Day Trips: New London School Explosion

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history

Photos by Gerald E. McLeod

The New London School Explosion on March 18, 1937, nearly wiped out an entire generation of a small East Texas community. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history that killed 311 students, teachers, and visitors at the school 14 miles south of Kilgore.

At the time, the nation was in the grips of the Great Depres­sion. But the East Texas oil fields shielded residents from economic hard times. When the two-story New London Junior-Senior High School was built in 1932, the school district claimed to be the richest rural district in the country and the building the most modern schoolhouse.

School administrators decided to save $300 a month in gas bills by unofficially tapping into a natural gas line, a common and not illegal practice at the time.

At 3:17pm, shop teacher Lemmie Butler turned on a belt sander that ignited a basement full of odorless gas leaking from a faulty connection. Of the 540 people in the building, 294 died at the scene, 17 died later, and only 130 escaped serious injury.

Within two months of the calamity, the Texas Legislature mandated that refiners add the smell of rotten eggs to natural gas.

Rescue workers removed the debris from the explosion in 17 hours. A replacement was built at the site using the latest safety features. Two years later the community raised a cenotaph in a traffic island on TX-42 in front of the new school.

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New London School Explosion, East Texas

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