The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Tioga (Propeller), U145405, explosion, 11 Jul 1890

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Steamer TIOGA, one of the largest vessel on the Great Lakes, exploded at Chicago, killing many sailors.
      Daily British Whig, Kingston
      July 12, 1890

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A frightful explosion rocked the steamer TIOGA in the Chicago River Friday night at the foot of Washington Street. Nine bodies were removed from the wreck and five more wounded were taken to hospitals. The TIOGA's stern settled in the water and the loss of life is thought to exceed 18.
      Port Huron Daily Times
      Saturday, July 12, 1890
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      T I O G A W R E C K E D.
      A Buffalo Steamer Destroyed by an Explosion in Chicago.
      One Man Whirled Into the Air and Dropped Into the River -- Seven of the Victims Recovered.
      CHICAGO, July 12.-The steamer TIOGA of the Erie Transportation company was badly wrecked by an explosion at 7:45 last evening while lying at her dock at Randolph street and the river. It is reported that thirteen people were killed, but at this writing (10:80 p. m.) the report cannot be verified. Up to this time only
three bodies have been recovered. The explosion was a terrific one and a column of smoke shot 200 feet into the air, succeeded a second later by a whirlwind of flame which illuminated bridges, buildings, water and spars in a fearful glare.
The startled crowds rushed to the river banks, docks, bridges and soon the scene was thronged with an immense crowd. A general fire alarm had been turned in and soon fifty streams of water from the steamers and fire tugs were pouring into the hold amidships from which the flames poured in a torrent. The TIOGA, which was one of the largest and finest propellers on the lake, is badly wrecked; her upper works being nearly blown away and her wooden work badly burned.
At 10 o'clock the fire was so far under control that the search for the victims of the explosion was begun. Three bodies were soon brought out, blackened and mangled. They were apparently the remains of the unfortunate members of the steamer's crew, caught aboard at the time of the explosion. Firemen are now looking for other bodies and seeking to determine the cause of the accident.
When the explosion occurred there were between ten and fifteen men in the fantail of the boat, while scores of others were forward.
      There were also several stevedores on the dock and in the warehouse Bridge tender Gaynor at the Randolph street bridge, less than a hundred feet away, saw a man whirling upward into the air in the midst of a tremendous mass of blazing wreckage. The poor fellow fell into the river, but was rescued unconscious and cared for.
      The explosion did much damage to surrounding buildings and window's were broken half a mile away. Up to midnight seven dead and wounded men had been taken from the boat and it was then believed that no more then eight others were in be hold. These men are doubtless dead, as ten fire engines have poured
tons of water into the big hold just above the spot where they were at work at the time of the explosion. It will be at least another day before the water can be pumped from the hold and the bodies recovered.
There is good reason to believe that the explosion was caused by gas generated from oil barrels stored in the boat.
      So far as learned the following are the names of the killed:
      Walter Dours.
      ---- Cuthbert.
      Walter Chapin, colored, fatally.
      Pompey Smith, colored, fatally.
      Thomas Collins, fatally.
      Joe O'Donnell, fatally.
      Oscar Pope, fatally.
      Quite a number of people in the vicinity were injured by the shock of flying debris.
      The TIOGA'S fantail is completely shattered. Every steel rib and plate is broken and twisted as if it was so much paper. It was impossible to make an accurate estimate of the damage, owing to the fact that the wrecked steamer settled down in the muddy bottom of the river and machinery conpartments were filled with water.
      Forward of the boilers the bow was comparatively uninjured. Capt. Phelps made an examination of the four compartments, which are all separated by steel bulkheads, and found that they were entirely free of water. It is likely that the most of the cargo will escape damage.
      LATER --- It is learned that there were 35 persons on the TIOGA. The explosion occurred in the heart of the business section of Chicago and caused tremendous excitement. Most of the victims were Chicago men unloading the vessel. Only three of the crew were among these. Capt. A. A. Phelps, commander of the TIOGA, made the following statement of the disaster:
      My name is Capt. A. A. Phelps. I arrived here last evening from Buffalo in command of the TIOGA and we were unloading at this dock when the explosion occurred this evening. I was in the freight shed on the dock when I heard a terrific noise and running out saw the port quarter of the vessel enveloped in steam. All the crew of 25 were either aboard at the time, or were on the dock or in the freight house. I found after a careful search that all but three were accounted for and safe. Those three, all from Buffalo, were Second Engineer George Haig; Lookout C., Levalley; deckhand William Cuthbert.
      Beside the three missing, who belonged to the crew, there must have been from 12 to 13 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 lower down. The explosion occurred in the hold, not in the machinery or boiler, as near as I could ascertain, and was probably in some combustible freight stored there.
      It is stated that the explosion occurred just after a porter, William Palmer, had gone below with lighted lamp. He had scarcely reached the decks again when a fearful shock came. It is said that 200 barrels of oil were among the cargo and that these had become ignited.
      Most of the unfortunates were a gang of Negro stevedores under charge of John Neil, a white man. Among those supposed to be in the hold were Neil himself; Osborn Polk; Henry Alexander; John Lewis; Thomas Lewis and Alexander Smity.
      Thus far nine bodies have been taken from the hold and five wounded men have been taken to the hospital.
      The loss on the TIOGA and her cargo will reach $75,000; probably fully insured. The sinking of the boat helped to check the flames.
      Some reports name A. E. Fitzgibbons, a waiter from Buffalo, among the killed. Engineer Haig is still alive, but will die.
      Frank Burns, a steam fitter, is reported missing and probably dead.
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      The TIOGA was built in Buffalo by the Union Dry Dock Company in 1885, and is the property of the Union Steamboat Company, the Erie Railroad line. She was one of the first of the new steambarges. Until the OSWEGO of the same line came out she was the fastest steamer on the lakes and easily carried the broom. She was a favorite with everybody. She was always up to her work. She carried a big load with small expense, and people who shake their heads at some of the later craft of that and other lines, which were built for speed almost entirely, always approved of the TIOGA. Few more successful boats had been put afloat on the lakes. True, she had sustained a bad accident or two, but these were more a matter of ill luck than
anything else. So well did the line authorities think of her record that should they build other steamers they would doubtless be built on her model. She was valued at $185,000.

