On This Day

Staten Island Ferry Explosion, Westfield disaster, Staten Island Ferry 1871
New York Public Library
A sketch of the Westfield disaster by W. Long Palin for an 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

On This Day: Staten Island Ferryboat Explodes

July 30, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 30, 1871, a boiler explosion onboard the Westfield, a Staten Island ferryboat, killed 125 passengers.

The Westfield Disaster

The Westfield, built in 1862, was not part of the Staten Island Railway’s regular fleet of ferry boats. It was used on July 30, 1871, to provide an “extra trip” to accommodate the heavy Sunday afternoon traffic. More than 200 passengers boarded the ship, which departed from South Ferry Terminal in Manhattan between 1 and 2 o’clock.

As the ferry sailed to Staten Island, a large boiler beneath the front deck exploded. The New York Times described the disaster: “The boiler exploded with terrific power, the whole end of the boat on which the people were gathered was torn to tatters; fragments went upward and outward. But that mass of humanity! Who can picture! Who dare to even think of it! Lifted into the air, hurled into the water, buried in the debris of the wreck, bruised mangled, scalded, roasted, men, women, children, babes, were mingled in a mass of indescribable horror.”

Though early projections estimated 40 fatalities, when all passengers were accounted for the number reached 125. It stands as the worst accident in the history of the Staten Island Ferry, which began service in 1817 as the Richmond Turnpike Company.

The cause of the explosion was never officially determined. James Braisted, its superintendent, admitted to investigators that “carrying steam above the pressure allowed by the Inspector's certificate was not uncommon.” However, the Westfield’s engineer, a black man named Henry Robinson, was illiterate and could not read the certificate, says Patell and Waterman’s History of New York.

Braisted and Robinson were charged with manslaughter. Jacob Vanderbilt, the president of the Staten Island Railway, was charged with homicide, but later acquitted.

Background: Staten Island Ferry

Ferries have been traveling between Manhattan and Staten Island since the 1600s, with the earliest boats being sailboats or rowboats. In 1817, Daniel D. Tompkins, future New York governor and U.S. vice president, began running the first steamboat ferry service, which marked the start of the modern Staten Island ferry service.

The Staten Island Museum briefly describes the history of the Staten Island Ferry with pictures taken through the years.

Today, the Staten Island Ferry transports about 60,000 passengers daily, using five boats that make a collective 109 trips a day. The five-mile, 25-minute ride is free.

Related: 2003 SI Ferry Accident

On Oct. 15, 2003, a Staten Island Ferry crashed into a pier while docking. Ten people died that day, one woman died after two months in a coma, and 71 were injured. “Everyone just jumped for their lives,” said one rider. “It was like an absolute horror. The whole side of the boat looked like an opener on a can.”

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