The night Fredonia ‘boomed’

Photos courtesy of Barker Library and Sam Drayo At top: View from atop old fire hall showing rubble.

Boiler explosion in 1910 ripped downtown


Lifestyles Editor

Downtown Fredonia has had its share of less-than-pleasant events over the years.

One such incident occurred on Dec. 15, 1910 and is part of a Barker Library display, including several pictures, that chronicles the event, along with parts of articles printed at the time that Fredonia resident Sam Drayo provided the OBSERVER..

The Friday Dec. 16, 1910 issue of the Evening Observer reported that “great damage was done, nearby schools, stores and private dwellings without heat, great masses of wreckage were carried blocks away from the scene of the explosion. One man is dead, body mangled beyond recognition and another man is so badly injured that his recovery is doubtful as a result of the 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 explosion.

“The explosion was of such terrific force that the new brick building is a mass of ruins, all the buildings in the vicinity were damaged, there is hardly a building within two blocks of the scene of the explosion which has more or less damage besides the broken windows. Many of the houses were damaged by the flying brick and parts of the boiler. There were many hair-breadth escapes and some seemed nothing short of miraculous.

“The Frank J. Moir house stands about 60 feet away from the wrecked building on the west side. The bricks were driven through the outer wall and firmly embedded in the inside partitions across the room where the family was seated at the time. The table in the room was smashed into kindling wood but no one was hurt.”

A report written by local historian Douglas H. Shepard in 2011, provided some more detail.

“In the fall of 1910, J. A. Bendure put up a brick building on the car barn site and installed three boilers that had been in the old power house. They were supplying steam heat to the Normal School, businesses, and some private homes. Bendure’s foreman, Robert Torrence, had patched a blister on the side of one of the boilers a few weeks before the evening of 15 December 1910, when the middle boiler exploded, shattering, and tearing a hole through a brick wall. The force of the explosion threw another boiler, 16 feet long and over 4 feet in diameter, out of the yard and across Center Street, coming to rest against Fred Lovelee’s residence at 25 Center Street. An enormous amount of damage was done to homes on Forest Place, Center Street, and Temple Street by flying bricks, cement, glass, and steel. There was only one death, the young night foreman, Fred Burrell, who had only been in Fredonia a few weeks.

“Using the one remaining boiler, Bendure was able to provide steam heat to his customers on the following Saturday, and to gradually repair his power house. After the trolley lines were replaced by buses, the buildings were used by the Village Street Department for a warehouse, and as storage sites for buses of the D&F Transit Company and the Greyhound Bus Company.”

The car barns were demolished in February 1957 with the space being filled by a succession of supermarkets. The site is now home to medical offices and a parking lot.

The Fredonia Censor expressed what was likely the feelings of most residents six days later.

“The boiler explosion last Thursday evening was a great catastrophe, but the fact that none of our citizens were killed on the streets, and that we were not called upon to chronicle from 30 to 40 deaths, is a cause for general thankfulness to a merciful Providence.”