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My New York State hometown was named after a Belgium chemist, Ernest Solvay. His process for producing soda ash was used by some enterprising Americans to found — with Ernest Solvay's approval — the Solvay Process Company, the cornerstone of the village where I grew up in the 1940s.

Having the Solvay Process Company a short distance from our street was both good news and bad. The factory employed thousands of people, including my father, my grandmother and an uncle who lived next door. The company also provided many services for village residents and in the early years was Solvay's social, medical and educational center.

However, the factory also belched smoke and filled the air with a gritty soot that undoubtedly was hazardous to our health. Waste from the Solvay Process Company, along with sewage from the nearby city of Syracuse, destroyed once-lovely Onondaga Lake. Polluting the lake forever tarnished the reputation of the Solvay Process Company, which in the 1920s became a division of Allied Chemical.

Because it was considered so important to the economic life of the area, the Solvay Process Company had its way on several controversial environmental issues, which is why, despite strong opposition, the factory dumped its waste along the west shore of Onondaga Lake. The company built huge holding areas that were surrounded by tall, concrete dikes. These were the most visible waste depositories, though at least one of the smaller plants operated by Solvay Process openly flowed its waste directly into the lake.

In the early 1940s there were eight large waste beds across the street of the New York State Fairgrounds on State Fair Boulevard, with a ninth waste bed under construction. Those who had opposed the dumping at the turn of the century predicted it was just a matter of time before at least one of the dikes containing the waste would burst. Most of those concerned, obviously, were residents of a section of the Town of Geddes known as Lakeland.

Company officials insisted this would not happen, though they admitted that only the waste exposed to air would harden. Everything under the crusty top would remain quicksand soft. [At the bottom of this page is story that should have served as a warning.]

At 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, 1943, a dike broke. For people unlucky enough to be living in the few houses along this strip of State Fair Boulevard, they were about to experience the terror of a real-life blob. And this was 15 years before the Hollywood version.

The United Press reported it like this:

Niagara Falls Gazette, November 26, 1943
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (UP) — Tons of lava-like refuse from the Solvay Process Company's soda ash plant were being cleared away today after a 500-foot breakthrough in a waste-bed dike caused unestimated property damage and forced more than 50 persons to evacuate seven homes and one hotel.

The waste forced a gap in the dike yesterday and inundated the New York State Fairgrounds, and State Fair Boulevard, which was blocked for half a mile with heavy, thick sludge that at times reached a depth of eight feet.

The waste came from one of several beds built by the company on the shores of Onondaga Lake for the deposit of chemical refuse. It has been pumped into the beds for years, and left to harden into great chalky mounts, since no practical reclamation use has been found for it.

County, state and Solvay company engineers were faced with a difficult problem of cleaning up the mess, since the unwieldy substance could not be readily pumped or scraped away.

Work in the plant, engaged mostly in war production, was not affected by the flood.

 

Unfortunately, I've been unable to find photographs of the nightmarish incident. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, which seems incredible in view of this description of the incident:

Syracuse Herald-Journal, November 26, 1943
Shortly after 3 a.m. the family of Attelio Vanetti, 528 State Fair Boulevard, was awakened by a heavy, dull thud. Looking from the windows, Mr. Vanetti saw a sticky mass had engulfed the lower floor of his home and that the six adults and five children in the house were marooned.

An air depot guard was returning from a tour of his post near the [State Fair] Coliseum when he saw his station house floating toward him on the approaching wall of white waste. He turned to run, but slipped and fell, losing his false teeth and revolver. Leaving both, he got up and ran from the oncoming waste which formed a moving billow more than eight feet high, he said.

Other guards escaped from the flood and summoned aid. Sheriff Robert G. Wasmer, first civilian official to reach the scene, called out all available deputies, state police, Solvay police and fire departments, along with Red Cross, telephone company and Solvay Process Company crews and others who aided in the rescue.

The 11 members of the Vanetti family were rescued by Fred Hulgert, chief of the auxiliary military police, who reached them by rowboat which was towed out by cable lines attached to a winch.

Telephone company employees, traveling along cables from pole to pole, got ropes to other residents stranded in boats and they were towed to safety. More than 20 persons escaped from the State Fair Hotel to dry land by boat, said owner Mrs. Mary Ribik.

