The Amsden Building Collapse of 1906 in Framingham, Massachusetts - An Engineer's Aspect


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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Amsden Building Collapse of 1906 in Framingham, Massachusetts

At 3:40pm on a Monday afternoon, July 20, 1906, the G. M. Amsden building--which was under construction on Main street in Framingham, Massachusetts--collapsed.

Postcard image of the aftermath of the Amsden Building Collapse.

By Friday morning, the Eau Claire Leader, a Wisconsin newspaper in their July 25, 1906 edition reported, there were ten confirmed deaths, ten injured, and four missing people:


South Framingham, Mass., July 24. -- Under the light of electric lamps the work of exhuming the bodies of the victims of the collapsed Amsden building went on unceasingly through the night. At dawn there were ten bodies at the morgue, eight of the injured were at the hospital, two others were at their homes, while the list of missing numbered four, making a total of twenty-four, who, so far as could be learned, were about the building when the supports gave way and sent the tons of cement, iron columns and steel beams crashing in a tangled mass into the basement.
The cause of the accident has not been definitely learned. The town has no building laws and any proceedings against a contractor or other persons in connection with faulty construction will have to be on another charge and any action will have to be brought by state officials instead of the local authorities."
(Source: GenDisasters.)

According to Ransome and Saurbrey in their book, Reinforced Concrete Buildings: A treatise on the history, patents design and erection of the principal parts entering into a modern reinforced concrete building, 1912, page 191:

"The collapse of a portion of the Amsden Block at South Framingham, Massachusetts, in July, 1906, has been traced to the settling of the foundations, and inasmuch as the interior construction consisted of reinforced concrete only for the slabs and fireproofing, the beams being of steel, and the columns of cast-iron, there is no reason to believe that the reinforced concrete was to blame for the failure."

On July 21, 1906--the day after the tragedy--the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel published the following story:

Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Tuesday, July 21, 1906, Page 4.


Two Fitchburg Men at Work in South Framingham Block When Crash Came, Narrowly Escape Death--G. M. Parks Co. Had Heating Contract for the Building.

South Framingham, Mass., July 24.--The greatest horror in South Framingham's history occurred, Monday afternoon at 3:40 o'clock, when the G. M. Amsden building in the process of construction on Main street, collapsed, killing nine men and burying as many more in the ruins. Ten men, some seriously maimed, dragged themselves out to places of safety, but nine are known to be dead and it is feared that more fatalities will develop.

A couple of sharp cracks, almost like the report of two rifle shots, was the only warning, for the next instant nearly everyone on the three floors was being buried or felt themselves sliding into the vortex of the tumbling beams, pillars, girders and bricks and mortar. A portion of the building stood the strain, but the tottering pillars and girders overhanging the ruins beneath kept at bay for a few minutes the crowd of eager rescuers.

It was not until the fire department had been called out and a company of soldiers summoned from the state camp ground, where they were performing their annual tour of duty, that the work of saving life and removing the bodies of the dead actually began. Even before the firemen and soldiers were allowed to venture onto the mass of broken material, the broken pillars above had to be shored up.

Photo of the Amsden building a few weeks before it collapsed. The construction workers posed on the top floor in this picture--most of them died in the building collapse (Source: Framingham Views).

The building was being constructed by Andrew Jensen for G. M. Amsden of this town. Both men were in the building at the time of the accident and, while each escaped, it was not without injuries, Amsden having his leg fractured, while Jensen received a number of cuts. Amsden was sent to his home, while Jensen remained about the ruins until four bodies had been taken out, after which he left for his home. He refused to comment in any way upon the accident, the actual cause of which will probably not be known until after an investigation by the state authorities.

There were many rumors about the town and one citizen went so far as to say that only last Friday one of the heavy girders slipped after being put in place, but was forced back into position by the workmen.

The building was situated on the corner of Concord and Kendall streets, with the longest front, of about 150 feet, on the former. It was constructed of brick, with the usual interior bracings of steel pillars and girders, while the side walls and back were of cement.