      Four Known to Be Dead, Four Fatally Hurt and Thirteen Missing and Probably Killed.
      CHICAGO, Julv 12, 11 A. M.-- Until the work of recovering the bodies still in the hold of the Tioga is completed, a full list of the killed in last night's oil explosion cannot be given. Following is the list of the victims so far known to the police: Dead, identified: Osborn Polk, laborer, Chicago; Alex Smith, colored, Chicago; John Braxton, colored, Chicago; J. Williams, stevedore. Missing, probably dead: C. LeValley, Buffalo, lookout: Wm. Cuthbert. watchman; Edward Fitzgibbon, master: John Neill, foreman of stevedores; L. Alexander, stevedore; H. Alexander, stevedore; John Lewis, laborer; William Porter. laborer; S. Smith, laborer; J. Cecill, laborer; H. Thomas, laborer; J.Cherry, laborer: James Jones, laborer.
      Fatally injured-Henry Witherspoon, colored laborer, Chicago, scalp wound and badly burned from waist up. George Haig, engineer. Buffalo, scalp wound, cut on chin, back injured and badly burned; David McNeill, oiler, residence unknown, spine fractured. Thomas Emmett, lower part of face blown away and burned about body.
      Seriously injured-John Burke, Buffalo, cut about head: Robert Holiday, Chicago, laborer, left arm broken and cut about chest and back; Walter Chaffee, cut about shoulders and head, badly burned; Wm. McDougall, oiler, head bruised and injured internally.

      Did the Tugmen Cut the Hose?
Editor Evening News:
      I was a spectator of all the trouble between the firemen and the tugmen on the deck of the tug DANFORTH. Now it the firemen will examine the hose they will find that it was cut with a sharp knife, instead of being broken by force. P. D.
      Buffalo Evening News
      July 12, 1890