Mrs. Ribik’s daughter, Mrs. Robert J. Miller and her infant daughter, were rowed to safety. She said she was awakened shortly after 3 a.m. by “a loud, gurgling sound,” and looked down her cellar stairs to see the basement filling with waste.

North of the Miller home is the Vanetti home, directly in the path of the flood. In this home were Mrs. Antoinette Vanetti, Attelio Vanetti, and their daughter, Camille, 10; Mrs. Adeline Vanetti, her five-year-old daughter, Marguerite, and her mother-in-law, Margeth Ania. Living on the second floor were Mrs. Mary and Mrs. Remo Vanetti and Mrs. Mary Vanetti’s children: Joan, 10; Angelo, 5, and Rose Ann, 3.

In the next home lived Mr. and Mrs. Boleslaw Pienkowski and their five children: Helen, 18; Edmund, 17; Walter, 16, and nine-year-old twins, Billy and Casimir.

The Pienkowskis, with the aid of SPCA attendants and neighbors, were able to save a young bull, a cow, a pig and a dog from their livestock, but a pig and several hundred chickens, geese and ducks, belonging to them, were sucked under the flood.

The latter two homes suffered the brunt of the flood’s onslaught, being covered above the first story windows. The garage of the Vanetti home was telescoped and flattened against the main structure by the force of the flow.

A vacant house, next north above Pienkowski’s, was inundated. Fred Steingraber and his mother lived in the next house and William Blickley lived alone in the next home, while two families lived in the seventh house actually within the “lava” area.

Mr. and Mrs. Alonzo Susco and their son, Arthur, lived downstairs and were rowed to dry land by members of the Solvay fire department after they had sought safety upstairs in the apartment occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Lent.

Several automobiles parked in the driveways of these homes and several score more, parked near the 4-H building on the State Fairgrounds, were mired to the window sills in the white mush.

AS IT SWEPT ON from its break in the dike, the sticky torrent picked up one automobile on the fairgrounds, belonging to a depot employee, and carried it more than 1,000 feet from where it had been parked. A guard’s shanty was transported 50 yards across a roadway into a mass of metal drums of fuel which toppled from their neat, pyramided piles to lay strewn across a large area.

When it reached the stone retaining wall around the [State Fair] race track, the flood was diverted to the north and west, but not until after it had filled the underpass with an adhesive mass.

Because of its slightly higher elevation, the roadbed of the D. L. & W. Oswego line was cleared shortly after noon yesterday by a locomotive pushing a mass of wooded cross-ties ahead of it, which, in turn, shoved the soupy mass to either side, leaving the top of the rails barely visible after each trip.

A large train crew, armed with shovels, worked steadily to keep the right of way clear as the slimy ooze crept back across the tracks.

Hundreds of workers and dozens of plows, scrapers, bulldozers, carry-alls, trucks and tractors from the state, county and city public works departments worked at the seemingly hopeless task of clearing the roadway which may be blocked to traffic for many days.

More than 100 truckloads of cinders were dumped on the roadway during the night to give the waste enough consistency to be shoveled or pushed aside permanently.

This method was finally abandoned last night in favor of dissolving the semi-liquid waste with more water and pumping the solution away.

Solvay Process Company crews last night began this procedure at the northern rim of the flooded area near the second [State Fairgrounds] gate. While a small pump was placed in operation near the roadside and gradual headway was made in draining off some of the mass, workmen were testing the dike walls north of the break to determine if they would be strong enough to stand additional pressure should it be decided to pump the runaway waste back over the 50-foot wall.

BY LATE YESTERDAY afternoon the waste had spread out over an area of nearly two square miles and had settled down, leaving white "high-water marks” on trees and light poles as high as eight feet directly opposite the break, but dropping to less than one foot on the trees near each end of the flow’s width.

In addition to the task at hand yesterday afternoon, additional details of sheriffs were required to handle an almost constant stream of traffic coming out State Fair Boulevard as thousands of curious motorists drove to the scene.

These mingled with shifts changing at both the Halcomb Steel plant and the air storage depot gave the main gate the appearance of Governor’s Day at the Fair in prewar days.

