Explosion on Steamer Parker Has Dire Results




Negro Fireman Is Literally 
Blown to Pieces and Two 
Are Supposed To Be Drowned





Ill-Fated Boat and the John A. Patten Were Making Way Down River at High Rate of Speed When Accident Occurred Eye-Witnesses Thought the Steamers Were Racing.


Dead or Missing:

George (Bunk) Kelly, Negro fireman, blown to pieces.

Will Sibley*, deck hand, blown into water and supposed to have drowned.

Body not recovered.

Bob Bass, deck hand, missing and supposed to have been blown into the water and drowned. Body not recovered.


Capt. Jim Thompson, captain and pilot of the boat, severely cut about the face, lips split, deep gash in left hand and side scaled.

Jesse Allison, engineer, blown into the water, with burns over the eyes.

Mrs. Jesse Allison, wife of the engineer, nervous shock and badly shaken up.




       As a result of the explosion of the boilers on the steamer Parker, owned and operated by the Dale Sand company, yesterday morning, three members if the crew are dead or missing and most of the others are more or less seriously wounded and shaken up.

      It was about 11:50 when the accident happened. The explosion came without a minute's warning and when it occurred the steamer was immediately opposite Williams Island, some nine miles south of this city.

      The Parker left the city wharf about 11 o'clock under command of Capt. Jim Thompson, just a few minutes before the John A Patten, belonging to the Tennessee River Navigation company, backed into the river for its regular trip to Decatur, the Parker being on the way to the sand mines of the Dale Sand company at the Suck.

      Both boats went down the river together, at no time being over 100 yards apart, the Parker getting that start of the Patten by leaving the wharf first. Eye witnesses to the accident say that just before the two boats got to the upper end of Williams Island, that apparently they were racing to see which would get into the channel around the island first.



      Shortly after and just as the boats reached Jackson's bar, about half way down the island, the explosion came, blowing fireman George Kelly, into bits and practically demolishing the whole boat with the explosion of the hull, which caught fire and drifted down the river, sinking near the lower end of the island.

      The force of the explosion was such as to blow the cabin, deck and the pilot house entirely away from the hull of the boat, besides blowing one of the boilers, which did not explode over onto the island, and the head of the boiler that did explode, onto the barge which it was carrying down the river to the sand mines.

      Capt. Jim Thompson was in the pilothouse at the time of the explosion, together with Will D. Sibley*, who is his brother-in-law, both of them being blown out of the pilothouse into the river.


      A skiff under command of Captain W. S. McKee was immediately put out by the Patten and picked up those that could be found in the water. Milo Thompson, who is an uncle of Capt. Jim Thompson, and who was the other pilot on the boat, together with Mrs. Allison, Joe Williford, the boat watchman and the Negro cook, Willie Kelly, took refuge on the barge, cutting loose from the Parker. From this place they were rescued by the boat from the Patten.

      Engineer Allison had just been to the boilers to examine them, and turning, had started out when the explosion came. He was blown into the water and swam nearly a quarter of a mile to the island, being taken on board the Patten and brought back to this city. Mrs. Allison was on the lower deck between the boiler room and the engine room, and while the force of the explosion carried the entire upper decks from over her head, she escaped unhurt, with the exception of a severe shock, and made her way to the barge, with the remainder of those who had not been blown into the water.


      All that could be found were immediately taken on board the Patten, which turned around and came back to this city.

      The wounded ones were attended to at once, Capt. Jim Thompson's injuries being so severe as to necessitate carrying him to his home in Hill City, where his wounds were dressed by Dr. Raymond Wallace.


      In speaking of the accident, Capt. Thompson stated to a representative of The Times:

      "I have no idea how the accident happened. I was in the pilot house with my brother-in-law, Wm. D. Sibley*, when the explosion came, and the next thing I knew I was out in the river hanging onto a piece of wreckage. It happened so suddenly that I did not know there was an explosion until I came to in the water, I was there only a few moments when the boat from the Patten came and picked me up."


