The passenger steamer AMERICAN EAGLE running to Put-in-Bay, exploded at 4 P.M. today near Kelly's Island. She was licensed for 106 lbs. pressure and was carrying 110 lbs. She was racing with the JAY COOKE. Three of the crew were hurt.
May 20, 1882
A RACE WITH DEATH.
Further Of The Horrible Occurrence To The Steamer AMERICAN EAGLE.
The exploded steamer AMERICAN EAGLE left Sandusky with three other vessels at 3 o'clock p, m, the 18th. She and the COOKE ran side by side for forty minutes when she exploded. The engineer, J.W. Johnson, was terribly scalded. Frank Bittel, fireman and frank Walter, deck hand, were killed instantly. John Lutes. Mrs. Lutes, Miss Lutes, of Middle Bass; J.W. Gilbert, Wm. Dilger, Jas. Fulton, Chas. Kramer, B. Carstensen, Lorenz Neilson, are all badly scalded, and two of them will die. Johnson died at 2 o'clock Friday morning. Before his death he made a statement that he was carrying 110 pounds of steam, when he was allowed only 106. He denied that they were racing, but admitted that five minutes before the explosion Captain Magie had come to him and said, " I Guess we'll stop and let the COOKE go by, and then go on." He replied, " Well I'll check her down in a few minutes."
The J.W. Hall Great lakes Marine Scrapbook, April/May, 1882
The maritime pulse of Sandusky, Ohio, has followed a rather steady and regular pattern throughout most of the years of steamboating, from the day of the entry into Sandusky harbor of the first Lake Erie steamboat, Walk in theWater, August 25, 1818, to the present. There have been, of course, the usual groundings, collisions, an upset or two and several fires to locally owned boats, perhaps the most memorable being the destruction by fire of the Steamer ARROW at Put in Bay, October 14, 1922. Two sand boats, the KELLEY ISLAND and JOHN M. MCKERCHY, have gone down in Lake Erie with loss of Sandusky lives (in the case of the KELLEY ISLAND) and the small Neuman owned MASCOT spent a winter on the bottom not far from Marblehead. Compared with many Great Lakes ports, however, Sandusky's accident frequency and loss ratio have been extremely low. Perhaps the most noteworthy exception to this statement was the explosion of the boiler of the small steamer AMERICAN EAGLE in Lake Erie off Kelleys Island, claiming a total of six lives and setting off two lengthy and reputation searing inquests.
The AMERICAN EAGLE, hull number, 105936, owned by Andrew Wehrle of Middle Bass, Ohio, was a wooden propeller built in Sandusky by John Monk in 1880. She was 144.8 feet long x 24.4 feet wide and 9.0 feet deep and was built exceptionally stout as she was designed to begin operation early in the spring and run until late in the fall. Her hull was sheathed with steel to above the water line since this out season use required the crushing of ice on her run from Sandusky to the Lake Erie islands. Doubtless this sturdy construction stood her in good stead when her hull was called upon to resist the tremendous shock of a boiler explosion.
On May 18, 1882, the EAGLE, probably with 12 passengers aboard, left Sandusky at about 3 p. m. for the islands. Simultaneously, departures were made by the JAY COOKE, B.F. FERRIS and R.B. HAYES. The COOKE and FERRIS preceded her into the lake and she was followed from her slip by the HAYES. Lest the spectacle of four steamers all departing at once seem unusual, it must be remembered that this was prior to the day of plane, bus and auto transportation on the scale we know it today, and Sandusky was a thriving port, the natural gateway to Cedar Point, Catawba Peninsula, Sandusky Bay ports and the Lake Erie Islands. The daily spring schedule called for all these boats to leave at about the same hour on their afternoon trips into Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie.
The JAY COOKE and the EAGLE soon overtook and passed the FERRIS and kept pace with each other for 40 minutes or so into Lake Erie to quote their masters, "as we did every day," (Sandusky Register, May 19, 1882). That the question of racing should be raised is natural, and from the facts disclosed by the inquests, it seems that there was little doubt in most minds thee the two vessels did raceùor at least that the EAGLE did her best to keep up to and pass the Cooke in spite of her owner's specific instructions to the contrary (Sands~sky Register, May 19, 1882).
