Interesting Facts

New London School Explosion, Deadliest school disaster which killed almost 300 children and teachers

In 1937, a gas leak in the basement at the local school in New London, Texas caused a massive explosion which killed almost 300 children and teachers, the deadliest school disaster in US history. Adolf Hitler even sent his condolences by telegram.

After odorless natural gas spilled into the basement and caught fire at New London High School in Rusk County, hundreds of people perished. Four kilometers away, the explosion’s boom could be heard. Parents hurried to the school, many of them oil field laborers from East Texas.

Despite quick rescue efforts, 298 people died, mostly children between the ages of 5 and 11 (dozens more eventually passed away from injuries). After an inquiry, it was determined that an electric woodshop sander, which ignited odorless gas that had accumulated beneath and inside the school walls, was to blame for the explosion.

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Roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield rushed to New London school after the March 18, 1937, explosion — and searched for survivors throughout the night. Photo courtesy New London Museum.

According to, “The school was newly constructed in the 1930s for less than $1 million and, from its inception, purchased natural gas from Union Gas to supply its energy needs.” “The average monthly natural gas bill for the school was about $300.”

According to historian James Cornell, the school board terminated its agreement with Union Gas in early 1937 in order to save money and connected to a pipeline of residual gas (also known as casinghead gas) from Parade Gasoline Company.

He wrote in The Great International Disaster Book, “This technique was popular in the area, even though it was not formally approved by local oil firms. “The natural gas extracted along with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off.”

Walter Cronkite reaches Scene

Walter Cronkite, a teenage reporter for United Press in Dallas, was one among the first journalists to arrive at the accident site south of Kilgore, between Tyler and Longview. In East Texas, it was pitch-black and raining.

A local historian remarked that the man “got his first inkling of how bad the incident was when he saw a large number of cars lined up outside the funeral home in Tyler.” Long shadows are created at the catastrophe site by floodlights.

In his book, A Reporter’s Life, Cronkite stated, “We hurried on to New London.” Just before dusk, we arrived there. Huge oilfield floodlights illuminated a massive pile of rubble that people were tearing up with their bare hands. Many of them were oil field employees.

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The March 18, 1937, explosion hurled a concrete slab 200 feet onto a new Chevrolet. At the time, Rusk County was among the richest rural school districts in the United States. Students had been preparing for the next day’s Inter-scholastic meet in Henderson. Photos courtesy New London Museum.

Later, Cronkite would say, “I did nothing in my studies or in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”

The “sad irony” of how the East Texas oil boom supported the construction of the richest rural school in the country in 1934—and the flawed heating system that allowed raw gas to accumulate beneath it—was detailed by David M. Brown, who investigated the disaster for a 2012 book.

According to Brown, a poor judgment made by school administrators contributed to the explosion.

The trustees had given workers permission to use a pipeline transporting “waste” natural gas produced by a gasoline refinery in order to reduce the cost of heating the school building. In his book Gone at 3:17, the Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History, Brown came to the conclusion that “the resulting explosion that laid waste to a town’s future.”

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The New London Museum includes extensive personal accounts of the tragedy taken from newspaper articles and personal interviews. Considered state-of-the-art for its time, the school housed grades K-11.

According to Robert Hilliard, a volunteer for the New London Museum, a makeshift morgue was put up close to the school as well as adjacent Overton and Henderson after the catastrophe.

According to Hilliard, one of those responsible for maintaining the museum’s website, “many burials were made in the neighborhood Pleasant Hill cemetery that now serve as a reflection of the significant loss that families faced. Many of the cemetery sites include porcelain portraits of the deceased, the man claimed. “Played with marbles were pushed into the cement border around the graves.”

Safer Natural Gas Production.

Texas was the first state to enact regulations requiring that natural gas be blended with a “malodorant” to provide early warning of a gas leak as a result of the catastrophe. Other states soon after did the same. Mercaptan, the odorant introduced to signal the potentially dangerous leak of gas, is now required to give off the rotten-egg stench that has come to be associated with natural gas.

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The London School campus for grades 5 through 11, “was a new showplace in 1937, the product of new oil wealth that could not have been imagined 10 years earlier,” according to the New London Museum.

The community museum in New London, which is located across the street from the school, opened its doors in 1992 as a result of years of work by Mollie Ward, who served as both its founder and first curator. Mollie was 10 years old when the horrific explosion she survived occurred. A blackboard discovered in the rubble was one of the museum’s exhibits, she claimed in an interview from 2001.

Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing, according to a blackboard that was once on the wall, according to Ward, who spent years assisting in the founding of a former students club that brought together those who survived the New London explosion.

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One museum exhibit is a recovered blackboard that reads: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing.” Photo by Bruce Wells.

A 32-foot-tall granite cenotaph dedicated in 1939 is located close to the museum. A monument-building contract was given to the Premier Granite Quarries of Llano, Texas, in December 1938. The project’s designing and supervising architect was Donald Nelson of Dallas.

The duty of creating the model for the sculptural block at the top was given to Herring Coe of Beaumont following a competition in which seven Texas sculptors submitted preliminary models.

Two monolithic granite columns support the 20-ton sculptured block of Texas granite, which features 12 life-size figures representing children arriving at school, giving gifts, and turning in homework to two instructors.

At the New London Museum, we memorialize the victims of the East Texas disaster.

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