Prest-O-Lite Explosion - August 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 Company. Fisher 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, headlights 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 nature. Prest-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 locations across the country.
This information concerns the company's first major explosion in Indianapolis on August 17, 1907. There were subsequent explosions in December 1907 and June 1908.
Below are five attachments containing a total of two articles concerning the August 1907 explosions. The first four attachments contain different copies of the same article, published August 18, 1907 in the Indianapolis Star. The article contained in the first four attachments describes the first major explosion at the Indianapolis factory at Pearl and East Streets on August 17, 1907. The article is divided into four parts because my Web content management system will not accept files larger than 30MB and this is an extensive article.
The first article starts with a callout box that shares the names of the people injured in the blast. Nobody was burnt or injured by flying debris. For the most part, these people were hurt in jumping from the fire escape ladder of the three-story building which reportedly ended eight feet from the ground. The people were:

  • Miss Emma Brown (sprained ankle)
  • Miss Kate Metz (bruised "slightly" lacerated arm)
  • John Luckey (leg sprained and bruised, face "scorched," hand cut)

August Tamm, a passerby, reportedly caught Miss Brown to break her fall and was slightly injured in the process. He reportedly suffered a bruised and sprained hand.
The estimated loss due to property damage by the blast, according to this article, was $25,000. The fire was caused by the explosion of metal canisters charged with acetylene gas used at the time to light automobile headlights. There were reportedly some 200 of these canisters on the first floor although the article does not give me confidence the reporter knew how many of these containers actually exploded. The article also says the plant was located at the corner of Pearl and New Jersey streets.
The article presents a believable case that it was miraculous that no one was injured. Apparently once the tanks started exploding it was several minutes before the Indianapolis Fire Department and police could respond. During that time the explosions were damaging property with their concussive force as well as flying debris. Bits of metal from the cannisters became shrapnel, "flying in all directions."
Apparently, news reporters found extracting information from Prest-O-Lite employees extremely difficult. Neither of the primary investors and officers - Carl Fisher and James Allison - were present. Check out this excerpt:
"Almost without exception those who had been in care of the plant either refused absolutely to import information or pleaded ignorance as to details of which it seemed certain they must have known. Some of them even declared that they had forgotten their own names and one misstated his name."
Nonetheless, a man named Frank Sweet, who, from other sources I found, was vice-president of Prest-O-Lite, provided the estimated cost of destruction to company equipment and inventory at $15,000 while the damage to the structure - owned by the Frederick Ostermeyer Estate - was about $10,000. Interestingly, Prest-O-Lite had no insurance because the business was seen as very high risk. 
The root of the fire apparently was a compressor on the first of the building's three floors. An employee, Claude Hess, believed that the cause of the initial explosion was a leaky tube leading from the compressor to a tank being filled. John Luckey, the man noted above as having been injured, was training Hess and apparently tripped in the confusion but crawled to the electric outlet to pull the plug and shut down the compressor before there was any more gas leaked to fuel flames. His injuries were incurred during the fall and his struggle to get to the power source.
The women also noted above, Miss Kate Metz and Miss Emma Brown are described as young employees working on the third floor. They were injured jumping from the fire escape which is described as nothing more than an iron ladder down the side of the building. A third female employee, Miss Mayme Clemens, is mentioned but was reportedly unhurt.
The commotion attracted a crowd and despite the danger police reportedly struggled to keep onlookers at a safe distance. Fire Chief Charles Coots is noted as having praised the rescue workers for their bravery in the face of significant danger. The article reports it took the firemen about 30 minutes to get the flames under control. Below is a quote attributed to Coots.
"If you were a fireman you would merely regard risking your life as a part of the business - as something that goes along with the job. But the men who fought that fire today were unusually brave. I was on the scene all the time. I did not see a single man falter for a moment in doing what he believed was his duty."
It is interesting to note that there were reportedly 25 employees at work at the time. Approximately eight were on the first floor, a dozen on the second and five more on the third. Apparently, the employees had a complete understanding of how dangerous their jobs were and in some ways were prepared to anticipate this kind of catastrophe. The third floor was the office area where Sweet; O.H. Skinner, a chemist, and S.M. Paxton, a traveling salesman, were along with the young women. W.H. Bass, a contractor, was also visiting at the time.