When the two vessels were about 1 1/2 to 2 miles off the Kelleys Island dock, Captain Magle of the EAGLE went to the engine room and advised the Chief Engineer, J. W. Johnson, that he wanted speed reduced so that he could fall behind the JAY COOKE and get back onto his usual course. Johnson replied that he would check down in a few minutes. Within less than five minutes, there was a terrific explosion. The boiler had blown up enveloping the entire boat with steam and starting a fire on the upper deck. Captain Magle, who was not injured, extinguished the fire while the JAY COOKE turned and came alongside the EAGLE with fire hoses ready to play on the stricken ship. The uninjured passengers and crew were taken aboard the COOKE. Later these people were transferred to the tug, MYSTIC, which had come out from Marblehead, attracted to the scene by the explosion. The bodies of the dead crew members were placed aboard the tug, MYRTLE, which also towed the EAGLE into Sandusky where she was berthed on the east side of what is now Neuman's pier at the foot of Columbus Avenue. The COOKE continued on to Detroit.
Eyewitnesses to the return of the ill fated steamer are, naturally, few today. However, W. O. Stubig, Sandusky shoe dealer and marine authority, and John Herb, retired barbershop operator, both recall vividly the confusion and drama of the moment when the EAGLE was towed in. "Her boiler dome was bent up like a tin can," said Stubig. Herb recalls that the funnel was blown completely off the boat.
Johnson, the Engineer, died shortly after being hospitalized in Sandusky. His deathbed statement affirmed that the boiler was' carrying 110 pound pressure although licensed for only 106 pounds. He vehemently denied charges of racing, in fact, he advised that he could have run 1 to 1 1/2 mph faster. Captain Magle also testified under oath that her time to a check point was 49 minutes on the 18th as against 45 minutes the previous day (Sandusky Register, May 19, 1882 et seq.).
Passengers aboard both vessels, however, felt that a race was in progress at the time of the explosion. Statements were taken from travelers on the EAGLE who allegedly heard Johnson say that he would not let the Cooke beat him to Kelleys Island. This, plus the damning evidence of the safety valve of the EAGLE's boiler which was tested at the inquest and "blew" at 130 pounds, although it had been officially set by the government to release at 106 pounds, led the government investigator to assume that it had been screwed down in order to gain more speed from the higher steam pressure.
Expert opinion of Sandusky machinists and boiler men at the inquest brought out the fact that a study of the interior of the boiler showed that excessive heating had been occurring over a prolonged time, thus preparing for the ultimate fate by weakening the iron. A great "to do" was made in the local newspaper (Sandusky Register) against the late Mr. Johnson and also against Captain Magle. The Captain of the JAY COOKE, George Brown, was completely exonerated when testimony showed that his boiler was carrying only 43 pounds pressure although licensed to carry 50 pounds. This was effectively corroborated by the fact that no "blowing off" of his boiler safety valve occurred when he came to a stop in the mid lake to render aid to the EAGLE. He vigorously denied racing with the EAGLE at any time.
The outcome of the Federal investigation was that the explosion was attributed to the excessive steam pressure, carried in contravention of Federal regulations. Captain Magle was exonerated. The local newspaper (Sandusky Register) campaigned vigorously against the reappointment of Magle, whom they alleged was derelict in his duty in not exercising his right of command by ordering Johnson to check speed at once.
But what of the EAGLE, smoldering at her Sandusky pier. She was not structurally damaged but was rebuilt and continued her run for many years, a better looking boat than prior to the accident.
A tragic lesson in safety was taught at the expense of six lives. Today, steam boats do not race and boiler inspections are thorough and occur regularly. The shadow of the old EAGLE still hovers over Sandusky only in the memory of the old timers.
Summer 1953 p. 141-143