USS Bennington (Gunboat # 4)

USS Bennington USS Bennington, a 1700-ton gunboat of the Yorktown class, was built at Chester, Pennsylvania, and commissioned in June 1891. She initially served in the Atlantic and European areas, and was transferred to the Pacific in 1894. Her active service was ended by a deadly boiler explosion at San Diego, California, on 21 July 1905. Bennington was not repaired after this tragedy, and was sold in November 1910.

The Boiler Explosion on the "USS Bennington"


July 21, 1905

The terrible boiler explosion which occurred, on July 21, on the U. S. gunboat Bennington, has been the subject of a protracted official investigation by the Navy Department, and we have thought it only courteous to the Department to defer the publication of any extended account of the disaster, until the completion of the official proceedings. It appears likely, at the present writing, that no further action is to be taken; and hence we present the following account of the accident, which gives the general facts so far as they can be gathered from the data that are available.

The Bennington was authorized by Congress on March 3, 1887, and was built by N. F. Palmer & Company, of Chester, Pa., the successors of John Roach. Her keel was laid in June, 1888, and she was launched on June 3, 1890, and commissioned for the first time on June 20, 1891. She was classed as a gunboat, and her hull was constructed of steel, with a single bottom. Her displacement was 1,710 tons, and her main battery consisted of six 6-inch breech-loading rifles, an her secondary battery of four 6-pounders, four 1-pounder rapid-firing guns, and two 30-caliber Colt guns. The engines of the Bennington were horizontal, triple expansion, and operated two screws. The cylinders were 22, 31, and 50 inches in diameter, respectively, with a stroke Of 30 inches. The maximum indicated horse power developed was 3,392, and the estimated speed attained on the trial trip was 17.5 knots per hour. The total weight of her machinery was 282.65 tons, and her coal bunkers had a capacity of 391 tons, with a coal endurance (at a speed of ten knots per hour) or 4,262 knots.

The Bennington had four cylindrical straight-way boilers, commonly known as locomotive gunboat boilers, each 17 ft. 9 in. long and 9 ft. 9 in. in diameter. Each of these boilers had three furnaces, with one combustion chamber, which was divided into three parts by a transverse arch of firebrick, and a longitudinal wall built on the crown of the arch and between the nests of tubes. There was a hanging bridge-wall in each of the divisions of the combustion chamber. Each combustion chamber was 45 inches deep (that is, lengthwise of the boiler), and 8 ft. 10 in. in extreme width. The main shell-plates of the boilers were 13/16 in. in thickness, the tube-sheets were 9/16 in. thick, and the front head was 3/4 in. thick.

The longitudinal joints of the shells were butted and double riveted, with straps inside and out, and the girth joints were lapped and double riveted. The rivets were 1 inch in diameter. Each boiler had fifteen fore-and-aft braces 2-1/4 in. in diameter. Each boiler had a heating surface of 2,053 sq. ft., a grate area of 55 sq. ft., a water surface of 149.5 sq. ft., a steam space of 328 cu. ft., and a free area through the tubes of 9.42 sq. ft. Each boiler weighed 26.68 tons when empty, and 41.66 tons when filled with water to the normal level.

We have no information as to the diameter and thickness of the furnaces and tubes of the Bennington's boilers, but the boilers of the Bennington and Yorktown are supposed to be identical, and they are so, so far as we have been able to compare the two. The Yorktown has corrugated furnaces 41 in. in diameter outside and 37 in. inside, and the furnaces are one-half an inch thick. Of the Yorktown's 438 tubes, all are 2-1/4 in. in diameter externally, and 370 are No. 11 B. W. G. in thickness, while the remaining 68 are No. 6 on the same gauge, and are spaced as uniformly as practicable among the others, so as to give additional staying support to the tube sheets. We presume, in the absence of information to the contrary, that the Bennington's furnaces and tubes were substantially the same as here described. (The boilers of the Yorktown are illustrated in Engineering (London) for April 24, 1891, page 493.)

