Epic Disaster Shook Curtis Bay with the Impact of a Tactical Nuclear WeaponEpic Disaster Shook Curtis Bay with the Impact of a Tactical nuclear weapon
The explosion of the Alum Chine from roughly two miles away in the Patapsco River.
One of the worst maritime disasters in Baltimore history occurred when a stevedore aboard the British cargo steamer Alum Chine accidentally set off a blasting cap in the ship’s hold that ignited 350 tons of dynamite on Friday, March 7, 1913. The resulting fire set off a series of earthshaking explosions in the Patapsco River that killed 33 men, injured another 60, and shook buildings as far north as Philadelphia.
The tragedy was borne out of impatience, clumsiness, and quarreling among the ship’s crew and stevedores (longshoremen) who were loading the cargo. Everyone was behind schedule on that bitterly cold morning. The ship, which was scheduled to depart for Panama later that day with explosives that would be used to help carve the Panama Canal, was still 150 tons short of its contracted load. U.S. Revenue Service and Customs inspectors had been aboard to approve the cargo and had already left. The remaining dynamite crates were being brought by railroad to Curtis Bay and ferried out to the freighter via small barges to its anchorage off Leading Point, just 2,000 feet from the Quarantine Station at Hawkins Point.
There was bickering among the crew that morning, witnesses said, and the pace was lagging when the stevedore assistant foreman, William J. Bomhardt, in trying to speed up the work, carelessly jammed a bale hook into a crate storing dynamite caps. The steel hook pierced the crate, punctured one of the caps, and made a sound like a pistol shot. The noise reverberated through the hold and seconds later the crate was on fire. The adjacent dynamite crates — sitting atop mounds of coal — started to burn too. Well aware of the unstable nature of their cargo, the stevedores abandoned the ship; others aboard weren’t warned and never knew. Plumes of thick, black smoke began billowing from the hold, and within minutes, a series of three titanic explosions decimated the ship. The last explosion disintegrated the Alum Chine, and the sheer force of the blast leveled the tugboat Atlantic; the naval collier vessel Jason was also anchored close by and sustained serious damage. The explosion was the equivalent of 0.02 megaton blast, roughly the same explosive power of a tactical nuclear weapon.
Map illustration of the Patapsco River, Curtis Bay and the placement of ships and landmarks of the Alum Chine disaster. (Baltimore Sun illustration)
The thunderous eruption shook Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, and Baltimore. Every window in every building was shattered at Flood’s Park, the popular beach resort at the head of Curtis Creek, which was roughly a mile and a half away. The blast sent shock waves up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The governor’s office in Annapolis thought it was an earthquake, and officials at the Naval Academy thought a munitions ship had exploded. When a tremor shook Dover, Delaware, the speaker of the house for Delaware’s House of Representatives paused a speech and asked if there had been an earthquake. The switchboards to the local weather bureaus lit up in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, the Susquehanna Valley, Salisbury, Easton, and St. Micheals where people pilloried staffers with questions about the phantom earthquake. Windows were shattered as far north as Havre De Grace and Aberdeen.
The Alum Chine was reduced to a burning, floating mass of timbers and steel that quickly slipped beneath the surface of the Patapsco River. Its explosion created four- and five-foot-long shards of steel and wood that became projectiles as if shot out by a cannon. Nearby ships and buildings were thrashed with debris. The Quarantine Hospital at Hawkins Point took the full brunt of the explosion. Patients and staff there had been watching the burning ship with curiosity as the billowing smoke emitting from the ship in long black coils. The sudden blast shattered all the hospital’s windows and shards of glass and debris sprayed people inside, lacerating their hands, arms, and faces. Heavy oak doors, which had been closed and locked, were blown off their hinges. The frames of some of the outbuildings were shaken off their foundations. The only room untouched by the explosions was the kitchen, so the hospital staff moved the patients there to warm them since none of the wards had windows any longer. The clock in the hospital’s main doctor’s office stopped at 10:39 a.m., which became the official time of the explosion. “It was an awful sight,” resident physician Dr. Thomas L. Richardson told the Baltimore Sun. “It looked like a cyclone had struck the grounds. The employees were running about with their heads, faces and hands bleeding. The whole place was in confusion.”
