FRONT STREET IN WEST CONSHOHOCKEN
Recalling The Gas Explosions In 1931, 1947, And 1971.
By Jack Coll
I have a tendency to travel to Upper Merion Township quite frequently for business or to visit family and friends. (I know, most people call it King of Prussia, but to me it is and always will be Upper Merion) So a number of my travels to Upper Merion have been in the evening lately and I, like many others have noticed the construction at Front and Ford Streets just as I’m getting off or entering the Matsonford Bridge.
The construction if I’m not mistaken is an on-going project to replace underground utility lines, I’m not sure if they’re replacing gas, water or electric lines, or maybe all three. And every night that I’ve driven past the construction site I can’t help but thinking how in that very same spot in front of the Imbibe Restaurant, the former Stella Blu, eighty-eight years ago in 1931 there was a massive gas explosion when utility crews were installing the gas lines.
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning on June 2, 1931, West Conshohocken residents were going about their business as usual, and the many retailers along Front and Ford Streets were out sweeping their sidewalks and stocking their shelves. There was Fishers Cigar Store a few doors up on from McLaughlin’s Variety Store which was located at the intersection of Front and Ford Street. Peter Maguire was behind the counter at his Tobacco and Candy Store at Ford and Elizabeth Streets, just across the street from McLaughlin’s was John Fernside’s Grocery Store. John was very kind to the West Borough residents allowing most of the residents to run a weekly tab before getting paid off by the families on pay-day. Florence Jacobs extended the same tab-courtesy at her grocery store once located at Ford Street and First Alley and Toles General Store was open for business at 120 Ford Street along with several other Front and Ford Street businesses at the time.
On that beautiful June morning in 1931 construction workers had opened a big hole in the roadway at Front and Ford Streets in front of McLaughlin’s Variety Store and were installing a new main gas line. Without warning a horrendous blast shook the West Conshohocken community. Anthony Guarino, 40 years of age was killed instantly. Two other workers including Joseph DeSarno and Charles Vennezio were blown out of the hole but survived the blast. The two injured workers were loaded onto a Times Herald Newspaper truck that happened to be passing by and rushed to Bryn Mawr Hospital.
The deceased had worked for the Lee Tire and Rubber Company in Spring Mill before leaving four years prior to the explosion to work for the Philadelphia Electric Company. When the explosion happened Guarino was tossed more than ten feet in the air and the heavy gas valve with him. Stones, brick and earth flew in all directions with much of the debris landing on the Matsonford Bridge. Along with the other workmen, pedestrians and automobiles sustained injuries and damage. The explosion ruptured a water main, spouting water more than 40 feet into the air.
Thousands of residents from both sides of the bridge visited the site of the explosion shortly after it happened. The miracle of the 1931 gas explosion was the Mrs. Daniel Smith of Merion Avenue had just crossed the intersection on her way to the Matsonford Bridge pushing a baby coach with her six month old child when the explosion occurred.
Seconds may have saved her life and the life of her child. No injuries to the mother or child was reported however Mrs. Smith did suffer from shock.
So every night when I drive past the construction site at Ford and Front Streets I can’t help thinking about the gas explosion that happened at that very same spot some 88 years ago. Every night that I sit on Front Street waiting for the light to change I say a “Hail Mary” for the construction workers and their families.
Nearly 16 years later on January 21, 1947 about a half a mile from where the 1931 explosion happened on Front Street the gas plant on River Road had an explosion. Gas service in homes and businesses throughout Montgomery, Bucks and Berks Counties was disrupted due to a series of explosions in the compressor room which threatened a large gas tank located next to the compressor room. Gas plant employees and members of the George Clay Fire Company acted quickly to extinguish the blaze before further damage could be done.
Forty-four years later on January 27, 1971, on a cold and bitter night some three hundred yards from where the 1931 explosion happened and six hundred yards from the 1947 explosion came the worst catastrophe in West Conshohocken’s borough history. A Front Street gas explosion sent flames from the fire more than 100 feet into the air.
The blast destroyed or damaged 26 homes, killed five persons including Joseph Powers, a George Clay fireman, and left 54 residents injured. An old friend of mine Fran McCuen worked for the Evening Bulletin back then and covered the blast, in her words back then she described the scene and told me the thing she remembers most was the constant parade of ambulances going back and forth across the Matsonford Bridge taking the wounded to Montgomery Hospital.
West Conshohocken has certainly had their share of tragedy over the past century, but the residents have always been strong, tough and forgiving. The West Conshohocken I know is a tight knit community, neighbors helping neighbors and friends showing up to help other friends in a time of need.
Let us all pray that West Conshohocken will not need our prayers in the coming years, West Conshy residents have paid their dues in the past, perhaps the future will be kind to our friends, relatives and neighbors.
Typically at the end of a column where I’m reminiscing I’ll finish the column with a big “Thanks For The Memories” but that doesn’t apply here, these are memories best be forgotten, but history doesn’t allow us to bury the town’s history nor should Joseph Powers ever be forgotten along with the residents who died or had their lives altered because of these explosions.
Let’s all hope for a successful project going on in West Conshohocken and pray that these construction workers can return home safely upon completion of their project.