right hand. Hall's residential address was not reported.
The fire is described as having burned fiercely for two hours, gutting the plant. Carl Fisher was present through much of the disaster and estimated the damage to his firm at $20,000. Despite previous lower estimates from the August fire ($25,000 to $30,000), this article reports the bill for that first fire ended up being closer to $50,000.
The greatest tragedy was the miserable death of Jessup. He lived out his final hours writhing in agony at City Hospital until succumbing to his devastating burns at about 3 AM. Jessup had been stationed on the first floor at the buffing machine and was furthest from the building exit. By the time he left the building all his clothes had been burned off.
Described as a "human torch" by the newspaper, Jessup panicked and ran toward Washington Street, fanning the flames. A man by the name of Feasler described as a "transfer man" (probably transporting freight to the nearby train stations for shipping), tackled him and extinguished the fire with a blanket. He then assisted Dr. E.H. Katterhenry in getting Jessup into Ferd A. Mueller's drug store.
Jessup's fellow employee, Van Garder, reportedly chased the burning man, trying to help. It is unclear whether Van Garder's burns were a result of engaging Jessup or suffered directly from the blast. Jessup was reported to be calling for his wife.
Dr. Katterhenry initially assessed Jessup's chances for survival as "not one chance in 5,000." 
"His feet are the only spots where he isn't seriously burned," the doctor is quoted as saying. "Most of the burns are second and third-degree burns and there isn't the slightest hope for him."
All Prest-O-Lite employees had been consolidated into the first floor of the three-story building. This was a result of decisions made after the August fire so that in the event of another emergency no one would be stranded on the second or third floor. This also confined all equipment to the first floor, including the gas generator, filling machines, and all associated materials.
This arrangement was temporary as plans called to transfer the facility's operations to a new South Street location over the next two or three weeks. Most of the supply materials and charged cylinders had already been moved. At the time of the August fire there had been something in the order of 2,200 canisters inventoried at the building but by December that number had been reduced to about 300.
No one seemed to have a handle on exactly how many workers were in the building as estimates ranged from eight to 25. W.A. Lucky (the same man referred to as "John Luckey" in the August article) said there were 14 men working. Van Garder estimated eight. Fisher reportedly said he believed there to be 20 men in the plant. Lucky said after the fire that he was done with Prest-O-Lite but apparently had said the same thing after the August fire.
While the fire started on the first floor it quickly spread throughout the building. This necessitated spraying the second the third floors with water. As in August, the one sewer drain became clogged with debris and firefighters were confronted with wading through knee-deep puddles. The difference this time was the season as the frigid December temperatures increased the challenge of the work.
Carl Fisher is reported to have said that the new South Street location was much safer and that such a fire would be impossible there. That facility was constructed of steel and concrete. It also had a special storage vault for charged gas tanks. Building Inspector T.A. Winterrowd had issued the permit for the building despite its location new St. Vincent's Hospital. The inspector explained that there was no ordinance by which he could refuse the permit.
As for the Pearl and East Street building, Winterrowd assured all those inquiring that Prest-O-Lite would never again occupy the venue. Fisher also assured that there would be no effort to use the building.
Among those who witnessed the giant fire and associated explosions were Mayor Charles Bookwalter, Fire Chief Charles Coots, and Police Chief Robert Metzger. Metzger had been ill for some time and friends urged him to get out of the December cold and return to his office. He ignored them.
In a sign of the times, no female employees were allowed in the building after three of them struggled down the fire escape during the August fire.
Now, let's dig into that Indianapolis News article. Keep in mind this was published before Elmer Jessup passed away due to his injuries. Honestly, there isn't much here. The reporting is sensational and is based on unsubstantiated information. For example, employees, including Jessup were reported to have been "blown from the building," and others were said to have been "hurled...out of the windows to the street." The article speculates that Jessup would die.

Prest-O-Lite_Carl_Fisher.pdf2.13 MB
Prest-O-Lite122107.pdf3.04 MB