The article, which is really a digest of sidebars, reports that Chief Coots and Building Inspector Thomas Winterrowd planned to confer over the next few days to consider taking action that would force Prest-O-Lite to relocate their charging center to the outskirts of the city. At the time the location was described as in the heart of a populous center. 
Prest-O-Lite had previously occupied what is described as a small frame building on 25th Street. The new location was reported at this point in the article (differently than earlier) as Pearl and East Streets. The article asserts that the building was in no way outfitted for such dangerous work. It was previously used by a veterinary surgeon who also operated a college for that career field. Officials questioned the judgment of company officers to locate female employees on the third floor.
An odd sidebar is a report that a drayman by the name of Young who was employed by the Fry Transfer Company located on Virginia Avenue struggled to save a horse he was entrusted with who was standing in front of Prest-O-Lite when the explosions ensued. A dray is a special wagon used in the delivery of goods. The horse, apparently spooked, refused to move. The drayman finally got the animal moving with the assistance of onlookers. Prest-O-Lite employees had been loading his cart with acetylene canisters.
At the heart of the canister-charging process was a storage container described as a "big tank." This apparently was a massive retaining tank of acetylene gas that the compressor drew from to charge the individual canisters bound for customer automobiles. Firemen kept a steady stream of cool water on the big tank to keep the internal temperature down and prevent a massive explosion. The tank is described in the article as being several feet in diameter and containing "enough gas to tear the building to pieces."
There was one casualty in the conflagration - a dog named Jack. Jack is described as a mongrel dog that had adopted the night watchman of the facility and apparently been fed and sheltered by the employees. His lifeless body was discovered by S.C. Hamilton, a bookkeeper for the company.
Water used in extinguishing the fire became a minor issue as it reportedly collected knee-deep at the corner of East and Peal Streets. Joseph Hogue, the city street commissioner, reported that debris had clogged a sewer hole serving the spot.
Frank E. Sweet, the Prest-O-Lite senior executive in attendance was unable to definitively say how the fire would impact company operations - or at least what the enterprise would do to cope with the setback. The timing was especially unfortunate as the timeframe was reportedly their busiest season. He was working to reach his bosses, Carl Fisher and James Allison. He is quoted:
"It will be several days before we will be prepared to charge tanks at least at this plant. The company has other plants at New York and elsewhere, but I cannot now make a statement as to what we can do as to continuing to charge tanks...Mr. Fisher is in New York. Mr. Allison is at Colorado Springs or somewhere near there enjoying a vacation."
A little bit of a chemistry lesson is provided in the article with respect to the nature of how acetylene gas is generated. The gas is created by mixing water with dry calcium carbide. There were a dozen tanks filled with dry calcium carbide but they proved to be waterproof. Some feared that if water had gotten to that material the disaster could have been far greater.
The steady succession of powerful explosions generated crude missiles. One 25-pound tank was hurled out of the building to land at the curb on the opposite side of East Street. A tank bottom shot out of the building a punched a hole in a wooden train boxcar about 150 feet away. A small piece of wood flew like an arrow through the window of the office of C. Zimmerman & Sons, a roofing company. Two other tank bottoms flew dangerously across East Street as well. One struck the side of Frank O'Brien's restaurant and another, more perilously, narrowly missed an employee of the roofing company who was standing in the adjoining alley.
At one point in the battle against the flames and just when the Fire Company thought they had gained the upper hand three of the canisters on the second floor let go. Several firemen of Hose Company No. 17 were on the floor at that moment. Their teammates on the ground looking up at the second-floor windows cringed and held their breath. Finally, the Company's Captain, John Miller, stuck his head out of the window, showing off a big, reassuring smile. Amazingly, no one was hurt.
Now, let's get after that second article from the Indianapolis News contained within attachment PrestoNews081707. Keep in mind that the Indianapolis News was an evening paper and so this report actually was released prior to the one already analyzed above. This earlier report recorded only one injured person, Miss Katie Merz, who reportedly had a sprained knee.