Anchored 300 feet away, the brand-new U.S. Navy collier vessel Jason, which was built by the Maryland Steel Company in Fairfield, sustained more than $100,000 in damages. The Jason’s crew sent out the first distress call for the Alum Chine, then raised anchor and tried to get as far away from the burning vessel as possible. It wasn’t fast enough. The Jason’s captain ordered the crew’s firemen to start shoveling coal for its steam engines, but it became clear quickly that it would not be able to escape. Some crew members were thrown against the ship’s walls with enough force to render them unconscious. One crew member was decapitated, and others were killed by projectiles. Despite the heavy damage it sustained, the Jason remained afloat and would go on to a long naval career. Six boats would respond to the Jason’s call. It would take two days to fully account for all the victims. Some who had been reported missing were never found and assumed killed in the blast or drowned.
James and Jerome Goodhues were shipping agents who worked the docks in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Sparrows Point, and Curtis Bay. The brothers had a gasoline launch, the Jerome, named in honor of their father, and they had dropped off two engineers to the Alum Chine earlier that morning. While preparing for their next job, they saw the smoke billowing from the ship and headed out to assist. They steered up alongside it and panicked crew members, including several shirtless, smoke-grimed firemen, jumped onto the launch. Now nearly full, the Jerome began pulling away when Howard South, a clerk with the Joseph R. Foard Company who accounted for the dynamite, screamed for the launch to come back. The Jerome backed up and South leaped 10 feet down, bellyflopping roughly onto the rail as the launch pulled away. At the helm, “Jimmie” Goodhues considered returning to the burning boat to get others, but south alerted him to the ship’s cargo and frantically urged him to speed away. The Jerome had made it 200 feet away when the first explosion occurred. Goodhues and South watched with amazement as a hoisting winch was catapulted 1,000 feet in the air alongside a severed leg. Somehow, the launch managed to avoid the spray of debris. Alongside them was Philip Berlin, the ship’s outfitter, who said that the last thing he saw before the explosion was the captain’s black retriever, who stood motionless at the bow of the ship as if carved in stone.
“I well remember that terrible day,” John W. Forrest, a steward who escaped from the Alum Chine, recounted in an essay he wrote for the Baltimore Sun in 1960. “I had just finished a cigarette in my cabin when, in mid-morning of that cold March 7, I felt a slight shudder run through the ship, and then I heard shouting out on deck. I thought the lighter [a small barge] had bumped the ship and the stevedores were quarreling, but when I went out, I saw, to my horror, a lot of black smoke blowing aft.” Forrest said he raced to the engine room and shouted to the crew, “Down below there, the ships on fire!” After alerting what crew could hear him, Forrest jumped off the portside bridge dock into the water and started swimming frantically toward a boat he saw some distance away. Weighed down by his waterlogged clothes, he began to tire, but was unexpectedly pulled from the water by the Jerome. The Goodhues brothers then quickly turned their now-full launch around and headed toward the safety of Sparrows Point across the river.
As they sped away, thick clouds of black smoke continued belching from the ship, Forrest said. When he turned to look back, there was a terrific flash that seemed to reach the sky and a deafening explosion rung out. “It seemed to go dark as night and debris began falling all around us,” he said. “When that rain stopped there was simply nothing where the ship had been, but from her position a white-crested wave as big as a mountain was coming at us, and when it struck it lifted our little boat in the air and tumbled us all over each other, leaving us bruised, wet and numb with cold.” Forrest and the rest of the rescued men were taken ashore to a cabin and given hot coffee and dry clothes. At a hastily organized disaster recovery center called “Anchorage,” they were all reported as survivors of the explosion. The Goodhues brothers officially rescued the chief engineer, one officer and eight crew members, including Forrest, along with four stevedores.