The building was three stories high and one portion of it was being fitted up for the local postoffice. The contract called for its completion on July 1, and the contractor was making every effort to make up lost time.

Postcard image after the Amsden building collapsed (Source: Framingham Views).

The accident took place at 3:40 o'clock yesterday afternoon when the work in the building was being carried on with the greatest amount of vigor. To those who looked the ruins over after the accident it seemed a marvel that anyone was taken out of the jumble of broken steel alive. The work on the ruins is still proceeding, but all thought of taking anyone out alive has been given up.

The work of overhauling the ruins continued without interruption throughout the evening. It was comparatively easy to remove the first bodies, as they were found near the street and some distance away from the tottering beams and pillars.

About dark last night a large force of Italians from Boston arrived and assisted in the search. The overhanging beams were still further shored up, yet it was perilous work digging beneath the walls and heavy masses of steel, which acted as a menace to the workmen.

Many of the Italians from Boston refused to go very far beneath the ruins and the last two bodies were brought out by the soldiers of the Ninth regiment just before midnight.

At 2 o'clock this morning General Whitney ordered the men of the Ninth regiment back to camp, being unwilling to have the men risk their lives in further work on the ruins. It is the general belief that it will be several days before the basement of the collapsed building is cleared and the search of the ruins completed.

Two Fitchburg men, Edison Smith and A. P. Henwood, were in the ill-started building when it collapsed, but both escaped somehow with nothing more than severe nervous shocks and damaged clothing.

These two men have been working there for the past three weeks for the G. M. Packs company, who have the contract for installing the heating apparatus in the building. The men went there about three months ago, and by an early start were able to keep right along with the work. Their part of it was about two thirds done and the loss to the Parks company will be light, for the work was paid for as it was completed.

Mr. Henwood was in the basement of the building when the building collapsed. At the first sign of a creaking and a swaying, he knew what was coming, and calling a sharp warning to H. L. Sawyer, a South Framingham plumber, who was with him, he made a bolt for safety. This he remembers, but nothing more. How he got out is a mystery to him. His clothing was badly torn and his trousers were nearly stripped off, but he was not injured and came home on the evening train. Sawyer, who was close to him at the time, and who did not make such a quick move to get out, has not been seen since, and it is feared that his body is buried beside the boiler.

Edison Smith was on the second floor at the time of the crash, and he too was instantly prepared to escape, for he and Mr. Henwood had talked over the unsafe condition of the building many times within the past few days. He got out without suffering any injury, but was not in condition, from nervous shock, to come home with Mr. Henwood in the evening.

As soon as the G. M. Parks company heard of the disaster inquiry was made by them as to the safety of their employees and this morning, Stewart W. Smith, a traveling salesman in the company's employ, was sent down to look after the company's interests there and to save as much as possible from the wreck. At 9 o'clock this morning, Mr. Smith telephoned up and said the ruins and state of general destruction are indescribable.

Mr. Henwood first discovered something wrong with the building several days ago. One day he went around and tightened up the big mains and the next day found them loose. This happened several times, and he investigated and found the cause was a general settling of the building. He communicated his discoveries to Mr. Smith and between them they talked it over, and made up their minds to be ready to leave the building at the first sign of danger.

All kinds of theories are offered in explanation of the disaster, but it is generally agreed that the weight of the structure, which was of concrete and steel, had most to do with it. The concrete was wet and the moist weather of the past week prevented it from drying. The town engineer is said to have declared that a strata of quicksand runs under the building.

Strenuous efforts are being made to recover the dead or living body of H. L. Sawyer, the South Framingham plumber who was with Mr. Henwood when the collapse came. Mr. Sawyer was there with Mr. Henwood engaged in measuring for a smoke pipe for the two big boilers.

Edison Smith is a son of Arthur Smith, 30 Spring street, and Mr. Henwood has no regular place of abode here, being engaged on work out of town most of the time, as is also Mr. Smith.