What could be more disastrous than giant ships exploding in the middle of the vast ocean, claiming the lives of the people on board, probably before sinking to the bottom of the sea? Well, the movie Titanic gave us a bit of an idea of how it was like to be on a sinking ship (although it didn’t sink because of an explosion but due to an iceberg), except, of course, we couldn’t expect to see sinking ships as romantic as the film was, but you get the idea. Here are five ship explosions in the history of the United States that were just as disastrous, if not more.
During the American Revolution, the American colonies found their fate uncertain by October 1777. Philadelphia fell under the control of the British forces after they lost in the Battle of Brandywine a month before. New York was already in their hands, too. Fortunately, the Delaware River was still under the control of the American rebels. The river was the only route so that supply ships could reach Philadelphia. The Continental Army understood how crucial it was to never let the British take over it.
On the night of Oct. 22, 1777, the British ship HMS Augusta and several other warships, under the command of Admiral Francis Reynolds, went up the Delaware River to get a good position for a planned attack at Fort Mercer the following day. Unfortunately for them, the ship was stuck in a sandbar. The Continental Army woke up to the enemy’s ship that was just helplessly there. What followed was the ruthless bombardment that caused the ship to catch fire. Flames engulfed Augusta until it reached the section where loads of gunpowder were kept. The ship exploded and produced the loudest boom that rattled the windows in Trappe, Pennsylvania, which was a good 30 miles away from the explosion. As Thomas Paine described in a letter he sent to Benjamin Franklin, the sound was “like the peal of a hundred cannon at once.”
HMS Augusta was the largest ship that the British lost in the American Revolution.
The 1830s was an era of steam-powered ships in the south, deemed the most efficient means of transportation. The steamship Pulaski was used as a service to transport its passengers to northern vacation homes, attend horse races in Saratoga Springs, and conduct businesses in different cities. It traveled between Savannah, Georgia, and Baltimore, with a stop in Charleston, South Carolina.
On June 14, 1838, the Pulaski was off to its overnight sailing from Charleston to Baltimore. Everything was going well until at 11:04 PM, the starboard boiler exploded and tore the ship in half. Some passengers died instantly after being hit either by the explosion or the scalding steam. The other fell into the water. Pulaski had about 200 passengers, but only four lifeboats were on board. If that was not bad enough yet, only two of the four were floating. The other passengers had to cling to whatever floating was left on the wreckage of the steam-powered ship while waiting to be rescued, just like the people in the Titanic, if you were to picture it out.
Out of the 200, only 59 people survived.
Still, in the age of steamboats, the Mississippi River from 1850 to 1900 was crowded with commerce from these ships. In 1857, the childhood dream of Samuel Clemens (who would, later on, use the pen name Mark Twain) to become a steamboat pilot finally came true when he served as a cub pilot on the steamboat Pennsylvania from September 27, 1857, until June 5, the following year. When he did, he helped his younger brother Henry get an internship in the boat (then called mud clerk.) When ship pilot William Brown began harassing Henry, Samuel came to his defense, costing him his job as he was fired. Henry, however, stayed on board.
On the morning of June 13, the engineer responsible (supposed to be) for monitoring boiler pressure left his post to have a little chitchat with some women passengers. The four boilers exploded, and Henry, whose berth was just above the boiler room, suffered from skin and lung burns. He survived the initial blast but died eight days later in a Memphis hospital.
Samuel felt responsible for his brother’s death, and it haunted him for the rest of his life.