Around 1 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 10, 1903, a loud explosion jolted the little Meigs County village of Rutland. The blast emanated from the Humphrey and Holt Canning Factory, located in the lower end of Rutland near the depot for the Kanawha & Michigan Railroad (later New York Central Railroad).
When the dust and debris settled, two people were dead, two were mortally injured, and two others severely burned. The two-story frame structure, owned by Asher Humphrey and Dennis Holt, according to the next day’s Los Angeles Herald, was “blown to atoms.” It was immediately apparent that the steam boiler used to provide steam for operating the plant’s machinery had exploded.
Those killed instantly were Gardner Near (a 67-year-old Civil War veteran), and 10-year-old Dale Rawlings; they were followed in death three hours later by 11-year-old Don Mutchler, and the next day by Albert Barkstall, 33, an employee at the cannery.
Although the tragic incident was reported in newspapers across the country, the three Pomeroy newspapers (The Democrat, The Tribune-Telegraph, and The Leader) covered it in more thorough detail, and this is primarily a compilation of their accounts (which all differed slightly).
The Democrat of Thursday, Aug. 13, 1903, reported that the plant was used as a crate factory in berry season, a cider mill in the fall and for grinding corn in the winter and had “recently been fitted to use as a canning factory in the summer.
“(The factory) had been idled for a long time and they desired to commence canning the next day. The boiler was filled by hand and a fire started beneath.”
According to state inspection records, the boiler was of a horizontal tubular style used for driving machinery; the records also indicated that the owners had installed a low-water alarm on the boiler.
According to reports Dennis Holt had tried to start the boiler on Saturday but “something went wrong,” and they pulled the furnace from underneath it.
On the day of the explosion, Mr. Holt had just kindled a fire under the boiler and was making repairs to the engine preparatory to canning corn the next day. His son, Weber, was above the boiler looking into the water tank when the boiler let go.
It was said that the boiler was full of water and that the gauge showed only 20 pounds of steam, but evidently the gauge was not working, because the big boiler shot endwise “like a sky rocket” across the road and over the hill a hundred yards away, tearing down or clearing telephone wires, and nearly missing a new brick house. The explosion was reportedly heard from as far as four miles away.
Near was standing in front of the boiler leaning on his cane, and was in the path of the flying boiler, and the two boys were somewhere near the front of the boiler and took the brunt of the steam and hot water. Barkstall, who was a newcomer to the village and little known, was 20 yards behind the building stacking lumber.
According to reports, Near’s body was found 60 feet away, the force of the blast blowing off all of his clothing with the exception of one sock, a wrist band, and a portion of his undershirt around his neck, while the boys were found between the mill and the road in a state that it was difficult to recognize them. Barkstall was found about 100 feet away in a corn field, badly burned and bruised.
The two Holts, while badly burned, survived the incident. It was reasoned that the older Holt survived because the boiler shot out from underneath him, and that the younger Holt fell into the space recently vacated by the boiler.
The other owner of the cannery, Mr. Humphrey, was sweeping in a shed built against the side of the engine room. He recalled hearing a terrible hissing sound (which conflicts with reports of a loud explosion) and then all around was enveloped in steam and dust. He ran around to the scene of the blast and found the still-living Mutchler boy and turned him over to other bystanders.
In a classic example of understatement, the account in The Democrat reads: “(Humphreys) looked for the boiler then, and failing to find it in its accustomed place, the knowledge that it had been blown away first dawned upon him.”
The search for more victims ensued and it was not until everyone in the village had been accounted for that the search ended. Drs. Bean and Chase, of Rutland, and Dr. Hartinger, Middleport, attended to the victims with the assistance of neighbors.
A funeral service for Near was held the following afternoon with military services conducted by the Sgt. Holt Post 43 of the Grand Army of the Republic. A double funeral was held Wednesday morning for the two boys with the entire village and much of the surrounding country in attendance. Near and the boys were interred in Miles Cemetery. Barkstall was buried in Union Ridge Cemetery, a now-abandoned African-American cemetery located off Burney Hollow Road a couple of miles north of town.
It is worth noting that Albert Barkstall’s last name was spelled four different ways in four different publications (Barksdale, Barkstahl, Braxtol, and Brackstole), and that furthermore no account of his funeral, burial, or even his age, were reported in any of the publications. Given the era, as a black man, and a newcomer at that, it probably wasn’t considered that important. The spelling used in this account, as well as his age, and place of burial, were found in cemetery records maintained by the Meigs County Museum and Historical Society.
The following week, The Democrat followed up with a report on the Holts’ conditions and remarked that they expected to fully recover.
The newspaper also reported that an investigator with the State Board of Examiners of Stationary Engineers was at Rutland and reported that he “found the boiler to be a faulty one, the steam gauge was not in working order, and the safety valve tied down.” The chief said he would go before the legislature asking for a law to make it an offense to operate any steam boiler until it has been approved by an inspector – which would have prevented the dreadful affair it being the opinion of everyone that the boiler was unfit for use and would have been condemned by a practical engineer. It was considered a blessing that the accident did not occur later when the plant would have been full of workers.
It is unknown whether the disaster actually helped spur workplace safety reforms in Ohio. However we do know that workplaces during that era were rather dangerous, especially with mechanization and power sources. Most likely that particular cannery was no more dangerous than the other mechanized workplaces around the state, and in any event the owners and operators put themselves into the same environment as their workers.
Today there is nothing that recalls the disaster, which I accidentally discovered while searching for information about the Meigs SWCD Conservation Area. Over the years I have worked on several publications and tabloids concerning Meigs County and Rutland history, and I had never heard of the incident.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org