Baxter Park’s location in the heart of the industrial district might not seem out of the ordinary; after all, most residents have grown up with the park and the name conjures up a treasure trove of images- ice skating on Bottom Pond in the winter, perusing the wares of street artists in the spring, bird watching in the summer, going for a run along the top ring in the fall – no matter the season, the park is always full of bustling activity. They think nothing of the fact that the city’s largest (and certainly most oddly shaped) park is surrounded by factories and warehouses. But to the casual out-of-towner, the location might seem a bit odd– and for good reason. The Baxter Park area was never intended to be a park at all – in fact, it was originally the site of the Cronin & Sons Sawdust factory. Now, I know what you’re saying – “Cronin & Sons doesn’t make sawdust!” But before Cronin & Sons became one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of luggage straps, they were the North America’s second largest supplier of sawdust.
Daniel Cronin and his 8 legitimate sons opened their first factory on the West Side in 1901, and due to the country’s high demand for sawdust at the turn of the century, expanded quickly over four square city blocks by 1908. Things ran smoothly until the untimely death of Daniel Cronin and his third oldest son Elijah in 1909 (ironically, due to a mishap involving a luggage strap), which led to the eldest son, Malcolm, taking over the business. Malcolm Cronin did not believe in his father’s dream of “A Pound of Sawdust for Every American Man, Woman, and Child,” instead setting his sights on other things – namely, a good bottle of scotch and the shapely posterior of his secretary, Meribeth. Oversight was lax, cheap labor was hired and safety regulations were soon dismissed, all in the name of higher profits. Sawdust quality declined dramatically; Malcolm couldn’t have cared less. This attitude led to disaster one fateful night during the Great Blizzard of 1914.
As the story goes, there was a mixup, and no workers were scheduled for the late night shift. A few good souls stayed on, hoping against hope that someone in the scheduling office could be reached, and more workers could be called. However, the blizzard had knocked out most of the city’s telephone lines, so there was no relief on the way. It was never determined why the remaining workers decided to forge ahead and continue production instead of just shutting the equipment down and heading home; what is known is that, around 3 am, the two main exhaust fans failed.
Within minutes, the production floor was swirling with sawdust. The skeleton crew, overworked and bleary eyed with exhaustion, were slow to react. Only one man even managed to pull his canvas oxygen bag over his face before succumbing to the choking dust; none managed to make it to the discharge controls that would’ve opened the emergency vents… And no one had the peace of mind to trip the overload alarms. All sixteen men were dead within ten minutes.
With the sawdust machines running at full capacity for the next hour, and no exhaust fans working, the factory was saturated with sawdust. All it needed was a spark – which it found, when the main finisher finally ran out of wood.
At 4:17am, in the early morning hours of January 7, an explosion ripped through the Cronin & Sons Sawdust factory. The blast was so powerful that half of the factory was completely vaporized. The surrounding blocks were set on fire, and nearly a third of the windows in the entire city were shattered. The first firemen on the scene had originally thought that a meteor had hit the earth** – refusing to believe that an explosion could cause such a massive crater. Later, many said that the blizzard “saved their asses”, and that the catastrophe could have been much worse, had it not been so early in the morning.
Soon after, Malcolm Cronin collected the insurance money and moved to Barbados with his (newly pregnant) secretary.
Controversy surrounded the site; after all, sixteen men had lost their lives there. Many said it was wrong to rebuild a factory on the site; besides, the actual owner, Malcolm Cronin, was in Barbados and incommunicado. Not long after, the debate was put to rest with a decree to make the land a public park. Because of fears of finding human remains, the land itself was never touched, (other than some delicate landscaping), and the park’s unusual gigantic bowl shape became a symbol for the unity and teamwork of those who came together when tragedy struck on that cold snowy day in January. Aside from the collection of a great deal of water in the bottom of the park (so much water that frequent visitors finally named it “Bottom Pond” in 1919), nothing much about the park changed until 1929, when the city decided to officially change the name of the park. Until ’29, it was informally dubbed Westside Park because of its location; also, most people felt uncomfortable calling it by its official name, The Sixteen Who Died Memorial Park. So, it was rechristened Baxter Park, after “The Big Baxter Bombout” – a military maneuver involving the bombing enemy dugouts invented by Edward Felix Baxter, a Second Lieutenant in the British army and native of this area who was awarded the Victorian Cross in April 1916.
Today, Baxter Park remains a wonderful place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The next time you visit, though, make sure you visit the plaque commemorating the sixteen brave souls who lost their lives in the creation of the park. It’s made from real pressed sawdust!
**Speculation of the park being caused by meteors or extraterrestrials still exists to this day, most notably by A.E.O.O.B.P. (Acknowledging Extraterrestrial Orgins Of Baxter Park”) a group that meets in the park for a picnic twice a year.
- A. Bleyaert