Texas Tragedies That Inspired Innovation

by Stephanie Brown, Reference Archivist

Extra! Extra! Eyes of the World on Texas, the new exhibit now on display in the Texas State Library Commission (TSLAC) lobby, features major news events of the past that made headlines beyond the state’s borders. The historic events were sometimes triumphant, such as the legendary moon landing in 1969, but many were tragic. After such devastating occurrences as the New London school explosion in 1937 and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, there were some positive outcomes meant to help prevent future tragedies. From legislation to technical innovations, this exhibit includes some of the results still in use today. For instance, Texans built a seawall to protect citizens from coastal flooding, created a network of radar stations to improve storm detection, and passed laws regulating the dispensing and odorization of natural gas. These innovations made an impact that laid the groundwork for changes on a national level.


colorized postcard of a scene at the Galveston sea wall. The text reads, The Sea Wall Boulevard, Beach and Murdock Bath House, Galveston, Texas. Pedestrians walk along a boardwalk atop the sea wall and others on the sand below.
Sea Wall Boulevard in Galveston, 1915. Postcards of Texas collection, AC61/8-152, PP105.

The Great Storm of 1900

The 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in United States history, killed an estimated  8,000 people and damaged or destroyed more than 3,500 homes and buildings. At the time of the great storm, the highest point of elevation on the island was 8.7 feet above sea level. The 15-foot storm surge easily inundated the island, causing widespread erosion and destruction of property.

As Galvestonians began the slow process of recovery and rebuilding following the devasting storm, leaders looked for ways to prevent future catastrophes and loss of life. The Texas Legislature passed a resolution signed by Governor Joseph D. Sayers on September 7, 1901, allowing for the construction of a seawall to protect the island from deadly storm surge. Legislation also authorized Galveston County to issue bonds to raise funds to build the seawall.

cropped portion of the signed legislation authorizing sea wall construction. The portion on view contains signatures of the president of the senate, speaker of the house and approved by Gov. Joseph D. Sayers.
SB13 An act to authorize all counties and cities on the Gulf Coast of Texas to construct sea walls and breakwaters dated September 7, 1901. Texas Secretary of State bills and resolutions filed, 2-13/42.

The construction of the three-mile-long seawall began in 1902 and was completed two years later. An engineering marvel of the time, it stood seventeen feet high and was sixteen feet thick at the base. The seawall helped to protect the island when a storm of similar strength and characteristics made landfall near Galveston in 1915. Although the city did not suffer the same devastation and loss of life as in 1900, Galveston officials would eventually extend the wall to reach ten miles.

Notice of call of bonds issued to fund the Galveston seawall.
Notice of Call of Bonds issued to fund the Galveston Seawall. Galveston County Treasurer’s Register of Seawall and Breakwater Bonds,2011/438-705.

 Waco Tornado and the Texas Radar Warning Network

Late in the afternoon on May 26, 1953, a tornado struck Waco, killing 114 people. The business district was bustling with shoppers and downtown office buildings were full of workers. The Weather Bureau had issued tornado warnings earlier in the day. However, approximately 30 minutes before the storm hit, a radio announcement declared that the danger had passed, and residents resumed normal daily activity. The storm destroyed a two square mile area in downtown Waco. Schools, homes, businesses, and other structures in its path were severely damaged or destroyed.

Cover of booklet with the title Tornado! at the top and black and white photo of a spinning tornado.
Booklet, Tornado! 1953. Department of Public Safety records,2-23/1061.

While the city of Waco was not prepared to deal with a storm of this magnitude, the disaster led scientists to work to better understand the type of weather that generates tornados through the development of a radar-detection system. The state of Texas became the center for the study of tornados and other severe storms in the United States. The U.S. Air Force provided Texas A&M University with surplus radar units to develop the Texas Radar Warning Network and the U.S Weather Bureau formally dedicated the network on June 25, 1955

Newspaper article, Texas Becoming Research Center on Tornadoes
Houston Chronicle, June 24, 1955. Texas Department of Public Safety records,2-23/1061.