Along with the Jerome, five other vessels responded to help those fleeing from the Alum Chine, but none more tragically than the tugboat Atlantic. As the flagship tugboat for the Atlantic Transport Company, the Atlantic and its skipper, William E. Van Dyke, were well known and respected around Baltimore’s waterways; he was born in Baltimore, spent a decade working in Curtis Bay, and lived with his wife and 11-year-old son in Locust Point. That morning, the Atlantic was anchored next to Fort Carroll near the center of the Patapsco River. Van Dyke and his first mate, Robert W. Diggs, saw the smoke engulfing the Alum Chine and opened up the Atlantic’s engines to get there quickly.
As they pulled up to the bow, a dozen men jumped aboard, stevedore foreman Bomhardt among them. Van Dyke turned the tug about and started heading away, but just as it completed its turn, two Alum Chine crewmen appeared at the bow and waved frantically. Van Dyke turned the boat around and steamed back to get them. The men climbed aboard, and the Atlantic began backing away. But moments later, a solitary flare soared into the air from the burning ship and then the epic explosion rocked Curtis Bay. The Atlantic took the full force of the explosion at point-blank range. Witnesses said when the dust cleared, it was flayed down to the waterline. Crew members who had been rescued by the Atlantic jumped off the tug at the point of explosion and, being under water, some were saved from the concussive blast. Witnesses said that Van Dyke and Diggs might have survived the blast too, but were killed by the scalding water from the boat’s steam engine. Some survivors were also severely burned by the scalding water.
The aftermath was gruesome. The Baltimore Port patrol boat Lannan had the sad duty of gathering bodies from the water. Police combed the shores of Curtis Bay and Hawkins Point looking for survivors and bodies. The four remaining tugboats in the area gathered more wounded from the cold river, including survivors of both the Alum Chine and the Atlantic, and brought them ashore. The dead were taken to a makeshift morgue in a small house on the riverfront before being moved to the city morgue; the wounded were transported to St. Joseph’s and Johns Hopkins Hospitals in the city. The real tragedy of the grim day came when police were dispatched to family homes to bring the tragic news to wives and children. Most of the dead were poor stevedores of Polish descent and African Americans. Baltimore Sun reporters followed police to the Locust Point home of Captain Van Dyke, who broke the heartbreaking news to his disbelieving wife of his valor and sacrifice.
In the days that followed the disaster, those around Curtis Bay assessed the damages. The fortified structures that supported the big guns at Fort Armistead showed visible cracks from top to bottom and even extended underground; the guns were rendered useless until repairs were made several weeks later. The mine-planting building at the fort was completely destroyed and every pane of glass in the facility’s barracks was broken. Doors were ripped off their hinges with such force that many of them splintered on impact with the ground. Two boilers at the Davison Chemical Company in Curtis Bay “went off like cannons,” and the company’s towering brick smokestack was toppled; no one was injured in either incident. The lighthouse at Leading Point had its windows shattered and doors blown open, but the beacon was not damaged and kept shining.
The shoreline at Hawkins Point was freckled with fragments of steel, rivets, and human remains. Local fishermen plucked floating fish killed by the concussive blast out of the water up and down the Patapsco River that day. Debris from the explosion was strewn across Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties. The lighthouse inspector for Maryland’s Fifth District said the Alum Chine was found on the westerly side of the main ship channel, at the anchorage of the Quarantine Station of Leading Point on the line at Fort McHenry. It had settled at the bottom of the Patapsco River with 13 feet of water between it and the surface. Because it was in a shipping lane, it was deemed a hazard and plans were made for its removal. A gas buoy was placed over the wreck with a light that flashed red every seven seconds.
