Ask McGehee

What caused a bay boat to explode at Point Clear in the summer of 1871?

The only known image of the ill-fated Ocean Wave was drawn by Marian Acker Macpherson and appeared in a volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of the First National Bank of Mobile in 1940.

The Ocean Wave was an oddly named freight vessel plying Mobile Bay and dated to 1854. In 1871, her boiler exploded as she sat in front of what is today the Grand Hotel. Men, women and children were drowned or badly injured, and the story of this catastrophe made the front page of every major newspaper from New York to San Francisco.

Long before the opening of the Causeway in 1927, the only method to move people and freight between Mobile and Baldwin counties was by steam-powered bay boats. During the week, these vessels moved freight and the daily mail, but on summer evenings and weekends, they became pleasure boats that could be rented out for parties and excursions.

An Outing and Unplanned Stop

August 27, 1871, was a typical summer Sunday: sunny, humid and hot. At least 200 Mobilians boarded the Ocean Wave at 10 a.m. for an excursion to Fish River and Bon Secour. Everyone was having such a good time that they convinced Captain William Eaton to make an unplanned stop at the Point Clear Hotel, despite his objections. It was 5 p.m.

Most of the passengers strolled the hotel’s grounds, and some men stopped in for refreshments at the bar in the resort’s “Texas.” Others walked along the beach, dipping their toes in the Bay water. After about 30 minutes, the captain sounded the whistle, and folks made their way up the gangplank.

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A guest at the hotel was sitting on the verandah and noticed a young girl dawdling along the path to the dock and thought to himself that she might miss the boat. As that last little passenger approached the gangplank, survivors recalled hearing an odd hissing sound coming from the engine room followed by one — some say two — earsplitting explosions. That little girl was thrown to the ground but survived.  

Fragments of the boat — timbers and the metal of the boiler — were blown in all directions along with a number of unlucky passengers. The forward section of the cabin was carried away, and the smokestack collapsed, crushing the aft cabin. The vessel sank almost immediately in about seven feet of water.

Frantic cries filled the air as survivors called out for missing children, wives, husbands, parents, brothers and sisters. Capt. Eaton was spotted struggling in the water. Both of his legs were broken, and he vanished in the murky water before he could be rescued.

Death Toll Unknown

Hotel guests and Point Clear residents rushed to assist those in the water. Many dove in and pulled women and children to shore, and a number of boats attempted to aid those thrashing about in the water. For most, the help came too late. Nineteen bodies were recovered that day, and the Bay was dragged afterwards, recovering dozens more. The death count was later estimated to be as high as 100, and residents recalled the sad sight of children’s hats and bonnets washing ashore for days.

Twenty-eight wounded passengers were taken into the hotel, which became a makeshift hospital. Others had cuts, scrapes and burns from the explosion. Two summer residents, Dr. James Grey Thomas and Dr. Kirk Reynolds, who practiced in Mobile, came to assist. The two physicians were overwhelmed by the number of injured but worked until two steamers from Mobile arrived to take the wounded to hospitals a little after 8 p.m.

The scene at the dock in Mobile was bedlam as relatives of the passengers rushed the vessels looking for their loved ones. The Register reported, “The accident has cast a gloom over the whole city and universal sadness prevails.” Mobilians demanded an investigation.

According to information on file within the Local History and Genealogy Division of the Mobile Public Library, the fault was placed on the boat’s owners, engineers, a safety inspector and the men who had chartered her. The Ocean Wave had been converted to haul freight and did not have the proper permit to carry passengers.  

The bar on board had arranged for the trip to take longer than planned in order to sell more refreshments, and witnesses stated they had seen the captain and the ship’s engineer drinking whisky that day. One of the owners who had planned to be on board was so drunk he missed the 10 a.m. sailing.

A Bad Repair and a Need for Speed

The boiler on the Ocean Wave had been salvaged from a sunken bay boat and had been underwater for at least six months. Although it was refitted and termed safe, the explosion was blamed on a patch that gave way that afternoon. Just who placed that fatal patch was apparently never determined.

Because of the slow cruising speed and an unplanned stop, it is possible that the captain was worried the crossing would conclude well after nightfall. He knew there was no moon, and the darkness would severely limit his sight in the Bay. As a result, it is suspected he called for full steam, and the increased pressure caused the old boiler’s patch to give way.

Unfortunately, the library’s files do not reveal what punishment was given to the various guilty parties, but the tragedy surely made future inspections of boilers aboard vessels far more stringent so that such an event would never occur again in Mobile Bay.

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