The Rotary Disaster
Transcribed by Steve West
from THE NORFOLK VIRGINIAN
Saturday May 11, 1872
TERRIFIC AND FATAL EXPLOSION
A FRIGHTFUL BOILER EXPLOSION
FOUR KILLED AND TWO SERIOUSLY WOUNDED
About 11 o'clock yesterday morning, Marshall Parks, Esq., president of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, received through Mr. D. C. Crowell, that the steamer
Rotary Capt. W Y. Johnson, had exploded her boiler at Old's Point on the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, and that four persons were killed, namely, the engineer, his wife, sister and child. It was also requested that he come up immediately and bring up a coroner and surgeon. Mr. Parks immediately put in requisition his tug, the
Chowan, and accompanied by Dr. Thos. B. Ward, and several gentlemen, including two representatives of the press, started for the scene of the disaster. The
Chowan took in tow a large sloop for the purpose of lightening the Rotary, which was reported as sunk across the canal, but as the tide was rapidly falling it was found necessary to drop the two just before reaching Deep Creek bar, the
Chowan drawing too much water to enter the canal at low water. As it was, the boat bumped perceptibly on Deep Creek and Nicaragua bars, and again on entering the mouth of the can, but passed on without difficulty, passing at the locks the steamer
Louisa, of Baltimore, a steam dredge and long raft of logs bound downward. A short stop and these obstructions were passed, and the little steamer ploughed her way through the sluggish waters of the canal for her destination. Mile after mile was passed, until finally a sail boat full of people was met, who proved to be the passengers of the steamer
Cygnet, detained at
Existed, there being no less than six steamers bound down, with two or three barges and a long raft of lumber. The steamers were the
Lynnhaven, the Cygnet, the Olive, the R.T. Waters, the
E. Chamberlin and the Lumberman, The latter, the smallest of the number, was drawn through the small opening by the
Chowan, which steamer left immediately on her return to bring up a vessel to take on the cargo of the
Rotary. This gave us time to look about, and on clambering over the ruins we at once came upon the whole
The Rotary was a mass of ruins, her deck, fore and aft torn away, except a space of perhaps twenty feet in a bow, her rent boiler thrown backwards almost in the stern, the engine blown entirely to atoms, the smoke stack lying over the side, while the canal was full of floating debris, consisting of freight, mattresses and pieces of the joiner's work of the cabin, pilot house, freight house and deck. A portion of the freight was blown into woods on the banks of the canal, while the yawl boat, which had laid along side of the cabin was found at some distance, a portion of it hanging to the limbs of a tree, some fifty or sixty feet from the ground. But the horrible sight was crowned by the view of four
Lying in the shade of the awning on the canal bank. These, Mr. Wm. Walker, the engineer of the boat, formerly of Currituck county, N.C., his wife, Mrs.
Elizabeth Walker, and their little girl, about three years old, and Mrs. Elizabeth Crane, sister of the engineer, and wife of Mr. David Crane, engineer of a dredging machine at work in Hyde county. The bodies had been carefully placed in becoming position, their limbs straightened and hands folded, but the sight was nevertheless a terrible one, and one which we hope we may never look upon again.
Consisted of Capt. Johnston, of Portsmouth, painfully wounded in the leg, and the steward, Wm. Bowser, painfully, but not seriously, wounded in the abdomen. Everyone on board was more or less shaken and bruised by the explosion, but singularly enough no one was scalded by the steamer except the steward, who had a slight burn on his left arm.
