Monday, August 14, 2017

Snake River Steamboat Annie Faxon Explodes, Killing Eight [otd 08/14]

On the morning of August 14, 1893, the Snake River steamer Annie Faxon exploded, killing eight people and injuring eleven.
Steamer Annie Faxon. Washington State University archives.

Steamboats plied the waters of the Columbia River on a regular basis after about 1850. The most active stretch lay below the Cascade Rapids, about forty miles upstream from Portland. With the 1860 discovery of gold in Idaho, steamship companies found it profitable to extend their routes up the Snake.

That soon led to the founding of Lewiston, Idaho (then in Washington Territory), which became the major upstream terminus for shipping. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company added the Annie Faxon to its fleet in 1877. At 165 feet in length, the Annie was a mid-sized steamer for the period. Over the next two decades, she carried freight and passengers on the Snake, and sometimes ascended the Clearwater during high water.

By the early 1890s, the Annie and other members of the fleet had daily, except Sunday, scheduled runs to where the railroad crossed the Snake, about 80 miles downstream from Lewiston. (Not for another five years would the town have direct train service.)

On that fateful Monday, the Annie left Lewiston for her regular morning run to the railway junction. Captain Harry Baughman commanded the steamer. She made a brief stop at a small town about 35 miles down the river. Transfers complete, she continued downstream. All told, the Annie carried a couple dozen passengers and crew.

About 12 miles further along, a man flagged the boat from the south shore. Although accounts are unclear, Captain Baughman probably stopped the engines; it would have been difficult to hear over their pounding and the frothy splash of the stern wheel.

The farmer said he had a load of fruit ready for the steamer. Business was always welcome, so the Captain steered toward the shoreline, the paddlewheel churning to cut across the river’s current. Carefully judging the distance, Baughman rang for the engines to stop. Before the engine room could respond, apparently, the ship’s boiler exploded.

The blast of released steam blew many passengers and crewmen overboard, where they struggled to swim ashore or clung to wreckage until they could be rescued. Almost miraculously, Baughman was unhurt … but flying debris killed another man near him in the pilothouse. Some of the boat’s superstructure was flung into the water and the rest collapsed into the hull.
Annie Faxon after the explosion.
Washington State University archives.

The blast pattern confused inspectors at first as to the cause of the disaster. Newspapers reported (e.g., Morning Olympian, Olympia, Washington, August 29, 1893) that they had “advance[d] the theory that the explosion was caused by a dynamite bomb.”

However, according to reports, doubts had been raised earlier about the condition of the boiler, which had been running in another ship before the company built the Annie. Yet the flaws were not considered serious enough to order it out of service immediately. It was understood that the unit would be replaced at the end of the main transport season. That came too late for the nineteen injured and dead.

The owners salvaged only the hull of the Annie Faxon; it was used as the substructure of a new steamer.
References: [Defen], [Hawley], [Illust-North]
Phil Dougherty, “The Steamer Annie Faxon Explodes on the Snake River,” Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, Seattle (April 09, 2006).
Darcy Williamson, River Tales of Idaho, The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho (1997).

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