The Bennington's boilers (four in number) were placed in two separate water-tight compartments. In each fire-room there were two blowers for producing forced draft, these drawing air from the fire-rooms and discharging it into ducts which led to the ash-pit fronts and door frames. One of the blowers in the after fire room was arranged to draw air from the engine-room or fire-room, as might be desired. There was one smoke stack, 7 ft. in diameter and 57 ft. 6 in. high, for the four boilers; the uptakes from each pair uniting above the water-tight bulkheads between the fire-rooms. The boilers were originally designed (it is said) for a steam pressure of 160 lbs. per square inch; but the pressure had been reduced to 135 or 140 lbs. for cruising, the safety valves being set to blow at 145 lbs. The boilers were re-tubed in 1903-1904, and we understand that temporary repairs of some character were made upon the boilers in May, 1905, at the Mare Island Navy Yard.

The Bennington has been used mainly in Pacific waters, and her last service previous to the explosion was at the Hawaiian Islands. She sailed from Honolulu on July 7, proceeding to San Diego, Cal., where she arrived on July 19. The monitor Wyoming having just dropped one of her propellers near Port Harford, Cal., and become unmanageable, the Bennington was ordered to go to her assistance, and see her safely into San Francisco. The Bennington was to sail for this purpose on July 21, and on that day she was lying in the stream at San Diego, just off the Commercial wharf at H street, nearly ready to depart, when the disasterous explosion occurred. Commander Lucien Young says, in his telegram to the Navy Department announcing the explosion, "At 10:30 this morning, while making preparations for getting under way with all hands at their stations, the top of the lower furnace of boiler B exploded, forcing the boiler astern in contact with boiler D, which was also forced astern, and exploded." If we understand the phraseology correctly, it would imply that the initial rupture consisted in the failure of the lower furnace of the forward starboard boiler, by collapse from above downward, and that the boiler so affected was thrown violently astern, so that it came into collision with the aft starboard boiler, and caused that to explode also. (See, however, the Report of the Court of Inquiry, subsequently given.) Commander Young was ashore at the time, but the discipline appears to have been excellent, and the magazines were promptly flooded, and steps were at once taken to rescue the injured. Sections of the upper deck were carried away and a hole was blown in the side of the vessel, through which water entered, causing a rapid listing to starboard. The vessel was at first said to be almost totally wrecked, but she was subsequently found to be "practically uninjured except in and about the boiler and engine-room." By the assistance of other craft she was beached on a mud bank, between two wharves.

The total number of persons killed was 62, counting those killed outright and those that died within a short time. In addition, there were 14 who were seriously injured and 26 others who were injured less seriously. The ship's complement of men numbered 197, including officers and crew, so that it appears that more than half (namely, 102,) of the men were killed or injured. We shall not attempt to give any account whatever of the scenes of horror that prevailed upon the fated ship. Commander Young stated that not even the leper settlement at Molokai, in the Hawaiian Islands, could show anything so fearful.

Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte made the very reasonable request that judgment as to the responsibility for the disaster be suspended until an official investigation could be made. He said: "I promise the public that nobody shall be whitewashed, and the Service that nobody shall be made a scapegoat." A Court of Inquiry was appointed to investigate the explosion, and this began its work at San Diego on July 28. The Court consisted of Commander Holland N. Stevenson, Captain Thomas S. Phelps, and Captain Edwin K. Moore. The finding of the Court reached the Navy Department on August 21, and was made public on August 22. From this report it appears that when the orders to sail for Port Harford were received, the boilers and engines of the Bennington were being overhauled, preparatory to an expected voyage to Panama. Boilers A and B were ordered to be filled with fresh water. Fires were started in the lower furnaces of these two boilers (the remaining boilers being already under steam) at about 8 o'clock on the morning of July 21, and at about 9:15 fires were started also in the wing furnaces of A and B. What followed is best given in the precise words of the Court, which found: "That at about twenty minutes after nine o'clock, a. m., the steam gauge on boiler B showed about five pounds of steam pressure, and at this time Oiler Frank De Courtani, acting as water tender, directed D. H. Holland, fireman, second class, to close the air cock on boiler B; that the said Holland climbed up and closed a valve, and almost immediately the steam gauge on boiler B failed to register any pressure; that this was apparently not noticed by either the water tender or the fireman, and no attention appears to have been paid to the fact that the steam gauge failed to register, but they kept on working the fires and firing heavily; that when the steam gauge on boiler A showed one hundred and thirty-five pounds there was no pressure showing on the steam gauge of boiler B.

