Explosion rocked Smithville
Thursday, February 3, 2011 | Denis McGinness, Smithville Times
Ceremony to commemorate dark day in history from 1911
Like tracks weaving through a rail yard, Smithville’s history is intertwined with the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad, affectionately dubbed the Katy. On Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 2 p.m., at the Gazebo, a ceremony will be held to commemorate a dark day in that history known as “The Terrible Explosion at Smithville.”
The ceremony will take place 100 years to the day and almost to the minute that the disaster took place.
The tragic event occurred when a boiler on one of the huge switch engines exploded from massive steam pressure at the large MK&T Railroad roundhouse facility on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 1911 at about 2:10 p.m.
“I am unaware of any greater tragedy that has befallen this city,” said Bruce Blalock, railroad historian and a member of the James. H. Long Railroad Park and Museum board.
Dozens of Smithville residents can be seen taking in the scene of a boiler explosion on Feb. 8, 1911 that killed 10 men and injured several others. Pictured to the right, the remains of the switch engine after the boiler blast. Prior to the explosion, the engine had been located in the center of the picture between two locomotives. Bruce Blalock/Courtesy Photo
The commemorative ceremony will be simple, according to Blalock, with a recap of the event, a reading of the names of those railroad workers who were killed, a moment of silence and the ringing of the train bell.
The tragic story starts with switch engine No. 233, which had just been turned out from the maintenance shop after overhauling. Mechanics were making adjustments to the safety valve, or pop-off valve, on the huge steam engine when the explosion occurred.
It is suspected that a defective steam line to the pressure gauge prevented the workmen from knowing the actual pressure in the engine and they tightened the pop off valves until an estimated pressure of 800 pounds. per square inch was hit, rupturing the boiler, blowing the engine forward 75 feet and sending the rail tender backward into the turntable pit.
Ten men were killed outright by the powerful event, two died later and several had serious injuries. Killed instantly were H. E. O’Rourke, Charles Gray, Thurston McNeill, Harry Clark, Will Phelps, F. Barino, Aaron Harless, Phil Hubbard, Albine Mitchell and Henry Stoglin.
O’Rourke’s body was identified by his foot, which had one toe amputated. The bodies of Charles Gray and four others were found under Engine No. 550, which stood on one side of the switch engine. One body was found under Engine No. 327, which was on the other side. One body landed on a house more than 300 yards from the explosion.
The Katy’s division surgeons in Smithville, Dr. J. H. E. Powell and P. Chapman (who had offices over the Hill and Trousdale buildings, respectively) were overwhelmed giving proper care to such extensive injuries so a special train was arranged to bring physicians from La Grange. Then at 6:30 p.m. on the day of the accident, a special train took six of the most seriously injured to Waco to the Katy hospital facility there.
According to a Houston Chronicle story published on Feb. 9, 1911, part of the engine’s firebox flew through the air and landed in town alongside Mohler’s grocery store, (105 W. Second St.) breaking the leg of his delivery horse. The story said most of the glass in adjacent buildings was shattered, as were fixtures in buildings along Second Street. The explosion caused a shock wave that “set the entire people wild with excitement.”
Pieces of the engine were also thrown six blocks from the rail yard. Smithville resident Johnny Stalmach picked up one of those pieces and put it in his yard. The twisted steel sat for 98 years, until, realizing the historical nature of the wreckage, Ruth Stalmach Whitehead and the Stalmach family got the idea to create something from it that would commemorate the accident.
The Railroad Museum, through the help of historical author David Herrington and art promoter Richard Latham, is working with local artist Russell Smith to create a memorial sculpture that will be dedicated the first week in May during the annual Katy Railroad employee reunion.
Blalock said the public is encouraged to attend the commemorative event and visit the museum to learn more about the history of the accident and the Katy Railroad in Smithville. The museum houses documents, photos and memorabilia of the MK&T Railroad’s long history in Smithville.
P.S. Bruce is the owner of the Katy House Bed and Breakfast, named for the M-K-T Railroad, the Katy.