Explosion rocked the city Disaster: The tramp steamer Alum Chine blew up while loading dynamite in the Patapsco River March 7, 1913.

Remember When

March 02, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Baltimoreans reading The Sun at breakfast on the morning of March 7, 1913, learned that newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson had spent his first full day as the nation's chief executive and had convened his first Cabinet meeting.

"His work," said the newspaper laconically, "included most of the matters which usually engage the head of the nation."

Elsewhere in the paper, a small item in the "News of Shipping" column on page 10 noted: "Stmr Alum Chine (BR), Anstey, for Cristobol and Port Limon: The Joseph R. Foard Company."

By day's end, the name of the British tramp steamer that was loading dynamite off Fort Carroll in the Patapsco River for the construction of the Panama Canal would become a household word.

The Alum Chine -- named for the deep fissure that overlooks Alum Bay in the Isle of Wight, was built in 1905 and was 268 feet long and weighed 1,767 tons.

Smoke began pouring from the hold of the Alum Chine at 10 a.m. as stevedores and crew attempted to flee the doomed vessel.

At 10: 30 a.m. the ship, which had been loaded with nine carloads of dynamite amounting to 350 tons, suddenly exploded.

A great mushroom cloud rose over the scene. Thirty-three bodies floated in the river, and 60 injured seaman and stevedores

fought for their lives.

"The Alum Chine was itself rent into a thousand pieces by her death-dealing cargo. The ship leaped into the air. Then there came a crash and a flare, fragments of iron, steel, woodwork and cases that had contained the explosive were hurled hundreds of feet into the air and the ship -- or what was left of her -- sank beneath the waters," reported The Sun.

"Many of the men who were on the Alum Chine and on the barge from which the vessel was being loaded were caught face to face with the selection of instant death through the flames or explosion or a fight for life in the swirling waters," the newspaper reported.

The Atlantic Transport tug Atlantic, the crew of which attempted to save the lives of the men on the steamer and the stevedores on a barge next to it, was caught full force by the blast and burned to the water's edge, killing its captain, William Vandyke, and its mate, Henry M. Digges.

The Jason, a recently completed collier built by the Maryland Steel Co., was "riddled by huge fragments of steel and iron catapulted from the steamer Alum Chine, bringing death to several members of the crew of the collier and working terrible havoc to the ship itself," the newspaper said.

The Quarantine Hospital at Wagner's Point suffered heavily from the shock and explosion. Every window in the building was shattered, and doors were ripped from their hinges. Patients were showered with debris and glass.

"Those who witnessed the scene described the explosion simply as a roar and a flash -- a roar, they say, such as has never been heard before and a flash that mounted seemingly hundreds of feet in the sky. The fragments of steel and iron fell like meteors into the harbor, bringing death and injury and terror to all who were within range."

The concussion was so great -- hurling debris more than two miles from the scene -- that tremors were felt as far away as Philadelphia, Atlantic City and in a number of Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey towns.

Thousands of windows in southeastern Baltimore were broken as a tide 6 feet high slammed into Hawkins Point. As Mayor James Preston sat at his desk in City Hall conferring with his secretary, Robert E. Lee, a thick cloud of dust poured through the window of his office.

As shock and grief spread through the city, a temporary morgue was established for the identification of the victims.

Captain Anstey of the Alum Chine, who found his chief officer among the dead, was described as having a face that bore an "expression of horror which seemed to come from the soul."

"The scene at the morgue and on the piers where the bodies of the dead were brought ashore for identification were the most pitiable ever seen in the city. Haggard women and children, some of them pinched with poverty, from the city's most congestive districts, crowded about the ambulances and the dingy little house of death with weeping eyes, their hearts' grief finding vent in the sobs of desolation," The Sun said.

"Many of those who had gone down were the only money earners in the families, and their loss means a future filled with anxious fears."

A "jury of inquest" was convened at the Eastern Police Station by Coroner Elijah Russell. William J. Bomhardt, an ironical name if there ever was one, who was assistant foreman of the stevedores loading the ship that morning, was arrested after allegations that he had stuck a bale hook into a case of dynamite, thus causing the explosion.

James I. Keith, a local dynamite expert, disputed that notion.

"It is likely that there was spontaneous combustion in the coal bunkers, causing a fire. The actual piling of ton upon ton of dynamite in the hold would not have brought about the disaster," he told the inquiry.

On March 16, the inquest determined that Bomhardt and his bale hook had been responsible for the explosion.

"It isn't just," said a bitter Bomhardt. "I was the unfortunate devil who happened to handle the box that exploded. The men who testified before the grand jury have the bale hook on the brain."

In the wake of the disaster certain safety measures were instituted such as that ships loading dynamite were to do so at a greater distance from the city and railroads shipping large quantities of dynamite were to notify the proper city authorities.

The ship reappeared in the news in the late 1970s and early 1980s during construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel, when chunks of metal thought to be from the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry were said to be from the Alum Chine.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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