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      Another Fire in the Wrecked Steamer Delays the Search For the Dead.
      Chicago, July 12. -- Night will fall before it will be possible to give anything like a correct estimate of the number of victims of the TIOGA steamer explosion. The minimune number of the dead is now placed at 15, based upon the fact that seven bodies now lie at Klaners morgue and that at least eight bodies are known to be within the hold of the boat. Of the crew, only four were killed. Pat Kinslie, first assistant foreman, this morning called the roll of the stevedores. Sixteen failed to answer to their names, but this does not signify that they are dead. They have simply not reported. The scene at the wrecked vessel today was even more desolate than when covered by the pall of last night's darkness. Thousands of people were there, the bridges and the docks on both sides of the river being crowded. Before them lay the boat, nearly half under water, which filed the hold to the depth of 14 feet. Wreckage and charred timbers were everywhere. Upon the top of the smokestacks rested a large section of the cabin, and all around it were scattered sections of the iron deck. At noon the work of rescue had not begun. As soon as the pumps arrive the hatchways will be battened up and the work of pumping out the wrecked propeller begin. Capt. Phelps is of the opinion that all of the bodies in the hold are those of stevedores. How many bodies there are in the hold he cannot say.
LATER. -- When the work of pumping out the wrecked propeller TIOGA had been almost finished this evening, another explosion much less violent than the one of last night, occurred. No one was hurt and not much damage was done, but the propeller again caught fire and in further efforts to quench it the firemen were again compelled to fill the hold full of water, thereby undoing all the work accomplished today. The explosion, as that of last night, was no doubt caused by the accumulation of kerosene vapor in the hold. The work of recovering the bodies was going on when the explosion occurred. Six in addition to the seven now lying at the morgue were found today. It is believed that three or four more still remain in the hold, but tonight's explosion will delay their recovery at least 24 hours.
      Buffalo Evening News
      July 13, 1890
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      Evidence That Its Vapor Caused the Terrible Tioga Explosion.
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      The Genesee Oil Company of Buffalo Said to Have Shipped the Naphtha as 0il -- Talk of' Arrests.
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      CHICAGO, July 19. -- The Coroner's inquest fn the case of the 25 or more killed, by the explosion on the steamer TIOGA was continued yesterday. The testimony, as did that taken the day before, went to show the
existence of naphtha in the hold of the TIOGA, and that its vapor caused the explosion.
      City Inspector Crain testified that he had several times found naphtha on vessels here shipped by the Genesee Oil Company of Buffalo. The cousignments were simply marked "Diamond B." He had no doubt that both the Genesee company and its branch house here had knowledge of the violation of the law in this respect.
      The steamboat company's check clerk at Buffalo, Albert C. Grasser, told of his bill of the 320 barrels on the TIOGA. "They were ftIl billed `oil,"' he said. "I have never found barrels marked naphtha in the Genesee Company's shipments."
      Agent Morford of the Union Steamboat Company testified that his company would not knowingly accept naphtha for shipment. Right after the explosion be said the Genesee Oil Company sent a representative to offer to remove the oil at once. The witness would not allow it removed until he had it inspected.
      The Coronor said Alouzo Bedford, Chicago, agent of the Genesee Oil Company, had been subpoenaed , but he was not now to be found.
      The Herald says today:
      "John C. Bright, president: W. H. Bright, vice-president, and Alonzo F. Bedford,secretary and treasurer of the Genesee Refining Company of Chicago, New York and Buffalo, are wanted in Chicago. They are wanted badly, too. And unless they put in an appearance by Monday morning it is more than probable that they will be placed under arrest if found at any spot on earth to which the arm of the United States Government can reach. For, upon the sworn testimony given before a Coroner's jury yesterdav, it would appear that these three men, for the sake of a few paltry dollars, did an unlawful act which resulted in a most horrible death for 25 human beings."
The survey board having completed the work, which was solely to determine the seaworthinese of the vessel to tow to Buffalo, the badly battered TIOGA leaves tomorrow night for Buffalo In tow of the OWEGO.
      Buffalo Evening News
      July 19, 1890
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      Buffalo, N. Y., Sept. 25.-The grand jury of the United States circuit court last Saturday found an indictment for manslaughter against the Brights who shipped the naphtha in common oil barrels that caused the terrible explosion in the afterhold of the steel steamer TIOGA, on July 11 last, in Chicago harbor, At least 26 lives were lost by the disaster. One of the Brights was arrested and gave bail, and the other was expected to show up in a few days. The trial, which probably will take place next November at Utica, will prove interesting to lake shippers and carriers. It ought to show just how much responsibility attaches to each party in the handling of dangerous stuff put up in unsuspicious packages. The TIOGA, by the way, is again ready for sea, and will get away for Chicago about Saturday. She has been thoroughly repaired at a cost of nearly $50,000 and is in as perfect condition as when new. Her owners were deprived of her services for eleven weeks, and this means something for a ship of her class.
      Marine Review
      September 25, 1890
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      Verdict For The Transportation Company In The TIOGA Explosion.
      Suits for a large amount of damages growing out of the death and injury of many persons on account of a naphtha explosion in the hold of the steamer TIOGA in July 1891, was decided today. A telegram from Chicago states that the jury came in a 11 o'clock yesterday morning with a verdict for the defendants, who are the Union Steamboat Company of this city. The latter are completely exonerated from blame on account of the explosion.
      The Steamboat Company has already collected $47,000 from J.C. & W.H. Bright of this city for damage to the boat. The latter shipped naphtha in the hold under the name of oil. It is said the families of the victims of the disaster will now fall back on the Brights. If they can get service on them in such a way as to bring them into the Illinois courts. The Brights are the proprietors of the Genesee Oil Company of this city.
      Buffalo Evening News
      Friday, May 19, 1893 p.7, c.7

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      Steam screw TIOGA. U. S. No. 145405. Of 2,085.16 tons gross; 1,744.24 tons net. Built Buffalo, N.Y., 1885. Home port, Buffalo, N.Y. 285.0 x 38,9 x 14.0
      Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1891

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Reason: explosion
Lives: 24
Hull damage: $47,000
Remarks: Repaired
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  • Illinois, United States
    Latitude: 41.85003 Longitude: -87.65005
William R. McNeil
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Tioga (Propeller), U145405, explosion, 11 Jul 1890