Deadly Day: Boiler Explosion on the Farm

Boiler explosion killed three and injured another in a 1937 incident.

blown-engine

Although these photos capture a different boiler explosion – one that occurred on Sept. 13, 1910 – the scene is probably similar to the explosion described in this article. Note the man with a bandage, and another (far right) operating what appears to be a box camera.

Photo by Farm Collector archives

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When considering life on the farm decades ago, we sometimes slip into a fantasy land of pastoral splendor. But the twin realities of farm life seven or eight decades ago were hard work and danger. Steam engines were particularly unforgiving of oversight. The article reprinted here describes a typical and unfortunately deadly boiler explosion in North Carolina in 1937.

Three men were killed and a fourth was injured about 10 o’clock this morning when a steam boiler on a traction engine exploded at the home of E.J. Potts a short distance out of Advance.

The dead are Wiley Potts, 42, Isam Potts, 16, a nephew of the elder man, and Walter Glenn Jarvis, 26, all residents of the neighborhood where the accident occurred. O.D. Zimmerman sustained minor injuries.

The men were all blown to bits in the terrific explosion which, it is believed, occurred when water was pumped into the boiler after the water level was allowed to get too low.

Several people were standing around the traction engine when the explosion occurred, and it is regarded as remarkable that others were not seriously injured or killed. A large crowd gathered around the wrecked machine shortly after the accident and stated that the noise was heard for many miles.

The boiler had been fired up and the crew were preparing to go to the home of Mr. Zimmerman to thresh lespedeza. There was no advance warning of the impending disaster.

Close inspection showed that the first rent in the walls of the boiler occurred at the front end. Evidence of extensive corrosion could be seen and it was obvious that this was the cause of the break. The so-called steam chest, on top of the boiler, held intact and remained fastened to the largest part of the main shell. The force of the explosion was almost incomprehensible. A large section of garden railings was picked up near the point of the blast and literally blown to splinters. Portions of the dead men’s bodies were hurled to great distances. Gearings off the engine proper were hurled around like leaves in the wind. The running gear of the tractor itself was stood on end by the crash, later falling across a small pickup truck that stood nearby.

The walls of the boiler where no corrosion occurred were torn like thin pieces of paper. Flues within the boiler were tangled like sewing threads. Window panes a dozen yards away were shattered.

A jinx, it seems, has followed the community and several of the persons connected with today’s accident. Twenty-eight years ago, Arch Potts, father of Wiley Potts, who was killed this morning, and George Potts, his brother, were blown to bits in a similar boiler explosion.

Then, on July 3, 1935, the engine that went to pieces today, ran down and killed John Lindsay Ward, small son of W.L. Ward, in the same community.

The threshing outfit belonged to Wiley Potts, one of the three who were killed, and Arch Potts, son of the man of the same name killed 28 years ago.

So far as is known, there were only three surviving witnesses to the accident. Mr. Zimmerman and his son William went up to the field that adjoins Shady Grove School to ask about use of the thresher. They had been standing there for about 15 minutes when the blast occurred. They do not know why it happened. The three men were on the machine at the time and Isam Potts was presumably pumping water from a barrel into the boiler’s storage tank. Mr. Zimmerman thinks that possibly the young man was actually pumping water into the boiler itself, and that this caused the blast.

The explosion, while terrific, did not make a great deal of noise. Mr. Zimmerman cannot imagine how he escaped. He was actually standing between the thresher and the truck at the time. He thinks that possibly an advancing blast of steam preceded the wreckage and knocked him to the ground. The steam burned his ankles slightly and his face was cut by gravel. Large chunks of metal and sheets of iron were hurled over his head into the field beyond.

His son William was not scratched. He was standing about 10 feet away and survived a barrage of missiles.

Both Zimmermans say the blast did not make a loud report. This is borne out by S.D. Cornatzer who was passing along the highway about 80 yards away and saw the explosion.

The Zimmermans and Mr. Cornatzer took up the broken body of Isam Potts and carried it to the hospital.

“It was terrible, terrible, terrible,” said Mr. Zimmerman as he passed his hand confusedly over his face. “I don’t know how it happened. I just felt hot steam all around my feet and I was knocked off my balance.”

Mrs. Zimmerman was badly shaken. When her husband came in, it was just like seeing him come from the grave, for some children from the school nearby had run down and told her the thresher had exploded and killed two people. She knew her husband and son were at that field, and thought they were both dead.

Wiley Jones Potts was 42 years old. He was born July 11, 1894, in Advance and resided there all his life. For the past 10 years he had been in the sawmill business.

Walter Glenn Jarvis was 26 years old and was born Sept. 23, 1910. He too had resided in Advance all his life with the exception of two years he spent in a C.C.C. camp at Marion. He had been employed by Mr. Potts for some time. Isam Potts was 16 years old. He is also a native of Advance. FC


Grateful acknowledgement is given to Carl W. Irwin, Glade Valley, North Carolina, who shared this account with us.