The Westfield Disaster

THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

Continuing the theme of maritime disaster raised in our post on the film Manhattan Melodrama, today we remember the “Westfield Disaster,” which took place on July 30, 1871.

The Staten Island Ferry was being operated by the Staten Island Railroad, led by Jacob Vanderbilt, which had purchased the ferry service from Jacob’s brother Cornelius. Passengers complained about the poor condition of the boats as well as the ferry’s limited schedule. On July 30, to accommodate unusually heavy demand on a Sunday afternoon, the wooden-hulled side-wheeler Westfield II was pressed into service. (An earlier ferryboat named Westfield was among the three commandeered by the Union during the Civil War. It was never return to the ferry service.) As the Westfield II prepared to leave shortly after 1:00 p.m., passengers congregated at the bow of the boat, facing Staten Island.

Unfortunately, the Westfield II carried her coal bunker and boilers at this end of the boat, and at 1:27, one of the boilers exploded, immediately killing 66 passengers and injuring 200. Fifty-nine of the injured would eventually die as well.

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Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The official report, submitted by the Steamboat Inspection Service to the U.S. Treasury Department on August 16, noted the testimony of the ferry’s superintendent, James Braisted, that the practice of “carrying steam above the pressure allowed by the Inspector’s certificate was not uncommon” and that he “frequently had to reprimand his engineers for carrying steam in excess of that allowed by law.” In the case of the Westfield IIon that day, the engineer, Henry Robinson, was a man who didn’t have an engineer’s license and could not read or write (making him unable to read the inspector’s certificate). The official report held Braisted responsible for employing an unqualified engineer. The fact that the engineer happened to be a black man resulted in openly racist commentary in the city’s newspapers during the days that followed.

Jacob Vanderbilt was eventually charged with murder. He was not convicted.

Shortly before the Westfield II was junked in 1916, the New York Times ran a story about one of the survivors of the disaster, Mrs. Abbie Cowan Phillips, who had been sitting with her husband, two infant children and paternal grandparents in a closed carriage on the ferry when the explosion occurred. Speaking through her son, Mrs. Phillips recollected the event:

Mr. Phillips said that his mother still recalls the horror of the scenes as the boat went down, but clearest of all are recollections of the part her ofnw family played in the tragedy. The two tiny children and the grandparents were lost. Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were taken to the same hospital, but occupied different rooms. The wife was badly burned, and underwent what was then one of the pioneer skin-grafting operations. Mrs. Phillips had been told that her husband survived, but believed the doctors were deceiving her. As a matter of fact, her husband had been blinded, but this the hospital authorities feared to inform her.

As Mrs. Phillips was recovering she was allowed to wander from ward to ward. One day as she walked about she was gladden by the sound of her husband’s voice, calling to a nurse for some attention. She rushed to him. Mr. Phillips threw his arms about her, and, in the shock and excitement of the reunion, suddenly regained his sight.

Thought for a time the doctors had abandoned hope, Mr. Phillips lived twenty years after the accident.

The Westfield II spent her final days as a hospital ship.