Friday, May 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

Seventeen years have passed already, but it seems like just yesterday that I came home from work on a sunny spring afternoon to find Main Street closed to traffic and choked with emergency vehicles and debris.

On Wednesday, May 20, 1992, downtown Rochester was rocked to its foundations by a powerful natural gas explosion that killed one man and reduced to rubble the J.W. Smith/Crissman block at the corner of University Drive and Main Street. Construction crews had been working on a streetscape beautification project and were digging in the area when they accidentally punctured a gas line. The building was destroyed in a violent explosion before gas company crews could arrive.

James Nelson, a civil engineer for the firm of Hubbell, Roth & Clark, which had designed the project, had stopped by the site minutes before the explosion. He was believed to have been assisting construction crews in evacuating the building when he was killed in the blast. Seventeen other people in the immediate area suffered lacerations and other injuries from flying debris.

The building, which had been built in 1901 by James W. Smith of the St. James Hotel, was more commonly known as the Crissman block after the family which still owned it and had operated the Crissman pharmacy there until 1966. The southernmost portion of the block, housing the Paul R. Haig jewelry store, was spared, but the remainder of the building was a total loss and was immediately razed. The building was rebuilt with careful attention to its original design, including the ornamental stepped-out brickwork on the facade. Although its capstone says 1901, the portion of the building comprising the addresses 438-440 S. Main was actually built in 1992-93. The portion of the building at 436 S. Main, now occupied by Morley Candy, is part of the original 1901 structure.

Photo: This image was lent to me by my uncle, who snapped it minutes after the 5:20 p.m. explosion occurred.


  1. I remember this day. I was at work at a small business at 1st and Walnut Streets. When the explosion happened, it sounded like someone had dropped a grand piano on the floor above me. I had no idea what had caused this until someone had called the office to see if I was ok. That's when I heard the terrible news. At the time, I lived in a sub on the east side of Rochester Road. On my drive home, I couldn't believe the sight before me. Debris was strewn all over Main Street. It looked like a war zone. A very scary scene indeed.

  2. I was a college student working my way through Oakland University with a job on Main Street. I was in the 200 block of South Main when I heard the explosion. I thought it was one of the tandum quarry trucks that used to speed down main street. What a scary day and sad as well.