The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Roanoke (Propeller), U21145, fire, 17 May 1890

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      "Tow her out into the lake and scuttle her." yelled Chief Hornung. "How can I scuttle her when I can't get
inside her? She's all afire," yelled back Capt. Jim Martin, as he hung on to the side of his burning vessel last night. "Bore some augur boles in her," said the Chief,. "and sink her." "Not then she's lined with iron," said the Captain. "Then" said the Chief "she'll have to burn."
      It was the propeller ROANOKE of the "Clover Leaf" line that was burning, the first disastrous vessel fire that has occurred here in years.
      About 7:30 last night the ROANOKE was lying alongside the old Reed dock about half way between the foot of Evans and Commercial streets. She came in Friday night with lard and oil cake from Toledo, and was loading up with general merchandise for the up trip, most of it being cement and jute butts.
      How the fire started has not been made very clear. Some say somebody was smoking below. But it was known that it started in the hold just back of the kitchen, a little forward from amidships. George Burks, the
colored cook, the last man to leave the boat tells an interesting story.
      "I was in the kitchen," he said, "and I was the last man out. I came pretty near being caught aboard. I wanted to pick up some things, and the boat started from the dock, which was burning. I was just able to jump across before she got away too far. I hear that the watchman, threw his lamp into the hold and set the fire, he was going to quit and threw his lantern, but I didn't see him do it."
      From other employees of the boat it was learned that the watchmen were John Henderson and Fred Zahms. The latter was in his room at the time, and it was said that it was Henderson who threw the lantern in a fit of bad temper.
      When a News reporter reached the dock near which the burning vessel was lying the fire tug was pouring streams of water into her with seeming little effect. The fire had worked upwards and was bursting through the upper deck in a great volume of flame some distance aft of where it originated. It had also run forward and was working its way through the merchandise in the hold and, climbing up, was attacking the upper timbers of the ship. Several tugs dashed to the rescue, and two In front and two behind began towing the RONOKE away from the dock. In the meantime the firemen ashore directed streams at the burning vessel, while the fire tug on the other side with her nose pushed close up alongside poured Its heavy fusillade of water into the fiery cauldron. Smoke and steam rose in great clouds. The fire was burning with powerful fury. The vessel slowly swung out into the stream, her tall mast and rigging outlined against the sky. The tug ALPHA turned on a stream. Other tugs surrounding the ROANOKE were the ADAMS, KELDERHOUSE and MAYTHAM, but these three had no fire-fighting apparatus. As the flotilla passed the Watson elevator the burning propeller was clearly outlined with her smoke and flame against the red background of that tall storehouse. Thousands of
people strung along the dock watched the progress of the fire.
By this time the vessel had got beyond the range of the steamers ashore, and the fire tug was left alone to fight out the battle afloat of water against fire. It was a hard struggle. At one moment it looked as it the fire had been soddened down, the next it burst into quick fury in a part of the boat forward from where it broke out. As nearly as could be made out from the shore the fire had crept forward while the attention of the firemen was directed aft, and settling deep into a mass of merchandise obtained a strong hold.
Some said Capt. Billy Welch was slow in getting to work with his tire tug. Others said he was quick. The tug's station is only a stone's throw from where the ROANOKE was lying.
      "The tugs got in my way," said Capt. Billy, "and I couldn't get to work until they got out of the way." Those who saw the difficulty of fighting from the side a fire in a metal-lined vessel deep down in the hold, said Capt. Billy and his men did well.
Inquiries were made as to whether any lives were lost, but it was believed that all aboard escaped. Burks, the cook, was positive all got out, but he said the fire was a very quick one, and it was a close shave.
While the excitement was at its height a young woman fell into the creek. She was on a canal boat and was stepping to the dock when she fell. She was nearly drowned when rescued. Her name could not be learned.
      The head of the ROANOKE was run up against the beach at the life saving station and she was held there by the tugs. Her stern was swung out into the stream and the fire tug wedged herself into the V-shaped crevice between the ship and the shore and there the firemen got down to work.
Chief Hornung crossed the creek in a small boat and joined Assistant Chief Murphy in directing the work of the firemen. A NEWS reporter crossed with the Chief.
Some time previous to this while the vessel was still at the dock, dockmen ran through the crowd crying that the boilers were liable to explode. The scare took and there was a scattering, as it was seen that the fire was
close to the machinery, but happily there was no explosion. If it had occurred some dozens of brave firemen and others would have been sent into eternity.
      "SCUTTLE HER!"
      Before the ROANOKE had been many minutes at the life-saving station the fire settled Into the jute forward, and here came the hardest fight. It was at this point that, Chief Hornung yelled, "Scuttle her:" And brave Capt. Martin, hanging almost above the glowing furnace, cried back the uselessness of the attempt at that time.
At one time five streams from the tug were playing into the forward hold through a gangway opening from which a few moments before sheets of fierce red flames had been bursting. It seemed as if enough water
was poured in to sink the craft. The splendid fighting qualities of the fire tug were well exhibited now. Eight or
10 streams were playing on different parts of the boat, the fire being kept down aft, while forward a flood of water was kept pouring in and it was only a question of time when the fire would be subdued.
Several of the crew scrambled aboard and reappeared with bags of clothing.
The Clover Leaf line, to which the ROANOKE belongs, is the lake line of the Toledo, St. Louis & Kansas City Railroad. She formerly belonged to the Commercial line and Is an old boat. She carried a crew of 22. She was rebuilt a few years ago. An expert said last night that she was worth about $25,000. It is probable that her hull is not greatly damaged, but her upper works are ruined, her machinery badly damaged and the cargo almost entirely destroyed. She was about one-third loaded when the fire broke out. W. J. Connors gang of stevedores were engaged in loading the boat
      It is difficult to estimate the total loss. Good guessers put it at about $30,000.
      Buffalo Evening News
      May 18, 1890
      . . . . .

