Ask McGehee: Was Mobile’s electric plant once destroyed by an explosion?

Historic photo of electric plant explosion
On February 21, 1919, two boilers exploded at the Mobile Electric Lighting Company, located at the northwest corner of North Royal and St. Louis streets.

In the late 19th century, Alabama Power Company’s current location in downtown Mobile was the site of a plant that provided the area’s electricity. In 1884, a crowd of Mobilians gathered in the offices of the Mobile Register as the city’s very first incandescent bulb was demonstrated. That bulb was powered by the Mobile Electric Company, located at 65 North Royal St. on the northwest corner of St. Louis Street. 

At first, electricity was considered an alternative to gas or kerosene lighting. By the start of the 20th century, it was being used to power a variety of equipment in manufacturing plants. It also made buildings such as the new Battle House and the towering Van Antwerp Building possible with their “high-speed” elevators.

Mobilians would soon take electricity for granted, as well as the black smoke billowing from the great smokestack down at the power plant. On the evening of February 21, 1919, at 8:25 p.m., the city was thrown into what the Register termed “inky darkness” when two boilers at the plant exploded.

Indescribable Awfulness

A witness described “a slight cracking noise like the splintering of a dry piece of wood followed by a moment of silence. Next came a deafening detonation, which could be heard for blocks.” The main boiler room was briefly thrown into darkness only to be illuminated by a flash that ignited gases, sending a roaring flame skyward through a gaping hole where the roof had once been. 

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Several other surviving boilers were cracked, allowing steam to escape, which produced a screeching sound that could be heard for miles.

Blocks of masonry weighing hundreds of pounds were lifted by the force of the explosion and dropped into nearby streets while heavy pieces of machinery were thrown clear of the building. Rooftops surrounding the site were littered with bricks and timber.

Fortunately, the worst of the blast went toward the east into an industrial section. Kahn Manufacturing had its western windows shattered by flying bricks and pieces of lumber. Had the disaster struck during working hours, the space would have been filled with dozens of seamstresses producing overalls. Other nearby structures were pummeled with flying debris, smashing windows. A news account described the scene as being one of “indescribable awfulness.”

Miraculously, the residential area to the immediate west was spared the force of the explosion. Three homes that backed up to the plant on St. Joseph Street had no damage beyond very frightened occupants. 

Finding the Dead and Dying

Some victims were thrown through windows by the blast. Many were terribly scalded by the steam, and their moans attracted rescuers brave enough to enter the noisy inferno.

Volunteers, including a number of young men just back from World War I, rushed to the site along with the fire department. They had to use axes to free employees trapped beneath piles of “bricks, coal, timbers, iron girders, sheets of iron and portions of the roof.” Security at the power plant was apparently quite different back then since the news account noted that the victims of the blast included two “tourists” who had walked in to take a tour.

Saturday’s newspaper featured a list of the building’s known occupants and, shockingly, stated their names, ages, condition and their possibility of surviving the ordeal. Ages ranged from 16 to 65, and the chilling account described a 53-year-old male with “leg broken, seriously scalded. Expected to die.” A 16-year-old boy had this sad prognosis: “Horribly burned about face and head. Eye specialists say he will lose one eye.”

A 50-year-old woman who was bringing her husband a late dinner was “horribly burned about the body, eyes and head. Will die.” Her husband: “Horribly scalded, not expected to live.”

While the victims were being treated at local hospitals, a second fire broke out at 1:20 a.m. and destroyed the remainder of the building, making it a total loss. The final death toll was set at four, with seven being seriously injured. Had the blast occurred during the day with streets and nearby buildings full of pedestrians and employees, the tragedy would have been far worse. The disaster was ultimately blamed on a corroded drumhead on the older of the two boilers.

A temporary plant was quickly built, and most of Mobile had electricity restored in a little over a week.  

In 1925, Mobile’s Electric Lighting Company became a division of Alabama Power Company. The rebuilt plant down on North Royal Street has been repurposed over the years, but architectural elements that survived the 1919 disaster are still visible.

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