The Baltimore Harbor Board initially started an investigation but lost a jurisdictional fight with the U.S. Army Ordinance Department, which claimed investigative powers over the transport of explosives. In press reports immediately after the tragedy, Wiliam Bomhardt, the stevedore foreman who negligently ignited the blasting cap that started the fire, attributed the fire to the spontaneous combustion of gas that had built up in the mounds of coal. In another report, he said the friction of two sticks of dynamite rubbing against each other set off the explosion. Witnesses agreed that there were mounds of soft coal throughout the hold, and that dynamite cases were stored atop piles of coal. Some thought it possible that a burning ember might have found its way into those coal piles. But the grand jury decided there was enough evidence to charge Bomhardt and he was arrested; he was released on $1,000 bail. Even as the trial began, he denied culpability, insisting he was being treated unfairly. “It isn’t just,” he told reporters after he was indicted. “I was the unfortunate devil who happened to handle the box that exploded. The men who testified before the grand jury have bail hook on the brain.”
Indeed, there were sixteen stevedore witnesses who testified that Bomhardt was upset with the pace of work that morning and started the fire when he carelessly struck the crate of blasting caps with a boat hook. But the grand jury spread blame further than with just the foreman. It said there were “manifest evidence of carelessness” among all the stevedores, including the wearing of steel-spiked shoes rather than rubber shoes as required when working with dynamite. The principal officers of the stevedore company also showed an “utter ignorance” of the Inter-State Commerce Commission’s recommendations on handling explosives.
Bomhardt and the stevedores worked for the Joseph R. Foard Company and its subsidiary, the General Stevedoring Company, which operated as independent contractors. The company was sued by the owner of the Alum Chine, the Munson Line, the Maryland Steel Company, and an array of different victims for more than $500,000, but Judge John C. Rose awarded just $220,000 (roughly $5.8 million in 2020 dollars) to the various petitioners. The owners of the Alum Chine received the biggest award at $75,000 ($1.9 million in 2020), and the courts ordered “allowances” (annuity payments) to the families of victims for a period of years. Foard filed for bankruptcy immediately afterwards, so it was unclear whether anyone ever received the awards grant by the court. As for Bomhardt, there was no published evidence of a conviction or civil charges.
John Forrest, the Alum Chine steward rescued by the Goodhues brothers, was cared for in Baltimore and weeks later returned with his surviving crewmates to Liverpool, England. The voyage home was a challenge for him as he grew ill. Newspapers far and wide covered the tragedy and when the crew arrived at Newport, Monmouthshire, England, they were welcomed as heroes by a large crowd and were given a police escort to their homes. Forrest ended up in the hospital and neurological damages confined him to a wheelchair. It would take him two-and-a-half months to be able to walk with two canes, and another fourteen months to walk with just one. Two years later in 1915 he was finally able to walk unassisted.
The Goodhues brothers officially rescued between twelve and fifteen people that cold March morning. Other published reports suggested they rescued far more than they were credited with. They received medals of valor for their heroism from the British government later in 1913. Ninety-four years later in 2007 James’ granddaughter, Patricia Lee Goodhues, would appear with her grandfather’s memorabilia from the disaster on the PBS show Antique Roadshow, where she told the story of his heroism. The Carnegie Heroes Fund, a charity established by Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, granted lifelong annuity payments to the Atlantic Captain Van Dykes’ wife and mother, and a smaller annuity for his son until he became of age. Diggs’ wife was presented with a silver medal honoring his bravery; four other crew members of the Atlantic were also recognized.
The Alum Chine disaster remains one of the worst disasters in Baltimore history. In the years prior to the Curtis Bay disaster the city’s dynamite shipments were managed in the heavily populated Canton district. But residents expressed concern that a disaster was looming; the city acceded to their removal requests in 1912 — just one the year before the Alum Chine explosion — and moved dynamite shipments offshore from Quarantine and Hawkins Point. Weeks after the blast the city codified that decision by formally requiring that all high explosive shipments be moved even further away from the city, requiring loading, and unloading further south that the Quarantine Station. A blast of its kind would not happen again for another 25 years when an explosion in the Montebello Loch Raven tunnel killed ten and injured seven in July 1938.