The period from 1915 to 1930 was marked by several explosions connected with the Solvay Process Company and its Semet-Solvay division. There were other incidents — unfortunately, explosions and fires were all-too-frequent at chemical plants in the early 1900s — but spotlighted here are the most spectacular from this 16-year period.

Somewhere between the newspaper account and the statements of company officials lies the truth of a 1930 fire at the mono-chloro plant of the Semet-Solvay Company. In any event, the fire was menacing enough that the Solvay Fire Department summoned help from their Syracuse counterparts, who arrived with fire-fighting weapons the village volunteers didn't have.

Syracuse Journal, July 3, 1930
Risking their lives to prevent an explosion of 10,000 gallons of benzine near the blazing mono-chloro plant of the Semet-Solvay Company, members of the Solvay Fire Department early this afternoon conquered a fire that for a time threatened enormous damage.

The flames, originating in the chloro plant, swept through that structure rapidly and started licking at the huge benzine tanks nearby. The firemen poured thousands of gallons of water on the building and finally got the fire under control shortly before 1 o’clock.

The actual damage by the fire will not run more than $25,000, it was declared, the great danger having been in the potential damage had the explosion occurred.

When the blaze was at its height, Solvay officials called for help from both Chief Sullivan and Chief Cadin of the Syracuse fire and police departments.

Chief Cadin sent a squad of men under Lieutenant John Costello who immediately threw a ring around the plant, closed Willis Avenue and State Fair Boulevard to all traffic and drove all people out.

The Syracuse firemen carried a dozen huge tanks of Foamite to the scene. This is a substance found to be effective in fighting this type of blaze. It was immediately used with good results.

Origin of the blaze is not known, but it is believed to have been caused by the breaking of an electric light bulb, causing a spark which set fire to liquid or gas in the plant.

As far as can be learned, only one man was slightly injured. He was an unidentified employee of the place, who jumped to safety from a second story window shortly after the fire started.

So far only two eyewitnesses to the start of the fire have been found. They are George Dwyer of 103 Essex Street and Harry Ryan of Brewerton Road. They were walking near the plant, they said, when they heard an explosion. This was followed by a cloud of black smoke and in a few seconds the rear of the plant was a roaring furnace.

Solvay fire and police officers were immediately called and the gates of the place locked and every one except those engaged in fighting the flames was barred.

When the blaze was at its height the flames were within a short distance of the tanks, but the firemen stuck to their jobs and poured water at the containers from a half a dozen streams. For more than an hour the firemen stood their posts and fought the flames.

Workmen in the plant risked their lives several times during the conflagration to prevent an explosion. These men ran through fire and smoke to shut off pipes carrying benzol into the tanks. Two of these men were overcome and were hurried to the shop hospital. First aid was applied and they quickly recovered.

When the flames were at their height, thick black clouds of smoke rolled up from the burning building and drifted over the village, causing great alarm. All sorts of wild reports were prevalent in the village until the real nature of the blaze was ascertained

Executives of the company declared there would have been little danger of wholesale gassing of the area surrounding the plant, maintaining there was slight danger of the flames causing an explosion in the chlorine gas tanks.

The gas is stored in several tanks, each of 10,000 gallons capacity near the burning structure. Several drums of the same stuff stood around in the yards.

There was no follow-up story and life went on as usual in the village of Solvay and at the Solvay Process Company.



1915: It felt like an earthquake.

1916: Deadly preview of an even greater tragedy.

1918: Split Rock is ground zero.

1929: Gas attack!

For more on Solvay way back when, check out
the Solvay-Geddes Historical Society