"That at about a quarter to ten o'clock, a. m., the engines were turned over, using steam from boilers C and D; that as it was not thought that steam would be ready in boilers A and B before early in the afternoon, it had been decided to get under way and leave the harbor under boilers C and D, but steam appears to have formed much more rapidly than it was thought possible it could be formed, and boiler A was connected with boilers C and D at about twenty minutes after ten o'clock, a. m.; that no pressure was showing on the steam gauge of boiler B at this time.

"That at about this time a small leak developed in No. 1 furnace of boiler B, and coal passer A. J. Worthen was sent on deck by De Courtani, the acting water tender, to inform the boiler maker about the leak and request him to come below and attend to the same; and just about this time, as Worthen was leaving Dustin, the boiler maker (who was, we believe, on the berth deck), the explosion occurred.

"That the lower corrugated furnace flue of boiler B collapsed throughout its entire length on top, and partly so on its bottom, which caused boiler B to break from its saddles, forcing the boiler aft through a bulkhead and against boiler D which also broke from its saddles, both boilers moving aft, until boiler D, after having broken through the engine room bulkhead, brought up against the forward engine framing, boiler B having moved aft about fourteen feet from its original position, breaking all steam connections of all the boilers, allowing the steam from the four boilers to escape into the ship, also breaking many sea-water connections, in the fire rooms and engine room, giving water access to the ship, and disabling everything in the boiler and engine-rooms; that steam escaped with terrific force into almost all parts of the ship, carrying with it water, ashes, and coal, killing or wounding 51.45 per cent. of the officers and crew, and damaging almost everything throughout the ship."

It is but natural to ask why the safety-valve did not blow upon boiler B, under the circumstances so plainly indicated. Upon this point the finding of the Court was: "That no one seemed to have noticed any escape of steam from the safety-valves of any of the boilers, and no one can state that any of tile safety-valves blew off at any time that morning. That we can find no record of the safety-valve of boiler B having been overhauled since July, 1904, nor any positive evidence of its having been done, though orders had been given for this to be done in March, 1905; that there is no record of the sentinel valve having been overhauled since July, 1904; that the safety-valves were set at 145 pounds, but en route from Honolulu to this port orders were given to carry the steam pressure at from 130 to 135 pounds, and not to exceed the latter, but the safety-valves were not changed; that this order had been clearly understood; that the hand gear for lifting the safety-valves was not in working order, and there is no record or direct evidence that the safety-valves had been tested in accordance with the Navy Regulations."

Summing up the evidence as to the cause of the explosion, the Court says: "The Court is of the opinion that the explosion was caused by excessive steam pressure in boiler B, which came about first by shutting the valve connecting the boiler with the steam gauge, instead of the valve on the air cock alone as was intended, so that the steam gauge did not indicate the pressure in the boiler; second, by unusual and heavy firing in the boiler, to get up a pressure which the gauge failed to show; third, by the failure of the sentinel and safety-valves to lift at the pressure at which they were set, and the pressure increased without relief until it was beyond the strength of the boiler, which gave way in its weakest part, afterward found to be the corrugated flue of No. 2, the lowest or middle furnace of which collapsed."

The Court found "that the ship was in an excellent state of discipline, and in a good and efficient condition, with the exception of her boilers, which were in fair condition and efficient considering their age (fourteen years) and the use to which they had been subjected." Fireman D. N. Holland is held responsible for closing the valve to the pressure gauge instead of the air cock as was indicated; Oiler Frank De Courtani is held responsible for pushing the fires without noting that the gauge did not respond, and for not immediately taking steps to relieve the boiler as soon as distress was shown; and Chief Machinist's Mate E. B. Ferguson, on watch in charge of the engine and fire rooms, is held responsible for failure to exercise due supervision during the raising of the pressure upon boiler B. All three of these men are dead, however, so that proceedings against them are impossible.

The only person still living, who appears to have been censured by the Court, is Ensign Charles T. Wade, who was in charge of the engineering department of the Bennington. It was recommended that Ensign Wade be court-martialed, on the grounds (1) that he failed to see to it personally that the safety-valve on the boiler was overhauled at the proper time and kept in good working order, but accepted the oral statement of one or more of his subordinates that it had been overhauled in March, 1905; (2) that he failed to keep the sentinel valve in good working order; and (3) that he failed to have the safety and sentinel valves on all the boilers tested in accordance with the Navy Regulations.

