Detroit Wonderland Theater – 1898

Detroit was on the cusp of its rebirth as Motor City and Henry Ford was cutting his teeth as a young automobile engineer when Messrs Wiggins and Moore, two developers and impresarios, secured a prestigious city-center plot to be the new home for their popular and much-loved Wonderland Theater. The plan was for a new building that would rise to an impressive five storeys and be a significant addition to Detroit’s entertainment scene.

The shell and the steel skeleton of the new theatre had been completed when, early one Saturday afternoon in the late autumn of 1898, the roof suddenly collapsed, dragging down the structures beneath it. Both of the galleries in the auditorium were crushed underneath the weight of falling debris, much of which ended up in the theater pit. Within minutes the building had been transformed into a huge mound of dusty rubble, littered with twisted beams, broken timbers and great chunks of brickwork and cement. One newspaper of the day described it as a ‘fatal hillside’.

When the accident happened 35 laborers were at work in the building and they were all swept down in the deluge of debris. The lower balcony at least held up, which probably saved the lives of a number of the builders, though they suffered injuries. The walls survived the initial collapse but one side-wall had clearly been damaged very badly; a few hours later it, too, collapsed.

It appears that the roof was simply too heavy for the structure, having been topped with a 20 cm (8 in) thick layer of cement. There were also questions about the toughness and durability of the steel girders used for the framework.

When: November 10 1898

Where: Detroit, Michigan, USA

Death toll: 15

You should know: Undeterred by the tragedy, Wiggins and Moore continued to prosper as major promoters of vaudeville entertainments in Detroit.

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