Machinery Hall collapse, 1895

Machinery Hall, 1895 drawing; the near tower was under construction when it collapsed. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Two workmen died in the state’s rush to develop the new home of the Illinois State Fair in 1895.

Springfield was named the permanent site of the fair in 1894, and the Exposition Building was constructed by September of that year. However, it took another year for planners to lay out the rest of the fairgrounds. As a result, with the 1895 fair only days away, contractors were still working frantically that September to finish buildings all over the grounds.

Besides horse and cattle barns and the Swine and Sheep Pavilions, two major buildings remained under construction. One was the Dome Building, originally constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; it was being rebuilt across from the Exposition Building.

The other was Machinery Hall on the east side of the fairgrounds. The site was chosen because it was next to railroad lines that entered the fairgrounds, making it easy for farm equipment manufacturers to load and unload their machinery.

Plans called for Machinery Hall to be 600 feet long and 137 feet wide, “176 feet being enclosed, and the remaining covered like a great train shed to a passenger depot,” the Illinois State Register said. The paper described Machinery Hall as “the most complete and convenient building for machinery exhibit to be found on any fair grounds in America.”

The enclosed portion was to be surmounted by two 100-foot-tall brick towers. Work was under way on the towers when heavy rain and high winds hit Springfield the night of Sept. 2-3, 1895. The weather apparently weakened the not-yet-fully-set mortar on the west tower, the Register reported Sept. 5.

The appalling accident occurred about 2 o’clock, when without the least warning the turret toppled and fell towards the northeast. Many men were working near the turret at the time, and it was almost a miracle that several more were not caught by the falling walls. The cause of the catastrophe is as yet unknown.

One opinion is that severe rains of Tuesday night loosened the mortar between the bricks and that these were unable to stand the weight upon them during the day, as men were at work there during the whole morning. The whole tower has been erected within the past week, so the mortar has not had time to dry sufficiently to hold the brick securely.

Plumber Harry Hobson (1869-85) of Lincoln, Neb., and carpenter James Parke (1873-95) of Springfield died in the collapse. Five more construction workers were seriously injured, including 10-year-old waterboy Charles Brownell (1885-1911).

Casualties would have been higher, but, 15 minutes before the tower fell, construction superintendent C.E. Richards ordered 20 bricklayers and hod carriers to move from the tower over to the Dome Building.

Richards said later he had no premonition of danger. He planned to make some changes in the design of the top of the tower, he said, so he transferred the men to give him a chance to discuss the changes with architect Charles Shinn.

Hobson and Parke were working in a ground-floor bathroom when the tower fell. “They probably died of suffocation, as they were not badly mangled,” the Register story said.

Brownell’s injuries at first were thought to be fatal. According to the Register:

The water boy, Charles Brownell, was on the roof of the building when the turret struck him, and he was carried through the roof to the cement floor below, where he was found lying in a pile of bricks. … (I)t was found that his left wrist was broken, his right arm broken at the elbow, his left leg broken at the ankle, and his jaw was knocked out.

The boy is only 10 years of age, but his physicians think he has a small chance of recovery. The eye that was not knocked out was badly burned by mortar.

An inquest two days after the accident found no one at fault for the deaths. Richards and contractor James Westwater of Columbus, Ohio, “testified that they believe the wind and rain caused the accident,” the Register said. “They … believed the rain softened the mortar to a certain extent and the wind strained the walls some the night before the accident.”

The east tower, built at the same time and to the same specifications as the fallen west one, “was standing safe and sound,” the coroner’s jury was told.

Construction resumed almost immediately on Machinery Hall, and the building was ready when the fair opened Sept. 23. Fair attendance, however, fell short of expectations, something the Illinois State Journal, in a wrapup story, blamed partly on the Machinery Hall collapse.

“Then came the unfortunate disaster at machinery hall, which sent the impression abroad that the buildings were incompetent and unsafe, and these idle tales restricted the attendance to some extent,” the Journal said. “In spite of these adverse conditions more people have seen the State fair of 1895 than ever attended a previous exhibition.”

Lawsuits arising from the accident were settled in April 1896, with the plaintiffs – the families of the two dead men, plus the five injured workers – splitting $5,000 among them. Parke’s family – he had been married only two weeks before his death – received $1,207; Hobson’s family was paid $776; and young Charles Brownell received $1,077 in compensation.

Machinery Hall, renamed Farm-A-Rama in 1963, was torn down in the 1970s.

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