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Alfred Thomas Explosion Shattered Easton In 1860

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 17 2011 09:14:14 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 10:01:18 AM CDT

March 6, 1860 was one of those rare warm days that hit the Lehigh Valley in that oddest of months.

But the citizens of Easton were not about to argue. Not only was it the anniversary of Northampton County's creation, a major social holiday at the time that was celebrated with balls and militia marches, but it was also the launching date of the new Delaware River steamboat, the Alfred Thomas.

The Thomas was not the first steam powered craft to ride the waters of the upper Delaware. On March 12, 1852 the Major William Barnet had sailed from Lambertville, N. J. to Easton to the cheers of many. And several years later a craft called the Reindeer had made a similar journey.

But the owners of the Alfred Thomas, Belvidere, N.J. residents Judge William Sharpe, Richard Holcomb and Alfred Thomas for whom the craft was named, promised something better. Formed into the Kitttatinny Improvement Co., they vowed to bring commercial success to steamboating on the Upper Delaware.

No one could have confused the Alfred Thomas for the white, lordly triple decked stern-wheeled monarchs of the Mississippi that stirred the awe and envy of young Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain of Hannibal, Missouri. And it was only a distant kin to the fast side-wheeled steamers that plied the Hudson River. With its flat bottom the 87 foot long and 15 foot wide Thomas would have been easily overshadowed by those giants.

But with its stern wheel and two 15 horsepower engines, the Thomas promised speed. That was exactly what the investors had wanted. The boats would travel between Foul Rift rapids on the Delaware, just north of Easton, to Matamoras in Pike County and provide, they said, "cheap, safe and convenient transportation" with the markets of New York and Philadelphia.

Several Easton newspapers were convinced that the river was too shallow and rock-filled for any steamboat traffic and suggested that railroads, already arriving in the area, made more sense. A more disturbing sign were the rumors about the Thomas that were circulating among the local boat building community. Thomas Bishop, the boat's builder, was convinced that the chief engineer Sam Schaeff had installed its boiler incorrectly.

But on that delightful spring-like day all doubts were forgotten. Many folks had taken time off from work. Dressed in their best clothes of swallow-tail coats and high hats with the ladies in fashionable hoop skirts, they gathered in South Easton. Judge Sharpe was there with his handsome 17 year old son, William Jr. Holcomb and Thomas were also on board. More than 100 local men and boys climbed on. They swarmed over the ship from stern to bow where an oversized American flag fluttered brightly.

The only skunk at the garden party was boatbuilder Bishop. Despite the pleas of Judge Sharpe, he absolutely refused, except for a few brief minutes, to go onboard. Sharpe pleaded that the public might not accept a boat whose own builder would not sail on it. But Bishop was so convinced there was going to be trouble, he turned his back on the cheering throng and refused to watch as the Alfred Thomas slipped from the Williamsport lock of the Lehigh Canal into the Delaware.

Everyone cheered and pistol shots echoed up and down the river. Fighting a high current the little ship battled northward.

A large crowd had gathered at the foot of Northampton Street at Keller's Hotel. Perhaps seeking to slack their thirst on some of the hotel's cold beer, most passengers got off. With only 34 left on board, the Thomas seemed assured a swift passage. But strangely it only got far as Getter's Island where it either ran aground or was purposely moored. No one later could remember which.

The problem was the Thomas's boiler. It was clearly in trouble. Pressure was building up but the Thomas refused to budge. Passenger Charles Buck heard someone say, "My God! There is 125 pounds of steam pressure on." Some of the passengers tired of being stranded on Getter's Island so frustrated that they attempted to leave on one of the many rowboats that were nearby.

On shore one observer, a Lafayette College professor, took his pocket watch from his vest and noted the time. It was exactly 1:17 p.m. He had barely replaced his watch when a terrific roar came from the direction of the Alfred Thomas. It echoed like heavy cannon fire up and down the Delaware. Seconds later, wood, pieces of metal, and body parts were raining from the sky. As smoke cleared those on shore could see the entire front of the Thomas had been ripped away.

Buck, who had survived the blast, counted three bodies in what remained of the ship's cabin. Screaming, scalded men jumped into the river. Two young men wept openly as they pulled the body of their friend from the Delaware. Many survivors were picked up by rowboats. Eugene Troxell was blown 40 feet in the air and landed without a scratch.

The explosion took the lives of company investors Sharpe and Holcomb. Their bodies were dragged from the river days later. Only Alfred Thomas survived his namesake's demise. William Sharpe Jr's remains were never found. Engineer Schaeff's body was so shattered, it was only recognized by his uniform.

Twelve people perished in the explosion of the Alfred Thomas and with them went the idea of steam navigation on the upper Delaware. A then fledgling magazine, the Scientific American, had the last word. "There is no mystery to the cause of the explosion; the boiler was managed as with intent to commit suicide."