      Dan Edwards and J. J. Matthews, farmers living on the river bank opposite where the explosion occurred, brought the news of the explosion to the city, reaching here sometime before the Patten. When seen by a representative of The Times Mr. Edwards said:

      "I was out in my barn, which is only a little way from the river bank, when I heard the two boats coming down the river. While they were still some distance off I called my wife's attention to them, saying that I believe they were racing. My notice was first attracted to them by the shouting and yelling that was going on among the deck hands on both steamers."


      "When the boats passed the head of the island it looked as if they were neck and neck, but as they came on down towards me the Parker got ahead, and at the time the explosion occurred it must have been at least 100 yards in the lead. I felt the ground tremble, and then I saw a great cloud of steam and smoke, and I knew something had happened. When I found out just what happened Mr. Matthews and I came to the city to let them know. I believe the boats were racing." In this Mr. Matthews concurred.

      J. H. Black, general manager of the Dale Sand company, when seen by a reporter for the Chattanooga Times yesterday, denied the rumor that the Parker and the John A. Patten were racing at the time the former boat blew up. "The boats were simply going down the river together," said Mr. Black, "as they often do. There is no reason why they should have been racing today."


      When asked what had caused the explosion of the boilers, Mr. Black was unable to give an explanation. "It is just one of those peculiar happenings," he said. "The boilers were inspected by government inspectors three months ago. When the boat left the wharf this morning, so far as known, the boilers were in good condition. The exact cause will probably be brought out in the investigation of the government inspectors." 

      Capt. W. C. Wilkey, general manager of the Tennessee River Navigation company, also denied that the boats were racing when the explosion came, "but," he added with a smile, "you know that when two boats get out on the river that the fastest one will always get in front."


      Jesse Allison, the engineer of the ill-fated Parker, in speaking of the explosion, said that he was in the door of the boiler room when the boilers blew up. "The first thing I knew I was out in the water some distance from the boat. As soon as I got my bearings and got the water out of my mouth I started to swim to the island. I saw Thompson struggling in the water, and started to help him, but I saw my strength was about to give out, and I then started toward the island. I saw my wife on the deck of the boat, and I called to her to remain aboard until assistance came. When I reached the island a yawl, which had been put out by the Patten, picked me up and took me over to the boat, which brought me, in company with the others, to Chattanooga."

      "I know that the boilers had water in them," said Mr. Allison, "as I inspected the water gauge just a few seconds before the explosion. I walked over to the gauge and found that there was water in the boilers, and then walked over to the door of the boiler room, when the explosion occurred."


      Mr. Allison showed signs of being badly shaken up, besides a number of bruises about the face. He was also scalded in a few places on the body. Yesterday afternoon he was not fully recovered from the excitement and for a few minutes was not able to say at first what time the accident occurred. "I am not certain whether I ate dinner or not, but I am inclined to think that I did not." After thinking for a moment he said he was certain that he had not had dinner, as the bell for dinner on the Patten rang about five minutes after the survivors had been placed on board, which was about 12:30 o'clock. It is therefore estimated that the explosion occurred about noon.


      Just what caused the explosion will probably never be known, for all machinery was supposed to have been in good condition, the government inspectors having gone over it about three months ago, and pronounced the boat all right.

      The Parker had been engaged in towing sand barges to and from the sand mines at the suck for some months, having been purchased by the Dale Sand company about nine months ago in Memphis. It was 120 feet in length and 22 feet wide, had an 18 foot wheel with a five foot stroke, and was valued at about $10,000, with $3,000 insurance. While no one in this city knew when the boat was built, it was apparently about six years old, thought the engine gave indications of being considerably older than this. It was reported on the streets after the explosion yesterday that these boilers have given trouble on more than one occasion lately, but this could not be confirmed at the offices of the sand company, where it was stated they were in good condition as far as known.

               An inspection will be made at once by the government inspectors for this district, George Green and J. H. St. John of Nashville. It is expected that they will be in this city at an early date, and it is not probable that any definite information as to the cause of the explosion will be had until then.

The Chattanooga Times, Wednesday, February 6, 1907


* Actual name was William D. Sivley. He married Ida Thompson August 18, 1887 in Hamilton County. Ida was the sister of Capt. Jim (James Norris) Thompson. Family information provided by Anne Templeton Wilson.


Submitted by Anne Templeton Wilson