In reviewing the findings of the Court of Inquiry, under date of August 29, Secretary of the Navy Bonaparte approves the findings of fact, except in regard to the paragraph stating that "the ship was in an excellent state of discipline and in a good and efficient condition, with the exception of her boilers, etc." Concerning this paragraph the Secretary says: "The Department does not consider this particular finding sustained by the evidence; the proof tends strongly to show that the enlisted force of the engineering division had been permitted to fall into habits of laxity and inattention in the discharge of their duties, and that at least some of this force were also imperfectly instructed regarding their duties. In the view of the Department, the evidence establishes, further, that certain appurtenances, to wit, the safety and sentinel valves of at least one of the boilers, were not in an efficient condition at the date mentioned, and had not been in such condition for a considerable time previously, and, in the judgment of the Department, this evidence renders the statements that the ship was in a 'good and efficient condition,' and that her boilers were in 'fair condition and efficient,' inappropriate to the facts disclosed by the proof."

The Secretary commended, very cordially, the "highly creditable conduct of all the survivors of the officers and crew of the Bennington, after the explosion occurred," and he especially mentioned that he desired to include in this commendation Commander Lucien Young, and Ensign Charles T. Wade. The Secretary nevertheless approved of the recommendation of the Court that Ensign Wade be tried by court-martial. He also said: "Inasmuch as the Court of Inquiry did not pass expressly in its findings and opinion upon the conduct of Commander Lucien Young, U. S. N., commanding the U. S. S. Bennington, and the question of his responsibility for the explosion thereon and the consequent loss of life and injuries to persons and property, the Department must treat this silence as an implied finding that he was not thus responsible. After very careful consideration, the Department is compelled to disapprove this implied finding. . . . The foregoing provisions of the Regulations, and the facts disclosed by the Report of the Court of Inquiry and by the testimony and exhibits thereto attached, make it the duty of the Department to require Commander Lucien Young, U. S. N., to clear himself, before a general court-martial, of the charge of neglect of his official duty above indicated. Such court-martial is, therefore, ordered."

In accordance with the order here indicated, court-martial proceedings were instituted against Commander Lucien Young and Ensign Charles T. Wade, at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, with Captain Ernest E. West as Judge Advocate. The first meeting was held on Friday, September 15. This, however, was only a formal meeting, to fulfil the requirements of the Department. The regular sessions began on Monday, September 18, on which date Commander Young pleaded "not guilty." Commander Young was represented at the proceedings by Judge George D. Gear, of Honolulu, a personal friend, who came on from Honolulu especially to conduct the defense. After being in session for about a week, the court-martial adjourned on account of the illness of Ensign Charles T. Wade, who was needed as a witness. The sittings were resumed on October 9, and the prosecution closed its case on October 18. The defense was immediately begun, and on October 25 the court-martial proceedings against Commander Young came to an end. The finding of the court was transmitted to Secretary Bonaparte, who held it under consideration until the early part of January. On January 6 the Secretary addressed a letter of censure to Commander Young, in which he refers to Young's "brilliant services in the past," and his "merited reputation for seamanship and gallantry," and says: "The court-martial by which you were tried has convicted you of remissness in the discharge of your official duty in that you failed to sign the smooth steam log of the U. S. S. Bennington while that vessel was under your command, as required by the Regulations for the government of the Navy; for such remissness its sentence is that you be reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy."

Commander Young's failure to sign the log has but slight bearing, apparently, upon the accident to the Bennington.

Ensign Wade's trial was begun on October 30, before the same Court that tried Commander Young. It lasted but a few days, and resulted in the young man's acquittal.

We certainly have no disposition to lay the blame for the explosion upon Commander Young, and it may be that the men who were actually responsible for it were all killed. Nevertheless it will appear to the lay mind, we think, that the final outcome of the court of inquiry, and of two courts-martial in which three dozen witnesses were examined, is absurdly out of proportion to the fearful explosion that was under investigation. "A mountain was in labor, sending forth dreadful groans, and there was in the region the highest expectation. After all, it brought forth a mouse."

Excerpted from "The Locomotive" January 1906

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