Friday, January 17, 2014

Devastating Explosion Rocks James L. Stephens' Store in Columbia

Transcription of the [Columbia] Weekly Missouri Statesman, Friday, Oct. 11, 1850, p. 2, col. 2.

Dreadful Accident.

Terrible Explosion of Gunpowder–
The Fate of Mr. James L. Ste-
phens in [Question?]–Loss of
Life, &c.

The most dreadful and heart rending accident known to the history of this place occured [sic] this day at 11 o’clock.  About that hour the people of town and surrounding country were shocked by a terrific explosion, no one for a time knowing the cause of it, or its exact locality.  Soon however it was ascertained that Mr. Stephens’ large new brick Store room was in ruins!  That the catastrophe was occasioned by the explosion of gunpowder!! And that one person was certainly killed and many others seriously injured!!!

The consternation and alarm at this moment were appalling.  No one knew the extent of the loss of human life, nor who had been summoned by the dread explosion to their last account.—
What a moment of suspense!  How general and intense the inquiry for husbands, wives, children, relatives, friends, &c!!

The store was a heap of ruins, and it was some time before it could be ascertained with certainty who were among the killed and injured.  From the most diligent inquiry we can make under the excitement now pervading the community, the following persons were killed or injured:

Mr. Josiah M. Short, a young man about 25 years of age and residing in the Northern part of the County, was instantly killed, and is the only person who was killed.  His clothes were all literally burnt from his body – not an article remaining upon him except one shoe and sock and a part of his craft!  Even one of the soles of the shoe on his foot was blown off.  It was with difficulty he was identified, so awfully was his whole body disfigured.

Ben T. White and wife were injured seriously—the former dangerously. Mrs. Susan Duncan, wife of Dr. W.H. Duncan, was also badly burnt, and struck in the back by some missile. Yet she is not considered dangerous. James Crews, a young man from the country, was considerably burnt. He happened to be passing the door of the store at the time of the accident. Mrs. Short, mother of the young man killed, was also hurt—not badly. Miss A. McBride, daughter of Judge McBride; Miss Catharine Lynch, daughter of J.H. Lynch of this place; Wm. Mosely; J.L. Stephens, owner of the store, and his two clerks, Thos. Stephens and Geo. Morris; James Howard; St. Clair and Perry West, sons of Bransford West, and a little son of John C. Davenport were likewise injured, most of them slightly. The escape of Mr. Stephens was miraculous indeed.

Eliza, a negro woman of Mr. J.L. Mathews, was very badly burnt; supposed will not recover.

The accident occurred in this way, as far as we can now learn. Mr. Stephens was in receipt of a large stock of good, which were laying about the floor in boxes unopened. They had reached him during the past few days. Two kegs of power composed a part of the stock. These were received the night previous, and were placed in the lobby near the counter, and some ten feet from the front door. On the morning of the catastrophe, one of the kegs was discovered to be in bad order—that is, it was seen even through the sacking that powder had leaked form the sides or bottom on to the floor. Yet the quantity was small, but to prevent accident the second keg was placed by one of the clerks on top of the unsound one—the intention being very soon to remove both to a shed back of the store where the powder of the establishment is kept. Mr. Short came in the store smoking, and while standing near the two kegs fire dropped form the cigar, (as is supposed), on the loose powder on the floor, the quantity being larger than a gun load, and instantly the house was in ruins.

The store-room is a very long and large one two stories high. Two things of the building (the front part of it) are in ruins—literally torn to fragments!

We have not time to-day for other paticulars [sic]. These will be given in our regular issue next week.

Additional Particulars.
We regret to announce that Mr. B.T. White died, of the injuries received, at 4 o-clock on the evening of the day of the catastrophe. At the time of the explosion, he and Mr. Wm. Mosely were in conversation at the door of the store. When found, Mr. White was completely covered by the rubbish, his head resting up on the sill of the door. Although badly burnt, and to such a degree as scarcely to be recognized by those who rescued him, his chief injury was occasioned by the falling of the brick and timbers. Mr. Mosely’s injuries are greater than was at first supposed. His face and hands are horribly disfigured, causing him great pain. Yet we have hopes of his permanent recovery.

Eliza, the negro woman who was hurt, died on Monday. Every article of clothing was stripped from her by the explosion and fire and a piece of the powder keg was found in her side.

Mr. Stephens’ escape was indeed wonderful. He was standing behind the counter near which the kegs exploded, and about ten feet from tem. At the pont where he stood the ceiling and floor above, with the broken roof of the building, fell with a tremendous crash and rested upon the counter, but for the strong framework of which he would have been instantly crushed. Yet he escaped with no material personal injury.

Mr. Short was blown from where he stood over the counter and into the north-east corner of the store. But for the fact that the building had an open front, thus permitting an easy escape of the flame and smoke, the consequences would certainly have been more terrible. Every person in the store most likely would have been instantly killed, and the adjacent buildings blown into atoms.

Mr. Stephen’s store is a total wreck. Although the walls and roof of the back rooms remain n the places, they are so cracked, and otherwise injured they will have to be torn down. The upper back room was occupied by the Masons and Sons of Temperance. Most of their furniture has been taken out without serious damage. The two other rooms above stairs were occupied by Mr. George Smith as a Daguerrean Gallery. All his apparatus and furniture are a total loss. Fortunately no person was in either of the upper rooms a the time of the explosion.

Mr. Stephens had insurance on the building in the St. Louis Insurance Company for $2,500, (not near its value,) and on his goods in the Home Mutual for $3,[000?]. He had in store between $10,000 and $15,000 worth of merchandise, a great deal of which is utterly ruined. All his china, glass and queensware was slivered to pieces. His books, a large and valuable assortment, were greatly defaced, and many of them entirely ruined. His stock of dry good suffered very considerably, but much of it escaped without serious

His total loss is at least $6,000.

Mr. Stephens has removed all his gods to two store-rooms in the printing office block—rooms formerly occupied by himself and Parsons & Moult—where he is again prepared to wait upon customers. With that indomitable energy and enterprise for which he is distinguished, he is now preparing for an immediate re-building of his store.

Commentary: Mr. James L. Stephens went on to become one of Columbia's most successful businessmen despite this devastating event. In 1870 in recognition of his generous endowment of $20,000 to the then Baptist Female College of Columbia, the college was renamed Stephens Female College, now acclaimed simply as Stephens College.

No comments:

Post a Comment