By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator
The fall of 1936 proved to be a devastating season for the city of Waco. In September, one of the city’s worst recorded floods devastated the town. The Brazos River submerged Elm Street, and water rushed approximately two feet below the suspension, Washington Avenue, and railroad bridges near downtown. The end results of this natural disaster were estimated at $1.5 million in damage to McLennan County.
A disaster of a different type was soon to follow just weeks later on October 4. The Liberty Building on Austin Avenue and Sixth Street exploded, fatally wounding 65-year-old janitor Warren Moore and causing an estimated $290,000 in damages to the structure, as well as those adjoining and nearby. Fortunately it happened on an early Sunday morning without the usual hustle and bustle of the busy Waco downtown area, or else casualties could have been much higher. Businesses affected by the incident included the F.W. Woolworth Co., Law Offices of Sleeper, Boynton, and Kendall, Walgreens Drug Store, Pipkin Drug Store, and Goldstein-Migel department store. Other businesses suffered minor damage, and isolated injuries to people were reported.
The Liberty Building’s damages are detailed in a Waco News-Tribune article from October 5, 1936: “With its first three office floors converted into single rooms by force of the explosion Sunday morning, Liberty building showed destruction from its basement to its roof.” The structure next door, F.W. Woolworth Co., suffered an estimated $75,000 in losses due to fire. The law office was located on the fourth floor of the Liberty Building and sustained serious damage. Its law library, including several thousand volumes of books, was its greatest loss. Located on the first floor of the Liberty, Pipkin Drug Store was completely destroyed, and the nearby Walgreens Drug Store suffered heavy damage to its storefront and interior. The images in this post and the slide show below (from the Acree family papers) illustrate the devastation of the blast.
In the aftermath of the explosion, investigators wasted little time searching for the cause of such a devastating accident. One initial theory was that the recent Brazos flood a few weeks before had caused a massive buildup of water that overburdened the city’s sewage system. But it was found that the Liberty Building’s location on Sixth and Austin proved to be too much of a distance from the most affected areas closer to the river and across on the east side.
After almost two years of thorough investigation, it was determined by engineers that the explosion was caused by a gas leak from a loose coupling device on a two-inch pipe in the Liberty Building’s basement. Records from gas companies show a surge in pressure around the time of the explosion. Based on some of Warren Moore’s statements before his death, it is believed that a spark from a light switch ignited the gas leak as the janitor turned out lights before seeking assistance with the sudden gaseous odor. Unfortunately, that well-intentioned move cost him his life. (If you smell gas, don’t use or touch anything electrical, and leave windows and doors open or closed as they were—just get out, then get help.)
The building ultimately was renovated, and its neighbors relocated or made the necessary repairs, but these images remain as a reminder of Waco’s disastrous fall 1936.
Click the “play” arrow in our Flickr set below to see more images of the aftermath of the Liberty Building explosion. (Use the crosshairs that will appear in the bottom right corner to enlarge the slideshow.)
“Explosion Fire Loss Estimated at $290,000.” The Waco News-Tribune (Waco, TX), Oct. 5, 1936.
“Janitor Dies of Injuries.” Waco Times-Herald (Waco, TX), Oct. 5, 1936.
“Coupling of Gas Lines in Liberty Taken From Vault.” Waco News-Tribune (Waco, TX), Jan. 14, 1938.
“Explosion Legal Fight is Hardly Started in Week.” Waco Sunday Tribune-Herald (Waco, TX), Jan. 16, 1938.
“Bartlett to Hear Motion in Recent Explosion Action.” Waco News-Tribune (Waco, TX), Mar. 2, 1938.
Acree family papers, Accession 2986, box 2G13, folder 6, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.