Lost in History, Vol. 33

by |
07/18/2007 12:00 AM |

After a month abroad, it wasn’t long before this native New Yorker was reminded, with a burst of steam and a deafening roar, that Our Fair City will always be exploding with events, or at the very least, steam today, and something much more sinister and deadly from our past.

The steam pipe explosion on 41st Street and Lexington Avenue last Wednesday was, luckily for us and Manhattan, just a “failure of the city’s infrastructure” (Mayor Mike, who apparently went Indy while I was absent!), resulting from cold rainwater seeping in during a morning shower, and coming into contact with the hot steam pipe, causing a pressurized reaction. The pipe dates from 1924 and was briefly inspected Wednesday morning after the rainstorm, but Con Ed, which owns and maintains the hundreds of miles of steam pipe-work snaking from Lower Manhattan to the Upper West and East Sides, found nothing wrong with it or the thousands of other pipes crawling just under the tarmac. As a result of the blast, one woman died of cardiac arrest, and about thirty were injured. However, things were a lot different at an explosion downtown almost a century ago . . .

Minutes before the noon lunch-rush on September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon, loaded with dynamite and heavy iron sash weights, pulled into the intersection of Wall and Broads Streets, immediately outside the New York Stock Exchange, and exploded. The sash weights acted as propelled shrapnel that tore into the House of Morgan building, leaving pockmarks and indents the size of a fist in the marble. (The pockmarks are still visible, on the Wall Street façade of the building, across from the Federal Hall National Monument.) Thirty were killed instantly and over three hundred were injured, most of them messengers and stock-boys, starting their lunch break by crossing the street to grab a bite. The death toll would rise to forty from the various maladies incurred. One piece of shrapnel was blown to the 34th floor of the nearby Equitable Building; windows a quarter-mile away shattered from the force of the explosion. The only intact parts of the horse or the wagon that the police could locate were two charred hooves, which landed in the cemetery at Trinity Church, three blocks west. Later, in an unsuccessful attempt to attach the horse to an owner, hired detectives would take the hooves to over 4,000 blacksmiths up and down the Atlantic seaboard in order to find one that could identify the horseshoes, and possibly an owner or accomplice to this heinous crime.

Terrorism tensions ran high during the 1920s, a fervent period of American Capitalism. Along with various fears of Italian Anarchists and Russian Bolshevists, the city and country had to beware of homegrown terrorists, such as the American Anarchist Fighters, who claimed responsibility for the 1920 explosion on the morning it happened, mailing out a round of circulars between 11:30 and 11:58 stating: "Remember / We will not tolerate / any longer / Free the political / prisoners or it will be / sure death for all of you / American Anarchist Fighters." What’s more, these American Anarchist Forces were probably responsible for the mail-bomb scare of 1919, in which thirty-six packages loaded with nitroglycerin and concealed in Gimbles gift-boxes were mailed to prominent Americans, intending to be opened on May Day. Sixteen of these packages were detained at the Main Branch of the Post Office on 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, and the rest were, luckily, defused before any loss of life.

How did Wall Street respond to these attacks on our very American way of life? Quoth the New York Sun on September 17th, 1920: "Like a strong man who sticks to the line after binding up his wounds and sewing on his wound stripes, Wall Street, from its lowly office boy to its most stately financier, went to work yesterday morning with head up and teeth set, determined to show the world that business will proceed as usual despite bombs."  In a city with a history of downtown acts of terrorism, an accidental midtown steam pipe doesn’t look so bad.