Wagner’s Point Oil Tank Explosion of 1920
07/19/1920 – 07/22/1920
At one in the afternoon on July 19, 1920, lightening struck two tanks owned by the New York based United States Asphalt Refining Company containing 50,000 barrels of petroleum. According to the Baltimore Sun, one tank “exploded with a roar that could be heard for miles and with a force that hurled the top of the tank into the street more than 200 feet away.”
After burning for many hours, the tanks boiled over and released burning oil in to the streets catching tanks of the Texas Oil Company on fire and burning through the streets of Wagner’s Point.
Twelve houses on Third Street in Wagner’s Point were destroyed. The Sun reported: “Before the torrents of blazing oil hundreds of residents fled from their homes screaming in terror. In their arms some carried babies, others carried household effects, while still others wild-eyed and panic stricken, fled coatless and hatless in a frantic effort to escape the blazing flood.” The home of the East Brooklyn Volunteer Fire Company and the laboratory of the United States Asphalt Refining Company were also destroyed along with rail cars and automobiles. Six alarms were sounded and eighteen fire engines were sent to fight the blaze. However, because water cannot be applied directly to burning oil, this was a difficult fire to contain. Firemen dug trenches to redirect the burning oil, wet down surrounding areas, and pumped oil out of tanks.
The efforts to stop the fire lasted for three days. In addition to the fire at the United States Asphalt Refining Company and neighboring Texas Oil Company, the following day the blaze spread to an 8,000-gallon tank of crude oil owned by Prudential Oil Corporation three-quarters of a mile from the original fire. On the fourth day, all that remained were smoke clouds as residents of Wagner’s Point began to return to their homes. The Baltimore Sun described their return: “All day long returning refugees plodded along the road to East Brooklyn, bringing their household goods in toy wagons, baby carriages, baskets, wheelbarrows and autotrucks.” The Sun also reported, “thieves took advantage of the flight to rob many houses.” Items reported stolen included “clothing, money, and even chickens.”
While there were no reports of deaths or serious injury, the oil tank explosion of 1920 was an early sign that living in close proximity to oil and chemical companies could have dangerous consequences.
By Professor Nicole King
NOTE: Wagner’s Point is often referred to as East Brooklyn during this time period.
“Hundreds Flee in Panic When Flaming Oil Fires Houses in East Brooklyn.” Baltimore Sun. July 20, 1920.
“Three-Day Oil Fire Now Under Control.” Baltimore Sun. July 22, 1920.