NINETEEN MEN KILLED
by the explosion of Oil on Board of a Steamship at West Point
A Christmas -Day turned into Mourning- A Ship Destroyed, and with it Two White and
Seventeen Colored Men: the Cause Unexplained, but Probably the Spontaneous
Combustion of Oil, of Which there were Seventeen Hundred Barrels on Board- Full List
of Killed and Wounded- the History of a Fated Ship- Incidents of the Unhappy Affair- Full Details.
About 12 o'clock Monday an explosion occurred on board the steamship West Point, discharging and receiving cargo at the town of West Point, which resulted in the killing of nineteen men- two white and seventeen colored- and the painful injury of several others.
The steamship West Point was the property of the Baltimore, Chesapeake and Richmond Steamboat Company, in which corporation the York River Railroad company holds a large interest recently passed into the hands of the Richmond and Danville by the terms of the lease. The West Point was a new ship; that is to say about $3,750 worth of the plates of the old Shirley were used in her. All the rest of her material was new. Her hull was of iron and her upper works of wood. She was built for freight traffic; was what is sometimes called a "steam schooner," and was of about 600 tons burden, and cost $67,000.
BAD LUCK OF THE SHIRLEY.
The Shirley was what sailors call an ill starred vessel, and bad luck went with her belongings. On December 22, 1877, her upper works were damaged by fire in Baltimore to the amount of $7,000. November 28, 1880, while lying at her wharf at West Point, a mysterious fire broke out in her, burning her to the water’s edge and communicating the flames to the wharf property, with great loss to the railroad company, shippers, and others. When they came to overhaul her it was found that it was easier to construct a new ship than to rebuild her, and accordingly that was resolved upon Such of the plates as were found to be serviceable were utilized; all the other material was discarded. The customs authorities recognized her as a new ship and allowed her a new register under the name West Point.
FROM WORK TO DEATH.
The West Point arrived from Baltimore at the town of West Point on Sunday. That day her cargo was not touched. It consisted of general merchandise and 500 barrels of oil. Monday the stevedores- resigning the delights of the holiday- under the direction of Mr. Lemuel S. Bradford, were put aboard the ship and the work of discharging commenced. The men were cheerfully working away while nearly the whole town was in full enjoyment of the idleness and hilarity of the Christmas season. The motion of the donkey-engine and the rattling of pulley and cordage, and the songs of the negroes trucking cotton on and oil off, mingled with the sound of fire-crackers and the screech of tin horns in the town. Without a sign, with a suddenness perfectly appalling, there was an explosion- not very loud, it seemed, and yet it was heard four miles off- and a large part of the starboard side of the ship was blown out clear into the water, followed by a great body of flame springing from the hold to the rigging.
THE WOUNDED OFF, THEN CUT LOOSE.
There was a brief period of consternation and inactivity. Then the fire-bell on the wharf was rung; men who had jumped into or been thrown into the water began appealing for help, and a few on board who could do so rushed off the doomed vessel. Those on shore got off all the wounded they could find on the ship, beset as they with flames and smoke. The seeing that their help would not avail those in the hold, they cut loose the ship to save the wharves from destruction.
FLOATING OFF- A BOY IN DANGER.
The ship was pointed down the stream, but under the influence of a full flood tide and a wind from the E.S.E. she began floating up the Pamunkey. As she got out fairly from the wharf a little colored boy named Garlick was seen clinging to the propeller. Already they were preparing to send a boat after the burning vessel, but not being ready, they to Garlick to leave the propeller and get on a hatch which was floating near, and he did so, and was soon afterwards picked up by the boat. This boy was an amateur stevedore. “For fun” he had been allowed to carry a bale of cotton in on a truck, and he stepped on board just in time to meet the explosion. He jumped overboard, swam around the vessel, and clung to the propeller until he got on the hatch.
SLAUGHTERED IN THE HOLD.
They were eleven or twelve colored men at work in the hold. Without a doubt they met with instant death. The hold had been open fifteen or twenty minutes before the gang went in to discharge the oil. They had been in there an hour and forty minutes before the explosion occurred. There was no lamp on board save one which the colored fireman Jarvis had with him in the boiler, where he was at work cleaning it out. All in the hold were killed.
There were four others between decks who jumped overboard and were drowned. Two of them could swim and two could not. The two latter clung to the others and weighed them down, and in the direful fright and confusion of the moment all four went down in a bunch.
Mr. Bradford, the chief stevedore, was standing on the starboard side of the forward hatch watching the workmen, and there met his death.
Mr. Edward Kerse, of Richmond, who was employed as truckman and cooper, and was by all regarded as “a handy man,” was killed on the port side of the hatch.
The old colored fireman Jarvis probably met his death in or near the Boiler. A mess-boy, name not given, was also killed.
The following is a full list of the killed:
Lemuel S. Bradford, of West Point, chief stevedore, [Married man; no children.]
Eddie Kerse, of Richmond, a young unmarried man.
John Jarvis, fireman, and a mess-boy, both of Baltimore.
James Staples Richmond
*Shepherd Taylor West Point
Albert Jackson City Point
*Nelson Starke, New Kent
*Charles Taylor, Sweet Hall
THE WOUNDED- PERSONAL.
Captain J. R. Billups, the captain of the ship, was on shore- standing on the railroad track- when the explosion occurred. He was of course, unhurt.
