Blast from the Past

Local historian might not be here today, if it weren’t for one man who met his end in an industrial explosion of historic proportions. 

Have you ever really dodged a bullet in life? Bob McNulty’s dad sure did. In March of 1956, he was one of a group of five boys trespassing at the Tidewater Mill complex in Powelton Village (University City). They were there to slide down the four-story spiral chute meant for grain bags, and their laughter alerted an employee who chased them off. They’d live to tell the tale; sadly, the mill worker wouldn’t.

A mere hour after the lads left, a few minutes after 8pm, an explosion ripped through Tidewater Mill and Elevator company. The blast was equivalent to 1100 lbs of dynamite; it was felt for 25 miles around. Windows shattered within a ten-block radius. Across the road at the new offices of the Evening Bulletin, the lobby ceiling caved in and a large plate-glass window was smashed to smithereens. Newsmen in the fourth-floor Editorial Room were knocked out cold by the concussion, and telephones flew across the room.

Almost 100 people were injured, and three men lost their lives.

Edward B. Johnson was a 39 year old African American man, newly released from the Army after WWII. He’d barely been on the job a week when tragedy struck. He and three other employees were working the nightshift on that fateful evening, plus the supervisor who’d heard the children playing and told Johnson to shoo them off. There were four truck drivers, as well, dropping off trailers full of grain.

At some point, the pilot lights in the grain-dryer’s blower went out and needed to be re-lit. The first one was easy but they had the darndest time with the second. Their fiddling leaked gas and increased pressure within the system, while a dense coating of grain dust was like a cloud of kindling ready to ignite. All it needed was a spark – which came, disastrously, at 8:05pm. In an instant, Tidewater’s complex was reduced to rubble, and the remains were quickly raging with fire.

Somehow, six of the nine people on the scene at the time of the blast survived. Two unlucky truck drivers were killed immediately, but poor Edward Johnson was pinned under debris. Unable to free himself as flames were approaching, his screams were heartbreaking and seemed to last an eternity for his coworkers as they tried unsuccessfully to reach him.

Witnesses from the surrounding area described a mushroom-shaped cloud over Tidewater, and glass raining down from the sky. Many neighbors thought a plane had crashed, or that the Russians had dropped an atomic bomb on the city! People got down on their knees and prayed, some ran around in a panic; others started looting. Back at Bob’s father’s house (a mile away on N. Preston Street), word quickly spread that there’d been an explosion at Tidewater.

He remembers walking to check out the fire with his mother, but they could only get as far as 34th street before they ran into the police barricade. They watched how the orange flames lit up the night sky, and then walked home through streets full of broken glass.

It would take two weeks for Edward Johnson’s body to finally be recovered. His wife, Anna Mae, filed a wrongful death suit but died herself of alcohol poisoning before it could be settled. She was only 40 years old.

Ultimately, the case was dismissed and today the former Tidewater Complex is a parking lot at Lincoln Plaza.

Get the Whole Story! 

Our summary here is just the tip of the iceberg! Bob McNulty’s full article includes fascinating details and quotes from eye-witnesses, and of course his father’s first-hand account of that time he and his buddies tempted fate at Tidewater.

Read More in Bob McNulty’s full article, originally published March 27, 2016 and featured in May’s Local paper.

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE

For more great tales from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. 

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave your comments below, or email

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 20 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.