In March of 1905, with spring weather coming, the operators of the Grover shoe factory in Brockton, Mass., decided to switch off their new high-pressure boiler.
Installed just two years earlier, it needed maintenance after a hard winter of work. And that was the decision that touched off the 1905 Grover shoe factory disaster.
The boiler exploded, causing the four-story factory to collapse and ignite. Dozens of workers perished in the flaming wooden trap. The Grover shoe factory disaster led to stricter safety laws and a national safety code for steam boilers.
Out With the New, In With the Old
David B. Rockwell, chief engineer at the R. B. Glover & Co., had to keep the Grover shoe factory heated and running while the new boiler underwent maintenance. So he decided to restart the older backup boiler, built in 1891.
The old boiler had been maintained, but David Rockwell was a cautious man. He worried that the old boiler was not up to handling the pressure required. He had worried about that for several months, his wife would recall.
Nevertheless, Rockwell gave the order to make the changeover. He ordered the night watchman to light the fires in the old boiler early on Sunday morning so that it would have plenty of time to slowly warm up before workers arrived on Monday.
Inspectors had checked the interior of the old boiler, 17 feet long by six feet high, about one year earlier. They’d checked the exterior just a month before. On the outside of the boiler a label certified that the steel used in construction of the boiler could contain pressures of up to 60,000 pounds per square inch.
At 7:25 a.m. on Monday, March 20, Rockwell arrived at the Grover shoe factory to find the old boiler firing marvelously. It had warmed up slowly, to limit stress on any of the steam pipes or fittings in the plant. A water gauge on the side of the boiler showed it held adequate water. The boiler was rated for operating at 90 pounds per square inch, but it was set that day to operate safely below that — at 80 pounds per square inch, safely below its rated capacity.
Rockwell then had a pleasant morning. He had checked the fires in the boiler and liked what he saw. His friend, an engineer at the city’s sewer plant, had stopped by for a quick chat. Channing Howard, head of the plant’s shipping department, also stopped by to return an oil can he’d borrowed.
Just before 7:50 a.m., Rockwell sat back in his wooden chair, his hands clasped behind his head, for a quick moment of rest. In the house he shared with his wife, about 100 feet from the boiler room, Rockwell’s wife looked out the window and saw her husband comfortably seated. It was the last time anyone would see him alive.
The Grover Shoe Factory Disaster
Simple pieces of metal were the culprit in the Grover shoe factory disaster.
The boiler at the shoe factory, which covered nearly an acre of land, was built with lap joints. A lap joint consists of two pieces of steel that overlap for several inches and are held together with steel rivets.
The design had a weakness. If a crack forms in the edge of the steel overlapped with the other piece of steel, the two plates can hide it from inspectors.
Inspectors for the Hartford Boiler Insurance Company had very keen eyes for cracks. Each year they found thousands of them and ordered repairs.
But inspectors could not see between the two layers of a lap joint.. And that’s exactly where the old boiler in Brockton showed its age. A crack in the steel, perhaps imperceptible when constructed, had slowly widened under years of strain. As the boiler heated and cooled, the crack widened. Gradually the steel weakened until it gave way in a massive explosion.
When the riveted plates let go, one end of the boiler tore away and blew completely through the factory wall. It careened through the Rockwell’s house, tearing off the roof, though sparing his wife, and smashed into the house next door where it punched a hole in the wall. Hannah Hood, the house’s occupant, was unhurt but shaken.
The factory had four floors constructed over the boiler room. The initial explosion brought those floors and the workers in them crashing down, trapping workers in the debris. That first blast brought curious neighbors outside to investigate that loud whump sound.
The explosion scattered coals from the boiler’s fire pit. The plant’s water tower then collapsed onto the roof. Most of the five-story plant soon came crashing down, each floor collapsing onto the one below it like a stack of pancakes. The collapse instantly disabled the sprinkler system in the building.
Within moments of the first, a second explosion went off. The factory maintained a small shed at the rear of the boiler room where it stored naphtha, gasoline and cement.
The naphtha most likely exploded first. Flaming debris showered down on the wooden factory’s remains, setting in motion a race against time for workers to escape.
Escaping the Brockton Shoe Factory Disaster
Some 300 to 400 workers were at the plant when it blew up. Many escaped largely unhurt. One stitcher reported that she was working on the top floor of the factory when the explosion collapsed the building underneath her.
Stunned by the drop, she began crawling only to discover she had crawled to safety right out onto the ground outside.
Many others were not so lucky. As the fire spread through the building, people a half mile away could hear the screams of the workers trapped inside.
John Twoig and Billy Mannix were outside when the plant exploded. They ran down the street and found a ladder, which they brought back to the plant to begin extracting trapped people. They rescued several girls before they had to stop.
When the firefighters began arriving, flames almost completely engulfed the factory. They could only rescue a few people before they had to focus exclusively on trying to stop the fire.
After more than two hours, firefighters extinguished the factory fire and the gruesome process of retrieving the dead began.
Fifty-eight people died in the Grover shoe factory disaster, and more than 150 injured. The medical examiner undertook a painstaking process to try to identify the bodies recovered from the fire, but 18 of the missing were never identified. Their names are on a monument to the victims of the fire in Brockton’s Melrose Cemetery.
The Grover shoe factory tragedy was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in New England history.
The factory was owned by Robbins Grover, who had gotten his start as a shoemaker supplying soldiers in the Civil War. The public face of R. B. Grover was Emerson Shoes, sold at a chain of some 30 Emerson Shoes stores around the United States.
The fire destroyed the factory, which stood at the corner of Main and Calmar Streets, and several buildings nearby.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the Boot & Shoe Worker’s Union paid out more than $100,000 in insurance benefits to the families of the dead.
R.B. Grover, insured for just $135,000, suffered more than $225,000 in damages. The company declared bankruptcy. An investigation turned up no criminal wrongdoing. Civil courts also ruled the Grover shoe factory disaster was an accident for which the company was not liable.
Grover would spend his remaining years raising money for the fire victims. The explosion rattled the government and the steam engineering profession into setting higher standards for boilers.
Thanks to: The Engineer’s Review. This story about the Grover shoe factory disaster was updated in 2023.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also want to read about the Amoskeag Mill Disaster and the Pemberton Mill Disaster.