Monday, October 8, 2012

East Texas School Tragedy

"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College (www.panola.edu) in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published almost 40 books, half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine.


This year marks the 75th anniversary of the worst school tragedy in American history. New London was a rural East Texas community which experienced notable growth after the nearby discovery of the fabled East Texas Oil Field in 1930. The field was 42 miles north to south, and from four to eight miles wide. More than 200 square miles, it was the largest oil field in the world, and every inch oozed black gold. By 1939 there were 25,000 oil wells across the field.


The building that replaced New London High School today is
West Rusk High School.

The little frame school that had served New London suddenly became inadequate. But funding was no problem, and a large, handsome brick school was erected. New London High School accommodated students in grades five through eleven. A brick elementary school on a hill to the north housed grades one through four. There was a gymnasium, and the New London Wildcats played football in the first lighted stadium in the state.
The message from Adolf  Hitler is displayed at the London Museum.

But a broken pipe allowed an accumulation of natural gas beneath the high school. A few minutes before school was scheduled to end on Thursday, March 18, 1937, a spark from a machine in the shop classroom in the basement set off a massive explosion. The school was reduced to rubble, and more than 300 students and teachers died. It was a staggering tragedy which drew worldwide attention - the London Museum displays a sympathy message in German from Adolf Hitler.

The cenotaph stands majestically on SH 24.

The London Museum and Tea Room is located opposite the two-story high school that was built to replace the destroyed building. Between the museum and the high school, on an island that divides State Highway 24, is a 30-foot-tall cenotaph. By definition a cenotaph is "a monument or empty tomb honoring a dead person whose body is somewhere else." New Londoners formed a memorial association a week after the explosion and issued an appeal for money. More than $21,000 was collected, much of it in nickels and dimes and quarters.


Completed in 1939, the cenotaph was built of 250 tons of pink granite. Two impressive columns are crowned by a sculptured block of a dozen figures representing the students and teachers who were killed. Pink granite steps lead to a stone platform bordered by a 20-inch curb on which names of the victims are carved. A nearby stone records the names of those who later were confirmed among the dead.


The London Museum long has been housed in a 1938 frame building that was part of the little commercial district. The structure was a drug store with a soda fountain. There is a handsome new facade, and the building has been expanded to house an excellent collection of artifacts and photographs, as well as a fine model of the destroyed school. A wonderful feature of the museum is the availability of a delicious lunch - hamburgers, sandwiches, fountain drinks, and homemade pies.
 

Jerrell Herron, a volunteer at the London Museum, stands beside a model
of the  1937 high school. On the wall behind, the numbers
of victims are listed grade by grade .

Four miles east of New London is Pleasant Hill Cemetery, where the greatest number of victims - more than 100 - were interred. A few miles to the south, on a hill overlooking State Highway 64, is a complex of brick school buildings that housed another oil-rich school district, centered around the rural community of Joinerville. Facing south along the hilltop were an elementary school, a cafeteria, an assembly hall, a junior high, and a big, two-story high school. A football stadium and a gymnasium were behind, to the north, and a large home economics building stood in front. The Gaston High School Red Devils sported fine uniforms, and so did the marching band.


Memorabilia from NLHS on display
at the London Museum

This flag was flying over New London High
School the day of the explosion.

An English professor of mine at East Texas State
Teachers College, Dr. William T. Jack, was a 1938 graduate of Gaston High School, and he wrote a nostalgic book about GHS. Dr. Jack recalled that the New London school explosion rattled the windows at the Gaston schools. In 1965 the Gaston and New London school districts consolidated into the the new West Rusk ISD. Two separate elementary schools were maintained; West Rusk Jr. High was housed at old Gaston High School; and the West Rusk High School headquartered in the former New London High building.


The main entrance to Pleasant Hill Cemetery



As the Joinerville community declined, all classes eventually moved to New London, and the old Gaston campus was purchased by a church group. But a Gaston Museum was organized, quite fittingly, in an old snack shop that had hosted generations of GHS students just west of the campus. In recent years the Gaston Museum moved to a nearby brick museum structure that was built through the generosity of former Red Devils and other philanthropic citizens.


The former home of Gaston High School
 









The London Museum and the Gaston Museum offer complementary display collections. And for the history-minded, the former New London and Gaston campuses feature the best 1930s public school architecture.





For more information about New London or Gaston high schools, see   www.newlondonschool.org  or www.gastonmuseum.org

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