Finally, as the word spread through the community, more and more motorists lined the highways to the Fairground last night, but only those with official business at the grounds or the steel plant were allowed past guards station at Milton Avenue in Solvay and at the foot of Willis Avenue and State Fair Boulevard.

Clothing was obtained for evacuees and food was provided at a canteen set up by Frank M. Shattuck, who was called to provide meals for stricken families and workers.

The Solvay plant, engaged in the manufacture of soda ash and many by-products which enter into production of many war materials, including explosives, stayed in full production yesterday, with waste being pumped out at the normal rate, but diverted to another sludge bed.

The Halcomb plant was not affected by the deluge which reached only one of the steel company’s northernmost parking lots, miring one worker’s car.

The Army Air Force’s storage depot at the Fairgrounds was humming along as usual since access to the main gate had not been blocked. White spattered Army trucks entered and left the affected area of the grounds all day, transporting material from the flooded buildings which include the Coliseum, the Waldorf building and several neighboring structures now used for storage of war material.

Solvay Waste Storage Opposed 50 Years Ago
Considerable opposition to the use of lands adjoining Onondaga Lake for waste from the Solvay Process Company’s plant arose when the firm began operations here more than 50 years ago.

Col. Joseph Bondy of 2035 East Genesee Street and Frank Hopkins who practiced law under the firm name of Hopkins & Bondy fought the use of these lands for their client, John D. Ryan, and Col. Bondy predicted then, to Frederick R. Hazard, president of the company, that some day the pressure of the waste would break the dikes and overflow.

The company wanted to acquire Mr. Ryan’s land between the plant and the lake and Ryan did not want to sell, Col. Bondy recalled today. He fought against this sale and also, as member of [the State] Assembly, opposed a bill to give the Solvay Process Company the right to condemn lands for waste disposal.

“I raised the objection then that the refuse might seep through and poison wells,” Col Bondy said today. “I also predicted that in the far future, and this as more than 50 years ago, the mass might become so great that it would break through. Solvay Process officers said I was crazy and that the outer layer hardened.

“I contended also that it would poison white fish and other fish in the [Onondaga] lake and it did. I was one of the original incorporators of the Onondaga Yacht Club and was commodore then and I opposed use of the lands for waste as best I could.

“I talked with Mr. Hazard and with J. William Smith of the company, with Patrick Haynes and P J. Cody. I told Mr. Hazard the waste would create a general nuisance. Later he tried to get legislation to do certain things, including, I think, the right to condemn, and I fought that and my opposition forced me out of politics. I didn’t go back to the legislature after that opposition.”

 

Later the Herald-Journal reported that while Solvay Process executive and engineers were unable as yet to pinpoint the cause of the break in the dike, they were satisfied it wasn't caused by sabotage. An estimate 40,000 tons of sludge had poured across State Fair Boulevard.

A company spokesman said the soupy Solvay waste “consists of a slurry of flocculated material including calcium carbonate, magnesia, and small quantities of calcium chloride and salt brine, and is non poisonous.”

That spokesman said the waste takes years to harden, but everything underneath the hardened shell would remain soft, though not liquid.

The dike that broke was just four years old.

The flood of waste covered 85 acres inside the Fairgrounds, more across the street. It was said at the time that even if those who were forced to leave their homes wanted to return — which was unlikely — they probably wouldn't be able to because of the permanent damage inflicted on the area by the sludge.

Eleven people remained at the Stair Fair Hotel. They had no power, but were getting heat from a wood-burning stove.

By the end of Friday — less than 48 hours after the break — more than 2,500,000 gallons of water had been pumped into the area to flush the sludge into drainage sewers, which, I am certain, took the sludge either directly into Onondaga Lake or into Nine Mile Creek, which flowed into the lake, which was doomed many years earlier.

On Saturday Syracuse's leading newspaper, which at the time was the now-defunct Herald-Journal, published an editorial about the incident in which the writer tried hard to present a balanced view:

Syracuse Herald-Journal, November 27, 1943
Solvay Sludge Goes Haywire
It seems hardly necessary to emphasize the deplorable results of the 500-foot break in the dike constructed for the purpose of holding back the huge quantities of waste sludge that are an unfortunate by-product of the Solvay Process Company.

The impounded waste matter, breaking this dike and flowing through the big aperture, has plastered an area of more than two square miles, temporarily closed an important highway, driven many people from their homes and caused heavy damage to property.

