Hazardous Business
Industry, Regulation, and the Texas Railroad Commission

Explosion in San Antonio, March 18, 1912

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Explosion in San Antonio, 1912

The Great Southwest Strike was not the last incident in Texas that showcased the dangerous working conditions and labor unrest in the railroad industry. The caption on this photo reads, "View of wreckage caused by what is supposed to have been the explosion of the boiler of a passenger locomotive in the terminal yards of the Southern Pacific Railroad at San Antonio on March 18 and which killed 26 men outright and seriously injured many others. Most of the men killed were strike breakers employed in the shops of the company situated close to where the explosion took place."

Railroad work was extremely dangerous. Nationally, between 1890 and 1917, a staggering 72,000 employees were killed and over two million injured on railroad tracks; an additional 158,000 were killed in repair shops and roundhouses. The total casualities from this period are more than the combined casualties from every war ever fought by the United States. Steam boilers were a particular hazard. Since the beginning of the steam era, there had been literally thousands of explosions, some with horrific loss of life. Back in 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded with the loss of 1,238 lives, most of them Union POWs just released from Southern prisons. In 1905, the naval gunboat Bennington exploded, killing 62 sailors, and an explosion at the Brockton Shoe Factory in Massachusetts killed 58 and leveled the factory. Explosions of railroad steam boilers took place on a regular basis.

On the morning of March 18, 1912, dozens of men at the Southern Pacific yard in San Antonio were working around an engine of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad. The men were firing up the engine to test it and ready the train for service. At 8:55 a.m., the boiler exploded, sending the engine and many tons of railroad parts flying in every direction. The pressure wave and flying debris leveled the nearby railroad shops and rippled out into the neighborhood, snapping trees and smashing into homes. As the explosion spent itself, shattered metal and human remans rained down for blocks in every direction. The front end of the engine, almost intact, came to earth seven blocks away, flattening a house and killing a woman inside. The force of the explosion could be felt miles away.

It was the worst railroad boiler explosion in U.S. history. Back at the train yard, survivors were trapped under fallen buildings and debris and in danger of being burned alive as fire spread through the wreckage. San Antonio fire fighters and police, military personnel, and railroad workers frantically worked to free the survivors and fight the fire. Eerily, an engine damaged in the blast had its whistle bent open, and screamed for two hours before its boiler pressure subsided enough to shut down the noise. The final toll was 26 killed, with about 50 people injured and about 10 men unaccounted for and presumed dead.

In the days that followed, speculation focused on labor troubles at the yard. Six months earlier, boiler repairmen, copper fitters, and other craftsmen who maintained the locomotives had gone out on strike and had been replaced by strikebreakers. Most of these men were from out of town and new to their jobs, and many were working under assumed names. The assistant foreman at the yard was so sure of trouble that he openly carried a pistol. Many people were convinced the boiler had been sabotaged. From today's perspective, the sabotage theory seems unlikely, and the probable cause of the explosion is thought to be a combination of human error and mechanical failure.

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W.D. Hornaday Collection, Prints and Photographs Collection, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. 1975/70-4463.

Page last modified: August 18, 2011