This is the tragic story of an explosion at a small family business that made national headlines in 1909. This explosion killed two of the cousins of my 3x great grandmother, killed four other men, and injured another Geesey cousin.
But before we get to the details of the explosion, let me tell you a little about the history of this part of the Geesey family.
The people in this story are all grandchildren of Charles Geesey and Lydia Murry. Charles and Lydia moved from Pennsylvania to Steuben County, New York, some time before 1830, and their 10 children were born there. Then, sometime between 1850 and 1860, they moved with all but possibly their oldest child to Fulton County, Ohio. Most of their children got married and continued to live in this area of Ohio, mostly working as farmers. Charles and Lydia’s grandchildren that feature in this story are Deforest and Frank Geesey, sons of John Murray Geesey, and Freeman Geesey, son of Charles Geesey Jr. All of these men were cousins of Eva Alice Clark, who is my 3x great grandmother and the daughter of Mary H. (Geesey) Clark. Here’s a handy chart to help keep track of all of these people.
Sometime around 1900, Deforest moved to Dowagiac, Michigan, and became one of the most prominent businessmen of the city, owning and operating a hotel and the Geesey Bros & Coble Hoop Mill where the explosion occurred. As far as I can tell, the “hoops” they produced at this mill were used for barrels or other similar vessels; the hoops could be made of metal or wood (the Geesey mill produced wooden hoops), and they were used to secure the wooden “staves” that made up the sides of the barrel. The exploding boiler was used to supply steam for the engine that ran the wood-cutting machinery in the mill.
At some point before the explosion, it seems that at least one of his brothers, Frank, and their cousin Freeman moved to Dowagiac as well, along with their families. At the time of the explosion, these men were all 40-50 years old and married. However, it seems like even before the explosion, life had been hard For these Geesey cousins. Several of them were on their second marriage, their first wives probably dying somewhere along the way, and they each had at most 1 child as far as I can tell, none of whom lived long into adulthood.
This brings us to May 26th, 1909, the day of the explosion. At the busiest times of the year, the mill employed as many as 35 men, but on this day, they were preparing to close down for the season, so only eight men were working there. Their regular engineer in charge of the boiler was not working that day (one report said he was laid off), so another employee was running it. At 3:30 pm, one of the employees, A.B. Kinney, felt a draft (it was a cool, rainy day), and stepped outside to grab his coat. This probably saved his life – he was the only one there to not be killed or seriously injured. At this same time, a belt on the planer came off, so the men had to quickly shut the engine and boiler off. But just as Kinney reached the door and before the engine had stopped running off its own momentum, the boiler exploded.
Here’s how Kinney described the explosion: “Immediately after the blast the whole mill seemed to collapse. Bricks, parts of the iron boiler, and boards flew in every direction. With the mill smashed like cardboard all about me I did not even feel the force of the explosion. I kept my foot and escaped without a scar.” (2)
Debris was reported to have flown over 600 feet away. Besides Kinney, Freeman Geesey was the only other person there to survive. He said, “I was standing about eight feet from the boiler when it exploded and it was nothing short of a miracle that I escaped.” (2) When the boiler exploded, he was hit with flying bricks and debris, receiving many cuts and bruises. He was knocked down, and before he could get up, he heard another employee, Marvin Stewart, groaning nearby. Freeman found Marvin, and managed to carry him out of the ruins of the mill. He then went back in and continued to try to help others until more help arrived, despite his own serious injuries. Marvin later died of his injuries, and the rest of the men all died on the scene. The heavy rain that day put out the fire from the explosion quickly, so the bodies and the ruins of the mill were not badly burned.
This must have been a devastating loss to the Geesey family, and to their community as well. Deforest and Frank’s brother William was reported to have said that the family planned to sell their land in Michigan as soon as possible and then the family “will go to Ohio never to return” (4). I’ve had trouble finding everyone in the 1910 census, but by 1920 at least, it seems that indeed, the surviving family members were all back in Ohio.
Clearly, the problem of boiler explosions was widespread throughout the country at the time. A publication by a boiler inspection company lists 40 boiler explosions that happened in just the same month (May 1909) as the explosion at the Geesey mill, which resulted in a total of 34 serious injuries and 19 deaths. Many of these occurred in industrial settings, ships, and trains, but some occurred in heaters in residences, schools, and businesses like banks and hotels. (5)
However, this explosion had one of the highest death tolls in recent years. It made the newspapers all over the country, including the New York Times. Later inspections showed that the boiler in the Geesey mill was old, had never been inspected, and had been corroded and become too thin in areas, including where it burst it the explosion. By coincidence, there was a boiler inspector in town that day. I wish they would have had him come and inspect their boiler, and spent the necessary money to have it repaired or replaced.
One of the more generous reports claim that the corrosion and defects were on the inside of the boiler, where the mill’s engineer would not have been able to see them. Less generous reports seemed to insinuate that these kinds of explosions were a result of the greedy, careless industrialist who only cared about the bottom line, but not their employees. However, Deforest, the owner of the Geesey mill, was there working alongside the other employees, and was himself killed by the explosion. Yes, he was probably somewhat irresponsible in not having the boiler regularly inspected, but it seems like this was common practice in that time. Unfortunately, it took many tragedies like this before the government began to regulate inspection of boilers and before engineers were able to design ones with better safety features.
(1) 1909 June 15. “Boiler Explosion at Dowagiac, Michigan”. Power and the Engineer p. 1083.
(2) 1909 May 27. “Explosion Kills Hoopworks Men”. The Weekly Press (St. Joseph, Michigan) p. 1,5. (available on Ancestry.com)
(3) 1909. “A Destructive Boiler Explosion”. Practical Engineer 13(7):438.
(4) 1909 June. The Packages 12(6):72.
(5) The Hartford Steam Boiler and Inspection Co.1909. “Boiler Explosions”. The Locomotive 27(8):233-5.
(6) 1909 May 27. “Six Killed in Explosion”. The New York Times.