It would be the easy, and perhaps the popular course, to indulge in vociferous denunciation of the Solvay Process Company for this unhappy mess. But one hardly sees where that would get us anywhere, either from the standpoint of the people who have directly suffered as a result of this accident, or from the standpoint of the community as a whole.

The important thing, it seems to this newspaper, is to clean up the sludge, recompense those whose properties have been damaged, then take special precautions against a recurrence of any further dike breaks which might imperil life or property.

The question of recompense is a matter for the courts to handle, providing settlement between the company and those who have suffered physical or property damage is impossible.

Meanwhile, representatives of the company have assured the Herald-Journal that engineers will be put to work at once checking the dikes and making any changes that may be necessary to prevent other breaks; and, further, between 400 and 500 acres of additional land which the company has acquired for sludge disposal purposes will be put to that use immediately.

There are, of course, two ways of looking at the problem posed by Solvay sludge. It is certainly regrettable that large areas in the Onondaga Lake section have to be set aside for this stuff,, for which the company so far has found no commercial use.

Yet the fact remains that over the years the Solvay Company has been an important asset to this community. In this world, we have to take the bitter with the sweet.

South of the Fairgrounds on State Fair Boulevard, near the Willis Avenue intersection, the Solvay Process Company had a waste canal that was unaffected by the accident.

This man-made canal was 1,500 feet long, eight feet wide and up to 14 feet deep. Each day 85,000,000 gallons of waste was pumped from the Solvay plant into the canal, which emptied into Onondaga Lake. It was pumped through pipes and created a fast current.

According to a story in the Herald-Journal, a wooden fence ran along part of one side, presumably the side away from the company, as a way of preventing bystanders to get too close to the canal. Unfortunately, there were places where it was all too easy for anyone to approach the canal.

And in September, 1944, there was tragedy when some young boys from a neighborhood nearby were playing in the area. One of them, seven-year-old Angelo Greco, walked too close to the edge and slipped into the canal. The current carried the boy downstream, into the lake. Three days later his body was found where the current had taken him — to the other side of the lake.

The canal may have replaced pipes that carried the waste into the lake many years earlier. One of those pipes broke in 1901, creating a mess on Willis Avenue, but at that time the company was able to stop the flow at the source and the problem was quickly fixed.

Well, one problem, maybe. A bigger problem was what the waste was doing to Onondaga Lake. It's unlikely that problem can ever be solved.

What seems incredible is that there weren't more tragedies like the one that took the life of young Angelo Greco. It was all to easy for the public to gain access to areas that were dangerous. Fortunately, these areas were so barren and hideously ugly that they almost shouted, "Stay away!"

However, in September, 1940, a fire in one of the waste beds attracted curious spectators, including a teenager unfamiliar with the area — and its dangers. This teenager survived, but only because there were Solvay firemen nearby, firemen who risked their lives to rescue him:

Syracuse Herald-Journal, September 5, 1940
Firemen Risk Lives
to Save Periled Youth

Boy Trapped in Sticky Mass of Solvay Waste
Pulled to Safety

While thousands of residents of Syracuse and its suburbs watched huge clouds of black smoke billowing over the city and drifting southward early last night from a smudge in the benzol wastelands of the Solvay Process Company in State Fair Boulevard, three Solvay firemen were fighting for their lives in a nearby quagmire that trapped them as they were trying to save an East Side boy from the treacherous waste.

Those imperiled were:

Fire Chief Edward Kurtz of the Solvay Fire Department, trapped while saving the boy and who refused aid from fellow firemen until the youth was safe.

Leo Corbett, 17, of 414 Columbus Avenue, the endangered youth, to whose aid the firemen ran at the risk of their lives into the dangerous wasteland. Discharged from St. Joseph’s Hospital today after overnight care for shock.

Fireman John Olgeaty of 205 King Avenue, Solvay, given first aid at the Solvay plant after being pulled to safety out of the morass by fellow firemen.

Fireman Louis Francher, 409 Cogswell Avenue, also pulled to safety during the rescue of the boy.

