The Herald Bulletin

March 2, 2013

A night to remember: Terhune Block gas explosion

By Stephen T. Jackson
Madison County Historian

Note: The addresses in the following story are the ones in use in 1895. It would be another five years (1900) before the city adopted the current address numbering system.

At 20 minutes past three on the morning of Tuesday, March 5, 1895, the city of Anderson was shaken as if by an earthquake.

Doors and windows in buildings for miles around rattled and jarred as if the earth was in some gigantic convulsion.

The two-story Terhune Block (22 to 32 N. Main), erected in 1888 and owned by Anderson Mayor John H. Terhune (1890-1893 and 1906-1909), was located on the northwest corner of Eighth and Main Streets. The building which cost $20,000 to build, was in ruins, and was insured for only $4,000.

The cause of the blast was never completely determined due to the extensive destruction. However, it was believed that a fire had started in the building during the night as observed by a neighbor lady who happened to be awake at that hour. The fire, together with a broken natural gas connection that had leaked a sufficient quantity of gas, combined to create the devastating explosion.

Night Patrolman Robbins was walking his beat on the south side of the public square. He had just reached Henderson’s corner (Henderson Drug, 23 E. Ninth St.) when he was fairly lifted off his feet by the explosion.

It took the officer but a moment to understand the situation and he rushed to the fire alarm box at Buck, Brickley & Company’s corner (1 E. Ninth St. at Ninth  and Meridian) to turn in the alarm. The electric clock in the fire department registered 3:22 when the alarm came in.

A mountain of smoke

George Sherwood of Jackson, Mich., was a guest at the Doxey House a block south at Ninth and Main. His room fronted on Main St. He was awakened by the blast.

Raising his window he saw a cloud of white smoke that seemed as high as a mountain rolling up from where the building had stood. The whole roof and building extending half way back had been blown away.

Ten minutes passed and then the remainder of the wall crashed to the ground.

Around town, people were startled from their sleep by the thundering concussion; they had heard the sound before and experienced the same sensations, but never so horrendous.

The discovery of natural gas in Anderson had occurred a mere eight years before and was providing the city with a seemingly unending supply. Every home and business in the city had or was converting to its usage. But with prosperity comes caution.

The safe usage of the gas was still something that many had to learn. Home and business explosions and the resulting fires were a common calamity in the 1890s. Thus the sounds heard that night were all too common to the citizens of Anderson and other gas-using communities in the central Indiana gas belt.

Thousands thronged to the downtown streets to view the ruins and a painful anxiety was written in every face. The cause of the anxiety was the ever-dreaded apprehension that the awful explosion of this day might be duplicated at any place and at any time.

The ground floor of the Terhune Block (buildings were called blocks then) was occupied by the When Clothing Company, Prather & Son boots and shoes, and C.C. Hadley drugs and fixtures.

The second floor was occupied by Dr. Jonas Stewart, the insurance firm of Cheney, McCormick and Langell, the law firms of Lake and Shuman, Frank P. Foster, Frank Matthews, Carver and Ballard, and E.C. O’Crowly, abstractor. Fortunately no one was in the building.

Businesses in every direction for a block looked as if they had been struck by a tornado. Building fronts were caved in and the pavement in front of the buildings was littered with small pieces of glass.

Bing’s Clothing store, McMillen’s harness shop, the Herald office, and Clark’s harness store which were located directly across the street suffered most. These buildings sustained the greatest force of the explosion breaking every window.

The firemen responded quickly to battle the blaze. Heavy winds blowing from the west carried burning embers across the street through the blown out windows of Bing’s store igniting the clothing. Above Bing’s were the law offices of GoodyKoontz & Ballard and Wood & Ellis. They too sustained water damage.

Bricks hurled across street

The office of the Morning Herald took a direct hit. The force of the explosion rocked the building causing it to sway for a moment as if about to crumble, and then fortunately settled back to its old position. The men who were at work in the building were given an experience they probably never forgot.

A conglomeration of debris filled the adjacent streets. A tangled mass of telephone and light wires lay in every direction while pieces of terra cotta, brick, glass and splintered timbers covered the ground.

Huge blocks of stone that were part of the building were hurled across the street onto the court house lawn.

One front door was blown across the street and hit the court house while another front door was hurled down Main Street almost to the Reception Saloon (84 N. Main).

The Anderson Fire Department was credited with doing an exceptional job of containing the fires which minimized the damage. By 10:30 that morning, seven hours after the explosion, the fires were under control.

Speculation as to the exact cause went on for weeks with no conclusive evidence to definitely determine what exactly happened and in what sequence things happened. All that was ever known was that it was a very large explosion that rocked downtown Anderson and for many it was a night to remember for the remainder of their lives.

For more information visit the Madison County History Center, 15 W. 11th St., Anderson, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The phone is 683-0052.