Prest-O-Lite Explosion - June 1908

The attachments below contain articles concerning the third explosion and the third strike for Prest-O-Lite as Indianapolis city officials forced the company to locate its operations outside the metropolitan area. Also see Prest-O-Lite explosions December 1907 and 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 previous business success, both men took their wealth and influence to new levels through the 1904 introduction of Prest-O-Lite, the first truely 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 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 occured at locations across the country.
Now, let's dig into the attached articles from the Indianapolis Star. Attachments Prest-O-Lite_Fisher_Allison and Prest-O-Lite060708 provide you two copies of essentially the same thing, but I include them both for readability. Understand that most of the attachments on First Super Speedway are digital PDF copies I made of old microfilm so I appreciate the reproductions are not ideal. Everything is useful however.
You will find several articles in the attachments, so let's get started with the one with the headline: "Force Jars Hospital." Much was made of the damage to the world-famous St. Vincent's Hospital which was a South Street neighbor of the new Prest-O-Lite canister-charging facility. The most common damage to the hospital and surrounding businesses, houses and apartments were shattered window panes.
Alfred T. Bringhurst, a patient at the hospital at the time, was sitting near a window in his room as the glass burst into shards. A panel from the door in his room was also torn off, although it is unclear to me exactly what a "panel" was. Apparently Bringhurst suffered some very minor scrapes but the bottom line was there were no significant physical injuries to anyone at the hospital. People were scared and some may have been traumatized. 
The hospital's chapel had its stained glass windows - described as beautiful and valuable - annihilated. Bringhurst's room also had damage to the plaster walls but a Mater Dolorosa was untouched. The kitchen reportedly received some significant damage. Cafeteria worker Lena Ryan was making apple pies and they were runied by flying debris, especially glass. Ms. Ryan also suffered minor cuts. Supplies were also knocked off shelves as if in an earthquake. Some walls showed evidence of cracks.
Interestingly, some patients left the facility and went to a nearby saloon. Nurses tracked them down and escorted them back the hospital.
The next article within the attachments has the headline, "City Jolted Again By Prest-O-Lite." Sub-heads flag the main message points - "Terrific Explosions Cause Widespread Injury and Damage to Adjoining Property," "Now Council Will Stop It," and, "St. Vincent's Hospital and Fire Engine House Badly Damaged and Hundreds Terrorized."
A call-out box lists the injured:

  • B.E. Lada, 136 South Elder Avenue, stuck on head by brick.
  • Albert Emerond, Prest-O-Lite employee, leapt from second story window, fractured knee.
  • Louis Riehl, 411 South Alabama Street, struck by glass (not serious).
  • Alfred T. Bringhurst, Longansport, patient at St. Vincent's Hospital, slight cut from flying glass.
  • James Haley, fireman, thrown from wagon on way to fire - bruised, not serious.
  • Charles Hartman, upholsterer, thrown from wagon on South Street by blast concussion. Bruised, not serious.
  • Mrs. William Quinlan, 241 East South Street, struck by flying debris, possibly serious.
  • Edward Foullois, fireman, struck by brick, face cut.
  • Will Steinhauer, fireman, bruised, may have internal injuries.
  • Otto Hoffmeister, employee, 2330 Ralston Street, burned about head and hands.
  • John Van Garden, employee, 2045 Winter Street, burned about head and hands.
  • William Hutchinson, employee, 2058 Hazel Street, burns.