      ROANOKE'S LOSS $30,000.
      That Was the Damage Done in Saturday Night's fire -- The Boat to be Taken to Toledo.
      The burned propeller ROANOKE was brought across the creek to her dock late Saturday night. She is very heavy with water poured Into her by. the fire-tug, and It has been pouring out of her ever since.
      The huge propeller is a hard looking sight. She is charred almost from end to end, and though her hull is believed to be all right, her upper works are in bad condition. The fire in her hold was not entirely out until near daybreak yesterday morning. Captain Martin said this morning that she was in condition to go up the lake and that she would likely be taken to Toledo to unload and go into dry dock for repairs. Her machinery, though damaged, is not crippled. He said the boat was damaged $20,000.
      The NEWS yesterday, in its report of the fire, placed the total loss at $20,000, estimating $20,000 damage to the vessel and $10 000 to cargo.
      "You got it right," said J. B. Stilwell, agent of the line, this morning. "I figure that the boat is damaged $20,000 and the cargo $10,000. She had 400 tons aboard about one-third of her carrying capacity."
"Do you know for certain how the fire started" he was asked.
"One of the laborers was smoking below and the fire caught from his pipe. I heard the report that a watchman's lantern was thrown into the hold, but I don't think there is any foundation for that story. We are waiting now for the consent of the insurance people to take the boat up to Toledo."
      Buffalo Evening News
      May 19, 1890

Steam screw ROANOKE, U. S. No. 21145. Of 1069.82 tons gross; 956.68 tons net. Built Cleveland, O., 1867. Home port, Port Huron, Mich. 217.5 x 31.2 x 12.5
      Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1892

Media Type:
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Reason: fire
Freight: merchandise
Remarks: Repaired
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Geographic Coverage:
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 42.88645 Longitude: -78.87837
William R. McNeil
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Roanoke (Propeller), U21145, fire, 17 May 1890