Chicago, IL Lake Steamer TIOGA Explodes, July 1890

A WESTERN CATASTROPHE.

MANY MEN KILLED BY AN EXPLOSION AT CHICAGO.

THE LAKE STEAMER TIOGA BLOWS UP AND WORKS AWFUL HAVOC -- NINE BODIES ALREADY RECOVERED.

Chicago, July 11. -- A frightful explosion occurred to-night on the steamer Tioga, one of the largest vessels on the great lakes. Thirty-eight people were aboard the steamer at the time. When the work of rescuing survivors, which commenced almost instantly, was well under way, only two persons could be found who escaped unhurt. To make matters worse fire broke out on the wrecked vessel, and huge volumes of flame and smoke impeded the searchers for the dead and dying.
The bursting of the steamer's boilers was the cause of the catastrophe. It was in the Chicago River at the foot of Washington Street that the explosion occurred. This locality is in the heart of the business section of Chicago, and the terrific shock of the explosion brought people running in terror out of the tall buildings blocks away. The fire proved a stubborn one, and made it impossible at the time to verify the report that the boilers had exploded. A statement was current that the explosion was due to another cause -- the accidental lighting of a large quantity of combustibles in the narrow confines of the Tioga's deep hold.
In the hold near the steamer's stern was where the fire held sway. Through the bursts of fire could be seen a great jagged cleft in the Tioga's decks and cabin, and aloft on the tall smokestacks dangled a huge framework of timber fantastically swaying backward and forward, telling of the terrific force of the explosion which sent it there from thirty feet below.
Capt. A. A. Phelps of the vessel made this statement to a reporter: "I arrived here last evening from Buffalo in command of the Tioga, and we were unloading at this dock when the explosion took place this evening. I was in the freight shed on the dock when I heard a terrific noise, and running out saw the north quarter of the vessel enveloped in steam. All of the crew of twenty-five were either aboard at the time or were on the dock or in the freighthouse. I found after a careful search that all but three were acounted for and safe. Those three -- all from Buffalo -- were Second Engineer CHARLES HAIG, Lookout CHARLES LEVALLE, and Deckhand WILLIAM CUTHBURT."
"Besides the three missing men who belonged to the crew, there must have been from twelve to fifteen other men killed, and probably half a dozen additional wounded. There were laborers in the hold who were doing the unloading. Eight colored men are positively stated to have been below, and six or seven others were at the hatches aiding their fellow-stevedores. The explosion occurred in the hold, not in the machinery or boilers, as near as could be ascertained, and was probably in some combustible freight stored there."
The vessel gradually settled into the river. Occasionally a wounded man was hauled out of the debris, as the flames permitted the police and firemen to close in toward the black hole in which the bodies of the unfortunate stevedores lay. The men was a gang in charge of JOHN NEILE, a white man, the head stevedore. Among those supposed to be in the hold were NEILE himself, OSBORN POLK, colored stevedore, HENRY ALEXANDER, colored stevedore, JOHN LEWIS, colored stevedore, THOMAS LEWIS, colored stevedore and ANDREW SMITH, colored stevedore.
Great crowds of people gathered on the neighboring bridges, docks, and vessels and watched the tragic scenes being enacted on the Tioga. THe immense iron hull, painted a forbidding black, stretched 300 feet or more along the pier, and a swarm of police, firemen, and reporters were clambering over her on all sides. It appeared that the explosion occurred just after a porter named WILLIAM PALMER, colored stevedore, had gone below with lighted lamps. He had scarcely reached the decks again when the fearful shock came. It was said that 200 barrels of oil were among the cargo, and that these had become ignited.
Up to 10:30 P. M. nine dead bodies had been taken from the wreck and five or more wounded had been conveyed to hospitals. The fire was extinguished by the inrushing of the water when the Tioga's stern finally settled to the muddy bottom of the river. The stream is not a deep one, and the steamer's decks were still several feet above the surface of the inky river. One by one the ghastly corpses were slowly recovered and carried into the dimly-lighted freight shed on the dock. The latest reports placed E. FITZGIBBONS, a waiter from Buffalo, as among the killed. Engineer HAIG is yet alive, but with no chance of ultimate survival. FRANK BURNS, a steam fitter, was reported shortly before midnight as missing and probably dead. The injured included three white men -- DAVID McNEAL of Buffalo, THOMAS COLLINS, JAMES O'DONNELL, H. HALLIDAY, colored stevedore, and WILLIAM McDONALD. All were seriously burned and mangled, but will recover. Additional names of colored stevedores supposed to have been killed were as follows:
WALTER DUKES, HENRY WEATHERSPOON, JOHN GOFF, JACOB CHURL, ANDREW SMITH, JAMES BRARETON, CHARLES FOSTER, JOHN CHERRY, JOSEPH COLLINS, ALEXANDER LOSTER, WILLIAM PORTER, and PERRY SMITH.
A clearer idea of the cause of the explosion was obtained about midnight, when the vessel's boilers and the nature of the cargo could be examined. The boilers seemed intact. The cargo was kerosene, gasoline, and cotton. Inferences were drawn that the leaking of kerosene saturated the cotton and generated noxious fumes. When lanterns were taken into the hold to enable the stevedores to work, the lights instead of being an aid to the unfortunate toilers proved their destruction.
About $75,000, it was estimated, would cover the damage to the vessel, (which belonged to the Eire Railway Company,) and her cargo. This amount was believed to be fully insured.

The New York Times New York 1890-07-12