History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART FIVE: CHAPTER 4: The Disaster to the Bennington

The explosion on board the gunboat Bennington, which occurred in San Diego harbor on Fri­day morning, July 21, 1905, was an event of national importance. The vessel was lying in the stream at the foot of H Street, with steam up, ready to depart. The crew num­bered 179 men, Captain Lucien Young com­manding. The captain had gone ashore and the crew of his launch were awaiting his return at the wharf, when the boat was to leave for Port Harford to take the Wyoming in tow for San Francisco. At 10:33 A.M. there were two explosions in quick succession and the ship was enveloped in steam and listed to starboard. The forward and main port boil­ers had exploded. The explosion and escaping steam killed or injured more than half the crew. Many were blown into the water; others were penned between decks and cooked by steam; the passageways were blocked with dead and dying; the decks covered with blood and debris; and a scene of horror impossible to describe was created.


Captain Young was notified and hurried to the wharf and boarded the vessel. With him went a reporter of the San Diegan-­Sun; and they were the first to set foot on the deck after the explosion. Boats and launches were sent from the vessels anchored near, and from the wharves. Volunteers came on board and offered their services in rescuing the living and removing the dead. They went down into the reeking hold, groping amid wreckage and blinding steam, and in a short time did everything possible. The explosion of the boilers left the blow-off pipes open and water began to come in rapidly. The danger of fire was also great, and for this reason the magazines were flooded. The water thus coming in settled the vessel in the bay and made the work of removing the bodies much more difficult. An engine was provided and placed on a lighter alongside to pump out the hold. It took three days to finish this work. On the evening of the 24th, the water was under control and the vessel having been lightened by the removal of supplies, she was towed to the Santa Fé wharf and made fast.

The dead and wounded were transferred to the nearest wharf and arrangements for their care immediately made. Mayor John L. Sehon was quickly on the scene and organized the relief work with military skill and efficiency. There were comfortable beds for the sufferers, hot water, physicians, and nurses in waiting. There never was a case where so much was done in so short a time, with such magical celerity and absence of confusion and friction. The police kept back the crowd and co-operated in many ways. The doctors and nurses of the city volunteered their services. The Agnew Sanitarium and St. Joseph’s Hospital were thrown open and the injured removed there, where they were tenderly cared for until death relieved them or until they recov­ered sufficiently to be removed to the army hospital at the barracks.

The number of men killed outright at the time of the explo­sion was 51, and 9 died from their injuries, making the total deaths resulting from the disaster 60. The injured numbered 46, and only 91 escaped uninjured.

The funeral of the victims of the explosion on July 23d was observed as a day of mourning, and the citizens of San Diego did everything in their power to show their appreciation of the occasion. The 47 coffins were placed side by side in a long trench at the military cemetery, and the ceremonies were of an impress­ive character.

There were many instances of individual heroism at the time of the explosion. Injured men worked like heroes, and saved their comrades regardless of their own sufferings. One of the men who escaped uninjured was J. H. Turpin, a colored man, who had been badly injured in the Maineexplosion. The forti­tude of the sufferers was beyond all praise.

There were rumors which gained currency at the time that the boilers of the Bennington were known to be weak, and that the commander had repeatedly reported this fact. The affair was passed upon, first by an investigation board under Admiral Goodrich, and then by a courtmartial, the latter body recom­mending the censure of Captain Young.

The Bennington was a gunboat and a warship of the third class. She was built at Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1889-90, and cost $553,875. She was equipped with two screws and was schooner-rigged. She was taken to Mare Island Navy Yard to be rebuilt.

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Main Page
Author’s Foreword
Introduction: The Historical Pre-Eminence of San Diego

PART ONE:   Period of Discovery and Mission Rule

  1. The Spanish Explorers
  2. Beginning of the Mission Epoch
  3. The Taming of the Indian
  4. The Day of Mission Greatness
  5. The End of Franciscan Rule
    Priests of San Diego Mission

PART TWO:   When Old Town Was San Diego

  1. Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
    List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
  2. Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
    List of Ranchos in San Diego County
  3. Political Life in Mexican Days
  4. Early Homes, Visitors and Families
  5. Pleasant Memories of Social Life
  6. Prominent Spanish Families
  7. The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
    List of Mission Indian Lands
  8. San Diego in the Mexican War
  9. Public Affairs After the War
  10. Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
  11. Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
  12. American Families of the Early Time
  13. The Journalism of Old San Diego
  14. Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

PART THREE:   The Horton Period

  1. The Founder of the Modern City
  2. Horton’s Own Story
  3. Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
  4. San Diego’s First Boom
  5. Some Aspects of Social Life

PART FOUR:   Period of “The Great Boom”

  1. Coming of the Santa Fe
  2. Phenomena of the The Great Boom
  3. Growth of Public Utilities
  4. Water Development

PART FIVE:   The Last Two Decades

  1. Local Annals, After the Boom
  2. Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
  3. Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
  4. The Disaster to the Bennington
  5. The Twentieth Century Days
  6. John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem

PART SIX:   Institutions of Civic Life

  1. Churches and Religious Life
  2. Schools and Education
  3. Records of the Bench and Bar
  4. Growth of the Medical Profession
  5. The Public Library
  6. Story of the City Parks
  7. The Chamber of Commerce
  8. Banks and Banking
  9. Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
  10. Account of the Fire Department

PART SEVEN:   Miscellaneous Topics

  1. History of the San Diego Climate
  2. San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
  3. Governmental Activities
  4. The Suburbs of San Diego

Political Roster, City of San Diego
Political Roster, San Diego County