YOUNG CORBETT had fallen and was facing suffocation by slowly sinking into the sticky waste before his desperate cries for help were heard by firemen. Today Corbett told the Herald-Journal of Chief Kurtz’s valor in the desperate situation:

“I thought help would never come, but when it did,” he said, “Chief Kurtz was the first to reach me. He ran out over that dangerous ground with a rope and started to sink himself when he got to me.

“He was trying to pull me out of the stuff enough so that he could tie the rope under my arms, but the harder he pulled, the farther down he sank. The other two firemen who ran out behind him started sinking the same way.

“Then the other firemen got a fire ladder out to us and they stood on it and tugged and pulled to get me out. They told me later that it took a half hour to pull me out, but they did it slowly to keep from hurting me. I’m certainly grateful to them and I think they are a fine bunch of men.

“When some of them tried to help Chief Kurtz while we were in there, he told them, ‘Never mind me. Get the boy out!’ and he was up to his waist in the awful stuff then.”

CORBETT SAID he started to run across the treacherous surface of the benzol waste to get a better view of the fire and got far out on the quagmire before he realized that it was like a bed of quicksand. As the sticky substance adhered to his shoes, he lost his balance, fell and started to sink.

“Even my arms were caught in the stuff,” he said, “but somehow I wasn’t scared. The firemen weren’t far away and they heard me all right after I told my friend, Harold Richmond, not to come out after me.”

Young Richmond, who lives at 820 East Willow Street, narrowly escaped a similar plight by walking around the danger area in the wasteland.

All of young Corbett’s body except his head and shoulders had sunk below the surface of the quagmire before firemen spotted him in the glare of big searchlights they turned upon the morass after hearing his cries.

Deputies Harold Griebno and Clarence Walker procured additional ropes with which the firemen were saved after Chief Kurtz ran to the boy’s side and tied a rope under his arms so that he could be pulled out of the sticky mass tugging at his body.

THE FIRE CHIEF lost his boots and trousers before fellow firemen yanked him out of the trap. Other firemen who became mired escaped themselves but only by leaving their boots behind. In all, 11 pairs of firemen’s boots were lost, along with the fire ladder, four raincoats, ropes, and a 20-foot length of hose used in the rescue work.

Young Corbett was so embedded in the mass that when he emerged on the end of the rope, he was unable to move. At St. Joseph’s Hospital the substance was removed from his body only by use of kerosene as a solvent. He remained under observation at the hospital overnight; his condition was described today as favorable.

Fireman Olgeaty was cleaned of the substance sticking to his clothing and body at the Solvay plant, as were Chief Kurtz and other firemen. Several fire ladders were crusted with the substance today. The waste bed is estimated to be at least 30 feet deep with a crusted surface that looks like solid ground.

The wasteland fire burned from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and attracted hundreds of motorists, who envisioned another dangerous fire in “Oil City,” the oil storage tank area threatened a few weeks ago.

Last night’s fire, however, was more than two miles away from the tank area and burning in the large expanse of waste poured onto the land alongside State Fair Boulevard near the Halcomb Steel Company plant.

 

After World War 2 the Solvay Process Company dumped its waste elsewhere on company-owned land out of sight from most area residents. In 1985 the factory was officially closed and demolished soon thereafter. However, the waste that polluted Onondaga Lake remains very much an issue because efforts are being made to dredge the lake and redeposit the waste on land once owned by the Solvay Process Company in the Town of Camillus where residents have complained of the awful odor this has created.

Years earlier some 30-foot high wastebeds along State Fair Boulevard somehow hardened enough to be turned into parking lots for the annual New York State Fair. Other wastebeds were topped with soil that allowed for the planting of grass and shrubs.

A section of Interstate 690, which connects with the New York State Thruway, runs along the west side of Onondaga Lake. Those unfamiliar with the history of the area might well think they've been transported to the surface of the moon. If only they knew how much uglier it looked 60 years earlier ...

Only locals with long memories can envision what now seems something out of a childhood nightmare or a bad horror movie. Such was the scene along State Fair Boulevard on that Thanksgiving Day when many Lakeland residents found little to be thankful for.

— JACK MAJOR

Once upon a time ...
For more about Onondaga Lake:
http://onondagacountyparks.com/onondaga-lake-park/
http://www.npr.org/2012/07/31/157413747/americas-most-polluted-lake-finally-comes-clean
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onondaga_Lake
 
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