Early in this article the reporter asserts that this disaster at the new 211 East South Street location was "by far" worse than those occurring at the Pearl and East Street location in August 1907 or December 1907. That assessment could be easily challenged as the December accident claimed the life of employee Elmer Jessup and certainly from his perspective and that of his family that event was far more devastating. 
As far as property damage goes, though, the reporter makes a valid point. Much is made of the damage to St. Vincent's Hospital, which was only 100 feet from Prest-O-Lite. The fire engine house next door to the explosion was also significantly damaged. The article also notes that hundreds of window panes were shattered for "squares" around. The reference to squares is almost certainly described as "blocks" in today's vernacular.
As for the fire engine house, Fire Department Chief Charles Coots had been considering consolidating the assets of the location into their Virginia Avenue facility. This was fortunate as the damage to the location, which was next door to Prest-O-Lite, was extensive. Walls were described as "sprung," and a portion of the roof apparently was near collapse. Firemen had been knocked down twice, once each from both of the largest explosions. Four horses in the facility escaped when the locks on their stable doors were knocked off. They did not go much further than a block down the road and were retrieved without incident. 
The article notes the variety of ways people were injured, but it was all the result of the force of the explosion or by flying debris. Lada, the paper hanger, was working next door and hit in the head by a piece of brick. Riehl was struck by flying glass and Mrs. Quinlan was hit by a board.
Emerond injured his knee after he and some other employees jumped from a second story window. It is noted that Van Garden was injured slightly in the December explosion that killed Jessup. Several employees were reported to have been knocked off their feet by the concussion of the blast but uninjured aside from some bruising. 
Charles Hartman, an upholsterer who had a shop on Virginia Avenue, was driving past the plant in a horse-drawn wagon. He was blown out of his wagon but was not seriously injured. His horse ran away with the wagon. John Shine, a city humane officer, was riding his bicycle and was pitched from his seat. He was more than a block away from the stricken building.
Bringhurst, the patient at the hospital, suffered minor cuts from his shattered window. Other patients and hospital staff were more emotionally rattled than anything else.
Fire Department employee Steinhauer reportedly weighed 230 pounds but was still knocked down by the blast. Several other firemen were toppled as well.
Interestingly, Prest-O-Lite's steel and concrete structure suffered less damage than neighboring buildings. Carl Fisher estimated the repair bill at about $1,000.
Damage to the hosptial was estimated at $7,000 to $8,000. The fire engine house repair bill was expected to be at least $2,000. Buildings in the surrounding area incurred broken window panes and cracked plaster. The scope of the blast's impact was illustrated by noting that windows as far away as the Law Building to the north and the McCarty and High Streets branch of the Indianapolis Brewing Company on the south.
The force of the explosion was illustrated by a report that a piece of steel about four square feet and a half inch thick was hurled north for the distance of a block where it cleared the freight houses of the Big Four Railroad. When it landed it cut a 7x9 inch oak railroad tie in two. A smaller peice of steel crashed into the gable of the hospital disfiguring it. The loudest explosions were reportedly heard for miles around.
The article notes that "a number" of women were employed by the company, all in the office area on the second floor. Several male employees were near the explosions and miraculously excaped serious injury. There is no mention of any hearing loss, temporary or otherwise.
The fire that caused the explosions had not been determined. There was speculation that the friction in the brass buffing process might have produced a spark - but that was a reach. Regardless, the larger gas storage containers - two of them on the second floor - let go with terrific explosions. This triggered subsequent smaller blasts as the stored small canisters staged for shipment for installation on cars ignited. 
The Sisters at St. Vincent's Hospital called for recognition of the contributions by workers from the Big Four and Pennsylvania railroads in their work to clear the area of debris. D.E. Schaff, a manager at Big Four, organized the effort. Five "gangs" of Big Four men reported to the hospital as did three more from Penn.
Another interesting sidebar reported that reflects the sensibilities of a past era, women employed by the Big Four in their freight offices at Delaware and South Streets apparently had to be calmed by their male counterparts. One of them, Miss Flora Miles, fainted. She had reportedly undergone surgery recently and had not completely recovered her strength. She was taken to her home on the West side in an ambulance. Check out this precious excerpt:
"The women rushed to the corridors and started down a stairway that has a turn to it. Men about the offices and a colored janitor finally succeeded in stopping the rush."
At the same time Fred R. Bonifield, Indianapolis city prosecutor, was preparing to try several cases in Police Court. Apparently the Police Court was shaken by the explosions and Bonifield was so unnerved he fell ill. A physician ordered him to be escorted home where he was bedridden for the duration of the day.
The article also asserts that this explosion was the final straw for the community's tolerance in allowing Prest-O-Lite operations to continue in the downtown area. A special meeting of the City Council was called for the following Monday.
In the wake of the spectacular accident south side residents began to organize a mass meeting of protrest. Thomas J. Markey of 1046 South New Jersey Street spoke for the group in saying that the community did not want any aspect of Prest-O-Lite in their neighborhood - even finished product storage. Markey noted that the citizens had protested the move of the company to their neighborhood but the City Council had ignored them.
Meanwhile W.M. Neukom, the president of the City Council, called for an emergency meeting the following Monday. He planned to draft an ordinance to force Prest-O-Lite to a location outside Indianapolis. A similar ordinance had been proposed after the first two explosion disasters but Fisher and Allison had rallied allies in the Commercial Club and the Merchant's Association who created review committees and eventually ruled in favor of a downtown location. Much of this information can be found in the article, "Council Is Stirred By Presto Wreck."
An official named John R. Welch representing St. Vincent's intertests said the previous agreement called for Prest-O-Lite to re-locate to a more remote area near Kentucky Avenue and White River. Fred Mayer, chairman of the committee of the Merchant's Association, is quoted, "Indianapolis wants and needs all the industries it can have, but it occurs to me that we do not want businesses as dangerous as this one appears to be inside the city. It should be so far away from everything else that it could not damage any other property."
There were rumors that despite the accident Prest-O-Lite management was considering resuming the charging process for canisters. This concerned the police that they agreed to station an officer at the plant to prevent it. Mayor Charles Bookwalter as well as the Board of Safety and the City Council were at the scene of the accident. At that time they agreed there would be no pulling back from the position that Prest-O-Lite should not be allowed to conduct its operations within city limits. 
The compromise after the December accident came after all parties were assurred that a repeat of the destruction was "impossible" in light of the concrete and steel construcion of Prest-O-Lite South Street facility. It was seen as thoroughly fireproof and capable of containing explosions. Also, the new charging process was deemed safer than previous methods.
Attachment Prest-O-Lite031409 was published in the March 14, 1909 Indianapolis Star some nine months after the expolsion with a report on a lawsuit brought against Prest-O-Lite by an injured firefighter, Edward Foullois, who suffered a concussion and other internal injuries from which doctors said he would never fully recover. After a five hour deliberation the court found in favor of Foullois and ordered Prest-o-Lite to pay the man $10,000.

Prest-O-Lite_Fisher_Allison.pdf3.22 MB
Prest-O-Lite060708.pdf2.53 MB
Prest-O-LiteImage060708.pdf574.63 KB
Prest-O-Lite031409.pdf618.11 KB