A Disastrous Season in Waco: The Liberty Building Explosion, Fall 1936

By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

View of wreckage of the Liberty Building Explosion on Austin Avenue, Waco, Texas.

View of wreckage of the Liberty Building Explosion on Austin Avenue, Waco, Texas. Acree family papers, box 2G13, folder 6.

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.

The F.W. Woolworth Co. Fire, 605-607 Austin Avenue, Waco Texas

The F.W. Woolworth Co. fire, 605-607 Austin Avenue, Waco Texas. Acree family papers, box 2G13, folder 6.

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 Law Offices of Sleeper, Boynton, and Kendall-Liberty Building Explosion, Waco, Texas

The Law Offices of Sleeper, Boynton, and Kendall. The firm’s law library was its major loss in the Liberty Building explosion. Acree family papers, box 2G13, folder 6.

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.

Walgreens Drug Store, explosion, 601-603 Austin Avenue, Waco, Texas

Walgreens Drug Store, located at 601-603 Austin Avenue, suffered major damages from the explosion, even though it was not located in the Liberty Building. Acree family papers, box 2G13, folder 6.

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.)

Works Consulted:

“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.

This entry was posted in Austin Avenue, gas leak explosion, Goldstein-Migel, Historic Waco, Liberty Building, Pipkin Drug Store, Sleeper Boynton and Kendall law office, Waco, Walgreens, Warren Moore. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Disastrous Season in Waco: The Liberty Building Explosion, Fall 1936

  1. That Guy says:

    Great piece of local history.

    I’m not sure you’re right about the Walgreens location, though. If it was at 601-603 Austin, it pretty much had to be in the Liberty Building, doesn’t it? (The first photo seems to show the sign jutting out from the corner.)

    I didn’t know there was a Pipkin Drug there on N. Sixth St., either (there were several downtown, including nearby at 511 Austin, Third and Austin, and Eighth and Franklin), but it looks like it would’ve been the other side of the building from Walgreen

    • Amanda Norman says:

      Thanks for your close eye! We pulled the Walgreens address of 601-603 Austin Avenue from the Waco city directory for that year. That city directory places Pipkin Drug at 511 Austin Avenue…so maybe they were in the same building, just on different sides. The news articles about the incident don’t identify Walgreens as part of the Liberty Building and make clear that while Walgreens suffered serious damage, Pipkin was a complete loss. Its location in the building must have made it more of a direct target for the explosion.

  2. That Guy says:

    Well, 511 Austin and 601 Franklin can’t be the same building, right? They’d be in different blocks. But I think we’ve figured it out now…

    Some OCR’d text from a 1926 Waco News-Tribune article (http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/51040979/) notes that Pipkin took over the old Liberty Pharmacy (106 N. Sixth, as of the most recent 1923-24 city directory you guys have online), so there apparently were in fact two drugstores in the building.

    The photo at the top of the post shows a barber pole on the building next door, which would be Stringfellows Barber Shop at 110 N. Sixth (at least as of 1923-24), so the photo is definitely looking south along Sixth Street.

    Incidentally, the lovely awning in the right part of the photo is from the late, lamented Orpheum Theatre (114-16 N. Sixth, now the parking lot behind Cafe Cappuccino, more-or-less). It was apparently showing “Kelly The Second” with Patsy Kelly (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027840/combined).

    And the building across Austin at the extreme left (you can only see a sliver) would be the old Hotel Waco.

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