At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of February 1, 1884, Alliance experienced its worst disaster. Seven people lost their lives and at least 15 others were seriously injured as the fumes from a gasoline spill inside the Orr Block ignited, causing the three-story building to explode.
Frank M. Orr, age 46, owned the stove and tin ware store, located on the south side of Main Street near 5th Street (now known as Seneca) in downtown Alliance. On the second floor of the building, lived Mr. Orr’s 24-year-old daughter and son-in-law, Homer and Allie Highland, along with their 2-year-old son, Vernon Highland. The Highlands had been married three years. On the third floor lived Frank Evans, his wife Ida, and their two small children, ages 2 years and 4 months. Frank Orr’s son, Elmer, age 21, worked in the store with his father. He was friendly and showed a good talent for business.
How the disaster happened
It was a typical Friday afternoon at the store with a few persons shopping. The building, completed in the fall of 1883, was considered one of the finest in the city. Its exterior consisted of pressed bricks and French plate glass windows. Businesses in the adjoining buildings included a three-story dry goods building, owned by Mr. Miller, to the east, a single-story millinery store to the east of that, and a two-story grocery store to the west of the Orr Block. Noted in the newspaper reports of the day, about seven or eight people were shopping at the grocer’s store at the time of the explosion and a few people were working in the Miller building. Frank Orr was a staunch believer in the Temperance movement and had offered his store to the local WCTU for a meeting on the afternoon of February 1, 1884, but “some trifling matter” caused them to postpone their meeting for another time.
Mrs. Highland and her son Vernon were visiting with her father, Frank, and brother, Elmer, in the tin shop when young Vernon opened the spigot of the gasoline tank. Frank Orr kept gasoline in an airtight galvanized iron tank inside his store for his customers. About a gallon of the liquid spilled out onto the floor of the shop and the fumes began to disperse into the air. Elmer Orr began to mop up the gasoline when the fumes reached a fire-burning stove and caused the great explosion.
Two men from Duprez & Benedict’s Minstrels, standing in the doorway into the shop at the time of the explosion, were hurled through the plate glass window to the opposite side of the street. A team of horses on the opposite side of the street, thrown down by the violent explosion, scrambled to their feet. Eyewitnesses remarked that the building appeared to be lifted up before crashing to the ground. The sound of the explosion, heard several blocks away, caused many to think there had been an earthquake. The neighboring three-story building collapsed and thin glass windows within two blocks of the explosion shattered. Property damage estimates were $50,000 and there was little insurance coverage.
Frank and Elmer Orr along with Allie Orr Highland and her young son Vernon all perished in the subsequent fire and building collapse. Frank Evans had just put his 4-month old baby into her crib when the explosion occurred. Their third floor apartment collapsed, trapping the family beneath the ceiling beams and bricks as the fire spread. Evans was able to pull himself out from the wreckage but could not reach his wife, Ida, or either of their children and they perished in the disaster.
News of the disaster
News of the explosion traveled quickly to neighboring Canton and an estimated 4,000 people arrived by train by the next morning to see what had happened. Spectators scooped up pieces of broken glass as souvenirs. Coverage of the disaster appeared in newspapers across the country from The New York Times to Missouri and beyond. The Business Men’s Association constructed a memorial arch on the site of the former Orr Block as a sign of respect for one of their members, Frank Orr.
Frank Evans worked at The Hammer Works. Nearly 2,000 people attended the funeral of his wife and children, held at the home of John R. Morgan on Market Street. The funeral service for the Orr family, held in the First Methodist Episcopal Church, included a detail of special police stationed to prevent overcrowding at the service. At the cemetery service for the Orr family, the crowd of spectators and sympathizers, estimated at five to six thousand, attended. The burial service included full Odd Fellows rites since Frank Orr was a member.
All seven victims of the Orr Block explosion are buried at Alliance City Cemetery. Their names:
- Frank M. Orr, age 46
- Elmer Orr, age 21, son of Frank Orr
- Allie Orr Highland, age 24, daughter of Frank Orr
- Charles Vernon Highland, age 2, son of Allie Highland
- Ida Evans, and her two small children, ages 2 years and 4 months