On board the Lynnhaven we found the captain of the Rotary, Mr. Johnston, and from him obtained the following statement: Was sole owner of the boat, which he purchased some time last fall, and had but recently finished paying for her; was on his way from the Roanoke river to Norfolk, with a heavy cargo of North Carolina cut herrings in barrels, cotton, lumber and other articles; had been aground the day before but was
pulled off by another steamer, at which time it was noticed that the boiler of the
Rotary had a crack in it about an inch and half in length; about 7
o'clock yesterday morning near Old's Point, himself and a negro stoker were at the wheel when the explosion occurred. The first intimation was the lifting of the whole freight house, cabin and pilot house, and the pulling of them into the water over the bow. The wreck on its way came in contact with the mast, by which it was broken into small pieces. He fell into the water amid the broken timbers, from which he disengaged himself, and swam back to the
vessel and got on board. Before he had an opportunity of looking about to see the extent of the damage, the steward, Bowser, called to him, saying My God, Captain, save the lady, meaning Mrs. Crane, who had just sunk. The Captain looking around, but could not find her, or where she had sunk, and could render no assistance. The steamer, the hull of which was doubtless badly injured, sunk in about twenty-five or thirty minutes, in about eight feet of water and in the position above described. He gave us the following list of
All of whom were accounted for:
Captain, W. Y. Johnston
Ashbury Craddock, pilot and mate
Engineer, Wm. Walker, his wife, child and sister
Wm. Bowser, Steward
Isaiah Knox, Stoker
Two negro firemen, whose names we did not learn.
C.H. Johnston, boy, son of the Captain
The captain also informed us that the engineer had just left the engine when the explosion occurred, and was walking aft; his sister was on the deck by the side of the cabin, and his wife and child were in the berth in the stateroom, and it is supposed were asleep. The engineer had a bad cut on the chin, and another in his back, above the hips, which was in itself a fatal wound, and which prevented him, when blown into the water, from making any effort to save himself, if indeed, he was not instantly killed. His body and that of his sister were afterwards found at the bottom of the canal. A search of the remains of Mrs. Walker and her child resulted in finding them, the child clasped in the arms of the mother, in the berth, in the sunken cabin, whence they were taken out by breaking out a window. The family formerly lived in Currituck county, N.C., but had been living for some time at Ferry Point near the city.
He was in the pantry preparing breakfast when the explosion occurred, the room was torn into splinters by the recoil of the boiler and a flying piece of timber struck and disabled him. He crawled out from under the wreck and saw Mrs. Crane sinking when he called the attention of the captain; could afford no assistance himself; knew nothing of the cause of the explosion. We saw nothing of the two negro firemen, who belong in the city, or of the captain's son, but where ???? that none of them could throw any further light on the matter.
The steam tug R.T. Waters, belonging to the firm of Johnston & Waters, lumber dealers in Ferry Point, being detained, with no prospect of getting through the blockade, was selected to carry the remains of the dead to their former homes in Currituck County, N.C., and for that purpose a platform of planks was laid in her stern to receive the bodies, where were placed side by side, covered with a white sheet, and over them a sort of awning made with blankets. When all was arranged she slowly steamed off on her mournful voyage.
After receiving the kind care of Drs. Ward and Jackson, the latter of whom joined us at Great Bridge, where taken on board the little tug,
Lumberman, arrangements having been made for their reception. The captain was on his way to his home in Portsmouth, and Wm. Bowser to go to the hospital in the city.
The steamer Olive, one of the blockaded, transferred her passengers to the
Lumberman, and about five o'clock she started down the river, on the trip to this city, crowded from stem to stern. On the way down she overtook the boat with the
Cygnet's passengers, which she took in town, reaching this city about 8 o'clock p.m. Want of space compels us to curtail our report of this disaster, but we cannot close without returning our thanks to Mr. Parks for many courtesies, or without awarding him due praise for his prompt action in attending to the wounded and the dead, and his efforts to remedy so far as he could the damage of the explosion by reopening the obstructions. We expect to see all the detained steamers in port to-day.
From all we could gather on board of the Rotary and elsewhere, there is no one to blame for this frightful casualty, or if there was his lips are sealed, and he has paid the penalty of his indiscretion with his life. The firemen stated that so far as they knew nothing was amiss, and we can only record it among the many unaccountable accidents.
© 2009Kay Midgert Sheppard