“Should nothing be done,” warned engineers after the 1986 Valentine’s Day explosion and fire that destroyed a row of houses in Logan, “catastrophic failure of numerous dwellings is highly probable.”
But doing something would have been the exception to the rule.
A powerful early warning that the neighborhood of Logan was sinking came 27 years earlier, right around the corner from the 1986 incident at 10th Street between Courtland and Wyoming. On the afternoon of Halloween eve—mischief night—a trio of explosions a few hours apart rocked the rowhouses of the 800 block of West Roosevelt Boulevard, causing damage and alarm. Then the 1959 incident conveniently slipped from public memory. Not one of the dozens of news stories from the 1980s and 1990s recalled what happened in 1959.
After the 1986 explosions, engineers found nearly 1000 houses unstable. As the then Mayor W. Wilson Goode put it, the “residents of Logan came to the city and demanded: ‘Solve this problem.’” The Goode administration responded, creating a corporation “to pool state and federal money to compensate and relocate the homeowners.”
After the 1959 incident? PGW repaired its cracked gas main and life went on; the truth buried, the inevitable ignored.
Visit that block today and you’ll see the catastrophe that played out, albeit in the slow motion of government bureaucracy. A few months after the 1986 incident, residents of 23 homes were told to move out … because they were in “imminent danger of collapse.” … An additional 56 were found to be in “dangerous” condition.” Two years later, eleven houses on the 800 block of Roosevelt Boulevard were the first to be demolished. By 2000, more than 950 more would be vacated and pulled down.
Today, the 800 block of West Roosevelt Boulevard is a small, anonymous edge of a 35-acre, no-man, no house zone, a monument to a century of greed, ineptitude and failure, the likes of which is unprecedented in urban history.
Here’s how it all started in 1959:
Six-and-a-half feet under the east side of 9th Street, a 30-inch gas main developed a crack. Gas seeped into underground pockets and went undetected until five homes about 25 feet away: 819, 821, 823, 825, and 827 West Roosevelt Boulevard were racked by three explosions that shook the neighborhood and set fire to the houses. The blasts commenced at 3:05 P.M. Friday, October 30th.
At 819, windows at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Wallman and their two children were blown out, also ripping out their Venetian blinds. Lee Bamberger, 97 and his wife Anne, 87, were resting in their living room at 817 until “driven to the street” by the smoke.
Next door to the Wallmans at 821, Ella Coleman lived with her invalid grandmother. Coleman arrived home from work just in time for the third and most intense explosion. Just as she entered her house Coleman was about knocked down. Dazed, seeing that her kitchen was on fire, she managed to get her grandmother to the street.
At 823, smoke and fire drove out Dr. M. M. Mandel from his basement office and his mother, Mary Manuel, from her second-floor apartment. G. S. Yaros escaped his first floor apartment. Everyone ran to the street, “shaken by the blasts.”
“I never heard anything like it before,” Mary Mandel told a reporter, adding she saw flames coming from the cellar window of Snyder’s home” at 825.
There, Evelyn Snyder was “hurled to the floor” by the explosions. “One of her two daughters, Sharon, 13, had just returned home from Olney high school.” Both escaped, though the Snyder required medical attention at nearby Einstein Medical Center.
According to newspaper accounts, the force of the explosions “ripped joists and bulged brick walls in several of the homes. Debris was found half a block away.”
Only a few decades before, the entire Wingohocking Valley had been filled in and remade into flat, fake, developable land. When the United States Geological Survey studied samples of what lay below the surface, they confirmed that the 800 block of Roosevelt Boulevard had been built on top of 30 to 48 feet of unstable coal ash. An estimated 500,000 cubic yards of the stuff had been hauled from Center City on specially modified trolley cars in a years-long project to raise the level of the landscape.
“It took decades for the inadequacy of the ash to be revealed, explains Adam Levine. Over time, “large pockets of the fill had compacted and washed away, as evidenced by an epidemic in the neighborhood of sagging porches, cracking foundations, and warped floors…” Not to mention the occasional explosion and fire.
The Army Corps of Engineers would estimate “site improvements including soil compaction” that would cost $48,500,000, the majority of which would be for “new structural fill.” And the problem wasn’t limited to the shifting, so-called “land.”
Logan, a/k/a a dump disguised as a neighborhood, is toxic. The average urban soil background lead level is about 735 parts per million (ppm). In 2000, the EPA tested 30 acres and found that more than nine acres has lead levels of 800 to 5,000 ppm. One sample topped out at 22,300. (A level of 400 ppm is enough to trigger remedial action.)
Today, at the no-man’s land known as Logan Triangle, doing nothing may be the only reasonable option.
[Sources: “3 Mysterious Blasts Rock Boulevard area; 5 Homes Ignited,” Inquirer, October 31, 1959; “Boulevard Explosions Traced to Main Break,” Inquirer, November 1, 1959; Introduction by Adam Levine to Harold Cox, “Filling Low Land:A story of ash-dumping in the Wingohocking Creek Watershed,” (excerpt from Utility Cars of Philadelphia, 1971); Ann W. O’Neill and Gene Seymour; “The Logan Motion,” The Philadelphia Daily News, March 26, 1986; William K. Stevens, Sinking Homes Shock Neighborhood,” The New York Times, November 2, 1986; Linda Loyd, “Logan Houses Start Coming Down,” Inquirer, February 19, 1988; Larry Copeland, “A Lift from Sinking Homes Red Tape Delayed One Family’s Exodus from Logan,” Inquirer, June 14, 1994; Maria Panaritis, “Logan Residents, Saying Their Homes are Sinking, Seek Aid,” Inquirer, August 13, 1999; Mark Jaffe, “Up To $2 Million to go Toward Lead Removal Testing Found ‘Unacceptable,’” Inquirer, January 11, 2000; Logan Triangle (Urban Land Institute Philadelphia Technical Assistance Program), September 10, 2009; Thomas J. Walsh, “Redevelopment Hopes Sinking for Logan Triangle,” PlanPhilly, January 23, 2010];
Also see the PhillyHistory post: How Philly Got Flat: Piling it on at the Logan Triangle.