As you explore St. Clair-Superior, you will see a traditional, turn of the century, working-class, immigrant neighborhood. Yet there is a small area, no larger than a city block, which feels out of place. Instead of the multistory frame houses that mark a historic mixed-use neighborhood like St. Clair-Superior, these brick houses hearken to postwar suburban developments like those in Parma, Ohio. In fact, residents of these houses refer to this small pocket of St. Clair-Superior as “Little Parma.” While the out-of-place architecture alone makes it noteworthy, Little Parma is important for another reason. Little Parma, as well as nearby Grdina Park, marks just some of the area destroyed by the worst fire in Cleveland’s history, the East Ohio Gas Company Fire.
Originally built in 1902, the ten-acre East Ohio Gas Company plant, spanning from East 55th to 63rd Streets, provided natural gas to most of Cleveland, including many businesses in the neighborhood. By 1940, part of the plant was converted to a liquefaction, storage, and regasification facility, which was one of the most modern gas plants in the country, safely storing large quantities of liquefied gas in four separate holding tanks. While it might seem odd today to have such a volatile substance amongst residential homes, in early industrial cities before affordable transportation it was practically a necessity for laborers to live close to their place of employment. A gas storage facility was simply one among many industrial operations one would expect to find in a typical working-class neighborhood of the time. However, given the plant's modernity and safety, people living in the area felt they had no reason to fear. That is, until a fateful day in October when fire fell from the sky.
It was an average Friday, a cool breeze blowing over the lake, and the sounds of industry in the air. At the East Ohio Gas Company, however, an equipment malfunction was about to change the neighborhood forever. To most witnesses, it sounded like a clap of thunder, an innocuous sound, nothing deserving much attention. It was not until workers saw a stream of liquefied gas pouring out of one of the cylindrical tanks that people began to panic. As the liquefied gas flowed into the street, it vaporized into a thick white fog that slowly snaked into the street. Given the incredibly volatile nature of the expanding fog, it was not long before it ignited, either due to friction or an open flame. The explosion that followed destroyed the tank, while at the same time creating fireballs which began falling into the neighborhood. For nearby residents, the initial shaking of the explosion was little cause for alarm. After all, the heavily industrialized neighborhood often felt vibrations as factories used drop forge hammers. The hot air, however, told a far different story: the city was about to burn.
While the initial blast created the most devastation, there were at least six more major explosions that occurred after the first fire, continuing the inferno that was quickly spreading over 108 acres. One explosion, occurring about 20 minutes after Tank No. 4 failed, was a result of yet another holding tank erupting, sending more fuel into the already devastating fire. Thankfully, the other two holding tanks managed to withstand the heat, which at times topped 3,000 degrees, and stress of the fire, preventing the already devastating inferno from getting any larger. Nevertheless, the failures were enough to engulf houses and automobiles.
Cleveland’s fire department were quick to respond but, due to technical limitations, had difficulty with communications. The department bravely fought the fire for hours while dealing with intense heat, explosions, and equipment literally sinking into the ground. By 7:00 pm, the assistant fire chief reported the fire was contained between East 55th and. 63rd Streets. By midnight James Granger, the fire chief, declared that the fire was under control. Work continued for another two days and by Sunday, save a stubborn pile of coal, the fire was finally extinguished.
The East Ohio Gas Company Fire marks one of Cleveland’s most devastating disasters, destroying 79 houses, two factories, and 217 automobiles and damaging 85 houses and 18 factories. Property destruction, while devastating, pales in comparison to the lives lost in the fire. One hundred thirty civilians lost their lives to the fire, 98 of whom were employees of the company. Shortly after the explosion, the two undamaged tanks were carefully emptied, keeping the area safe from further travesty. In order to help, City Council appropriated $200,000 to the area for infrastructure repair. Similarly, the recently formed St. Clair-Norwood Rehabilitation Corporation raised money for victims, bought plots, and built sixteen reasonably priced houses to sell to victims of the disaster. These relief structures are the very houses that comprise Little Parma today.
The victims of the explosion and fire are memorialized in Highland Park Cemetery, where the unidentified bodies were buried, a stark reminder of one of Cleveland’s most devastating disasters. Today, Little Parma remains a unique and vibrant section of the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, showing a city's ability to move on but also marking a dark chapter in Cleveland’s history.