I apologize - although it is no fault of mine - for the legibility of the attachment. The microfilm it was copied from was in tough shape. Apparently, the Fire Department's hose company located on Maryland Street was first on the scene. The building is described as in flames: "a black volume of smoke was curling to the clouds and visible all over the city."
It must have been amazing to live in such a grand, spectacular world.
Here's another great lift from the original article:
"A general fire alarm was soon sounded and every piece of apparatus in the downtown district was soon wrestling with the flames in the bombarded building."
As with the Indianapolis Star article the point is made that employees were well aware of the inherent danger of the product they were handling. All 25 employees immediately charged to an exit. Again, August Tamm, Jr., a passerby, ran to assist the female employees descending the fire escape.
Tamm is credited with sounding the fire alarm. Exactly how the alarm functioned is not explained, but I am sure the technology underpinning it was different than what we have today. Patrolman James Kerins assisted Tamm. Meanwhile, male employees on the second floor dangled a rope out of a window and rappelled to the ground on the Pearl Steet side of the building.
The flying debris is also reported in this article. A smashed window to Christian Zimmerman's business is reported. In this article, Zimmerman's business is reported as a "tinshop." Debris is again reported as bombarding Frank O'Brien's business on Washington and East Streets. 
The setting is described as shrouded with smoke and police struggled with crowd control. Employees reportedly estimated that at least 300 canisters of acetylene gas exploded. Firemen reportedly ran 20 hoses through shattered windows to get at every corner of the fire. The fear was that with hundreds of more tanks in the buildings the explosions could continue for hours. The tanks were described as 30 inches long and six inches in diameter.
The late explosions of a few canisters with firefighters still in the building is reported in this article as in the Indianapolis Star. The firemen reassured onlookers by extending their heads out of the windows to smile and wave. 
It is interesting to note in this article that along with Fisher and Allison, P.C. Avery is mentioned as a corporate officer with the title of vice-president and secretary. Frank Sweet is again mentioned as a senior executive. Sweet reportedly confirmed that the company was not able to contract for insurance due to the dangerous nature of their business. In this article Sweet estimated that damage was probably in the range of $40,000.
The operation was reported to be taking place at the site of the "old Greiner veterinary college." The building, which should have been preserved for enjoyment as a brewery or pub today, was three stories high with entrances in both East and Pearl Streets. It was owned by the Frederick Ostermeyer estate and valued at $15,000.
In one of the most amazing reports of the entire story, S. C. Hamilton, a bookkeeper, risked his life to rescue important company records. Despite being warned by firemen, Hamilton charged back into the building to recover the documents from a desk on the third floor no less. Once he got his hands on the record books he protected them under his coat and stormed back down the stairs to exit the building.
An unsubstantiated report of a man running from the building with his clothing in flames was never confirmed. Police searched every home in the neighborhood and when the company confirmed that all 25 employees had been accounted for, nerves were calmed.
Samuel H. Sweet, general freight agent of the L.E.&W. Railroad and father of Frank Sweet, who had the Prest-O-Lite account hurried through the crowd gathered on Washington Street. He was described as perspiring and panting when he found his son at the corner with East Street. The worried father expressed his happiness to learn his son was healthy.
The final note is borderline-ridiculous. The point it makes is that explosions were vibrating surrounding buildings. A pair of women in apartments at 453 East Washington Street and were described as fearing for their pet birds. Mrs. D.W. Sheen had six canaries with a separate cage for each. Mrs. E.E. Baxter thought first of her parrot. A third woman, Mrs. Eda Britton, assisted them. For whatever reason the women believed a nearby tombstone shop was a safer structure and converged there.

Prest-O-Lite081807pt1.pdf27.87 MB
Prest-O-Lite081807pt2.pdf24.18 MB
Prest-O-Lite081807pt3.pdf15.28 MB
Prest-O-Lite081807pt4.pdf16.13 MB
PrestoNews081707.pdf3.02 MB