West Point, VA Steamer WEST POINT Explosion, Dec 1881

A STEAM-BOAT IN FLAMES.

NINETEEN LIVES LOST BY AN EXPLOSION.

DESTRUCTION OF THE WEST POINT AT WEST POINT, VA. -- AN EXPLOSION FOLLOWED BY FIRE -- WORKMEN IMPRISONED IN THE HOLD -- OTHERS BLOWN INTO THE WATER.

Richmond, Va., Dec. 27. -- The destruction of the steamer WEST POINT, at the village of West Point, yesterday, and the killing of 19 persons, was one of the most fearful disasters that has occurred in this State, with the exception of the burning of the Spottswood Hotel and the burning of 40 or 50 people on Christmas night, 1870, and the Capitol disaster, an occurrence of a few months before.
At noon yesterday, while the steamer was moored to the wharf at West Point, discharging her cargo and receiving a new one, an explosion occurred in the hold of the vessel. There were 30 men on board at the time, and nearly all of them in that part of the steamer when the explosion took place. Most of these were colored stevedores engaged in shifting the cargo from the hold to the wharf. Their songs and laughter could be heard in the village. The song of the jolly stevedores kept time with the quick movements of their trucks as they rolled over the decks and up the gangways of the vessel in removing the freight.
Just as the men were working with the heartiest good-will and their song and pleasantry was at its height, the explosion occurred, quickly followed by the agonizing cries of the men. The explosion tore off the decks of the steamer. The noise of explosion was followed by flames, which shot up into the air and rapidly enveloped the steamer. Several of the men on board were blown out into the river, where three of them were rescued by persons from shore. The men in the hold were hemmed in by a wall of fire through which escape was impossible. Several are represented to have battled manfully for their lives. Every avenue of escape, however, was cut off. Those who were near enough to the spot to witness the scene represent it as one never to be forgotten. The cries of the suffering victims could be heard for a moment appealing for aid. The moorings which bound the burning steamer to the shore were cut to prevent the flames communicating to the wharves, and the vessel was cast loose on the river, when she was rapidly carried up the stream by tide and wind. As there was a large quantity of kerosene-oil and gasoline on board, the flames spread with great rapidity, preventing the possibility of any aid. It is probable that many of those who lost their lives were killed outright by the explosion, but the others were burned to death. One of the men blown overboard, PETER GEOGEHAN, the first mate, was rescued by a party from the shore, badly wounded.
At the time of the explosion the man attending to the engine was in the engine-room attending to his duties. The fearful noise startled him. He put his head out of the porthole to see what was going on, when the flames swept by and scorched his hair. He worked his way out and effected his escape. A little boy named GARLICK, who was an amateur stevedore, escaped from the burning vessel by jumping into the river, where he struggled manfully with the waves and was finally rescued. Five men were stowing cotton in the after hold. As soon as this gang heard the explosion and saw the rapid spread of the fire, they, together with the boy, made for the starboard port and plunged into the river. At that moment a large hatch slid off the deck and fell upon them, disabling four of them in such a manner that they never rose again. The fifth one saved himself by swimming back to the wharf. The following are the names of those who were killed, burned to death, or drowned:
L. S. BRADFORD, chief of stevedores, of West Point.
EDWARD KERSE, wharf hand, of Richmond, and a mess boy, name unknown, of Baltimore, and the following colored hands:
JARVIS, fireman, of Baltimore.
JAMES STAPLES, ALEXANDER WILSON, JOE JOHNSON, LEE JENNINGS, and BEN SMITH all of Richmond.
LOVELAND, of Yorktown.
SAMUEL WATKINS, SHEPPARD TAYLOR, NELSON BAYLORD and HORACE BIBBS all of West Point.
NELSON STARKE and CHARLES TYLER, of New Kent.
ALBERT JACKSON, JACK PARKER, and ADOLPHUS BABBITT, of City Point.
The cause of the disaster is unknown. At the time of its occurrence there was no fire on board except a small lamp used by a man engaged in cleaning out one of the boilers. Whether gasoline or kerosene in some way came in contact with this, or whether the disaster was caused by spontaneous combustion of some material on board, is not yet decided. A few moments before the explosion occurred MR. ADAMS, the forwarding agent at Westport, had visited the hold of the vessel and found everything all right, as far as known. The officers of the steamer and persons in the village did all in their power to save the victims.

The New York Times New York 1881-12-28