Peter Geoghegan, of the well-known sailor family, was the first officer of the ship, and was between decks, in the after part of the ship, counting the bales of cotton as they were piled away. He was blown overboard, according to on account; pushed overboard by the rush of the colored men, according to another account. Anyway, he got into the water, and managed to clear himself from the colored men who were struggling there. After swimming for a little while a rope was thrown him, and he was pulled ashore. One of his hands is badly burned and torn by the rope.
The second officer was but little injured.
The quartermaster, William Bohannan, was running the donkey-engine when the explosion happened. He set the pumps to work and got ashore, not, however, until he was severely burned on the right side and face.
All the officers and crew were shipped in Baltimore
Mr. P. H. Adams, the general claim and forwarding agent of the Piedmont Line at West Point, came up to Richmond yesterday to make report to Colonel Talcott. Most of our facts were obtained from him. Mr. Adams and all the officials have been very active in caring for the wounded and in affording information to the distressed inquirers who had relatives and friends at work at West Point.
WEST POINT PEOPLE.
The West Point people, apprised by the explosion and the ringing of the fire-bell that something startling had occurred, abandoned all their jollifications and crowded to the wharf. They rendered all the assistance they could; but little beyond caring for the wounded was possible. Medical assistance was promptly summoned for the wounded, and promptly responded to. Colonel Talcott sent to West Point a quantity of lint desired to dress the burns.
After the extant of the calamity was known all places of business in West Point were closed, and the day of feasting and pleasure was turned into one of sorrow and weeping.
Leaving her wharf, the West Point first drifted across the river (Pamunkey) and grounded on the New Kent flats. Later under the influence of wind and tide, she drifted back to the West Point side two miles above town, and grounded opposite Mr. Bech’s house, where she settled and broke in two.
When Mr. Adams left West Point yesterday, she was still burning. Boats had approached her sufficiently close during her driftings and subsequently to ascertain that there could not possibly be any living person aboard.
As soon as possible efforts will be made to get the bodies, but if is hardly to be expected that anything more than charred bones will be found.
The ship will be very nearly a total loss.
The West Point was brand new ship; her last was her second trip.
There were probably twenty-five men on board when the disaster occurred.
There was considerable quantity of powder in the cargo, but it had been unloaded an hour before there was any trouble.
William Green (colored), one of the wounded, was brought up to the city yesterday by Mr. Adams. None of the other wounded desired to come. Green was badly burned on the face and hands.
The explosion is described as having been as loud as the report of a cannon.
The work of discharging cargo was going on at the forward hatch, while cotton was being loaded between decks at the after part of the ship. Fifty-seven bales had been put on board; of these four were saved. Some of them were thrown into the water to the drowning men.
The mess-boy killed is supposed to have been in the cabin.
There was upon the arrival of the ship at West Point 500 barrels of gasoline and kerosene oil in the cargo, but the gang had been at work in the hold one hour and forty minutes, and several hundred barrels must have been gotten out before trouble came.
There is one account which says that Jarvis, who had been in the boiler cleaning it, came out lamp in hand just as the explosion occurred.
That light and the fire in the donkey-engine, unusually well protected, were the only fires about the ship.
Eddie Kerse was the son of Robert Kerse, formerly a member of the City Council, who lives in the lower end of Rocketts. He was about twenty-one years of age, and had served a term as apprentice in the navy, and been honorably discharged. He had been employed at West Point only a few weeks.
Mr. and Mrs. Kerse, mother and father of deceased, went down to West Point Monday evening, hoping to recover their son’s body. They returned here yesterday. Their trip was altogether fruitless. Nothing can be done looking to the recovery of any of the remains until the fire in the ship has burnt itself out, or rather burnt out for want of material to work on.
The colored man Green, who was wounded at the explosion, and who came up from West Point yesterday morning, is now located on Fifth street, Fulton. He knew young Kerse well, and he maintains that the explosion originated with a barrel of gasoline or oil in Kerse’s hands. Green and Kerse were not in the hold; they were at work at the hatch between decks. The weight of evidence so far adduced goes to show that the explosion occurred in the hold; the starboard side was blown off low down. Possibly at the great outburst of flame, part of which found vent at the hatches, the barrel in Kerse’s hands might have been fired; saw and which he wrongly thought the origin of the explosion.
In due time, no doubt, some investigation will be made which may develop the cause of the trouble, but at present it only seems certain that it was not caused by fire from the steamers boiler, for a man had just come out of that; nor from the fire in the donkey-engine, for that was intact and working the pumps after explosion; nor from lamps in the hold, for none were allowed there. As to what occurred in the hold there is no man left to tell. Probably the explanation, if known, would be very simple. It may have been spontaneous combustion; it may have been from the thoughtless lighting of a match, or it may have been from some barrel falling and creating ignition.
The following, telegraphed the Dispatch from Baltimore, gives information as to the insurance on the steamship:
The West Point was insured for $40,000- in the National of New York, Peabody of Baltimore, British America of Toronto, Connecticut fire of Hartford, Howard of Baltimore, and German American of New York, $2,500 in each. Fire Association of Philadelphia, Williamsburg City of New York, Queen of Liverpool, Lancashire of England, and North American of Philadelphia, $5,000 each.
-The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) December 28, 1881