Newspaper article, Waco's Storm Warning Radar is in Operation with illustration of tornado radar coverage and photos four men involved.
Waco News-Tribune, April 29, 1955. Texas Department of Public Safety records, Commission 2-23/1061.

The research advanced the understanding of the link between tornadoes and radar images called hook echoes, which act as the signature of tornado-producing thunderstorms indicating the presence of rain, hail, or debris. The development of a network of twenty facilities across the state using radar technology helped storm spotters and experts from the weather bureau know when to notify local officials leading to more accurate warnings. The Texas Radar Warning Network helped drive the development of a nationwide warning system.

Newspaper article, Skies watched carefully during season for storms with photos of radar and a meteorologist using the equipment.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times, April 15, 1956. Texas Department of Public Safety records,2-23/1061.

New London School Explosion

On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak caused an explosion and destroyed the London School in the town of New London, Texas. Nearly 300 students and teachers died in what is still the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history.

Black and white photo of aftermath of New London school explosion. The photo of the parking lot at night with many cars and trucks parked and groups of adults looking at the collapsed building where rescue work continued.
New London school explosion, 1937. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1976/11-7.

The discovery of oil in Rusk County in 1930 led to a sudden increase in prosperity and made New London one of the wealthiest rural school districts in the nation. The school district built a new school costing close to one million dollars. However, to save money the school board cancelled their contract with the United Gas Company and instead opted to tap into a residue gas line from a local oil company. Natural gas extracted with oil in the drilling process was considered a waste byproduct and ordinarily was “flared” or burned off. However, the use of this residual natural gas had become a widespread practice near the oilfields at the time.

The raw or untreated natural gas in the residual lines is colorless and odorless, causing leaks to go undetected. When the natural gas at London School leaked into the empty crawlspace beneath the school it collected in the basement and walls. On the day of the explosion, a spark from an electric wood shop sander inadvertently ignited and caused the explosion.

Report of the School Explosion Disaster open to the first page. One one side there is a photo of the school and floorplans of the first floor and basement and the other the introductory text of the report.
Report of the School Explosion and Disaster at London, Texas, March 18, 1937.

An investigation into the disaster revealed the unsafe practice of tapping into residual lines and led to discussions about natural gas safety. Texas was the first state to pass laws requiring that companies mix a chemical compound with a sulfur-like, “rotten egg” smell with natural gas to give warning of a leak. The Texas State Legislature gave the Texas Railroad Commission the authority to adopt and enforce regulations for the odorization of natural gas. Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel signed House Bill 792 on July 7, 1939. Other states followed and the United States government now regulates the odorization of gas.

Copy of page 3 text from House Bill 792 signed by Governor W. Lee O'Daniel on July 7,1939.
House Bill 792, signed by Governor W. Lee O’Daniel on July 7, 1939. Texas Secretary of State bills and resolutions filed, 100-1082. P. 3.
Copy of page 5 text from House Bill 792 signed by Governor W. Lee O'Daniel on July 7,1939.
House Bill 792, signed by Governor W. Lee O’Daniel on July 7, 1939. Texas Secretary of State bills and resolutions filed, 100-1082. P. 5.

Disasters come in different forms. Hurricanes are among the most powerful natural disasters and tornados can strike suddenly, with little warning. Human-caused disasters including gas leaks are equally devastating. People are resilient and in the aftermath of these tragedies Texans came together to develop technological innovations and pass new laws to protect the residents of Texas and inspire the nation. Visit the exhibit to learn more about these and other historic events Monday through Friday, 8:00am – 5:00pm and the second Saturday of each month from 9:00am – 4:00pm until November 17, 2024. An electronic version of the exhibit is available online at https://www.tsl.texas.gov/extraextra.


Sources:

The Rosenberg Library/Galveston History Center
https://www.galvestonhistorycenter.org/

NOAA: Galveston Hurricane – September 8, 1900 (weather.gov)

NOAA: Waco Tornado – May 11, 1953 (weather.gov)

New London School Explosion – American Oil & Gas Historical Society (aoghs.org)

Castaneda, Christopher J. (1 October 2011). “Natural Disasters in the Making: Fossil Fuels, Humanity, and the Environment”. OAH Magazine of History. Organization of American Historians

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