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Scow explodes in Elliott Bay on May 30, 1915.

HistoryLink.org Essay 1503 : Printer-Friendly Format

On May 30, 1915, a few minutes before 2 a.m., the scow T.T.B., warehousing 622 tons of Hercules power (i.e., ammunition) and tied to a city buoy at the Elliott Bay end of Harbor Island, ignites. In Seattle, the few locals and tourists still awake get the frightful scare of a flash so brilliant it seems directly overhead. Within a second or two the city's majority -- its sleepers -- is shaken awake by a roar likened to the collapse of several large buildings combined with a percussion of "heavy air" hitting like a fist.

People were knocked from their beds. Motorists, lifted from their seats and separated from their steering wheels, had the air dragged from their lungs as the percussion first hit and then withdrew. More than 5,000 windows splintered and separated from their sashes, searching for the vacuum that followed the wave of combustion.

Nearly 500 plate-glass windows cracked or shattered. Along the east side of streets in the central business district --  the side facing the explosion -- windows crashed to the nearly deserted sidewalks. In minutes thousands of people in bathrobes and overcoats milled in the downtown streets on a carpet of glass shards, thinking earthquake, meteor, or sabotage. Adding to the confusion were fire trucks chasing in all directions the false alarms set off by the blast.

Their Pistols Were Drawn

At the rocked police headquarters, the explosion was thought to have come from within. With pistols drawn, every available officer rushed the city treasurer's office where it was believed a "daring cracksman" had blasted the vault. Forty minutes later, police identified the real ground zero when one of their own, returning home with his wife from a West Seattle party, reported what he had first seen and then felt soon after crossing the Spokane Street Bridge.

For most others, however, the "fear [that] was everywhere, the blanching, racking fear of the unknown and unexplained" would remain until later that morning when a special edition of the Sunday Seattle Times headlined the explosion and described their feelings, the barge, the blast, and a plot.

Where Is Fat?

Every authority available for interview was sure it was a plot. Probably a plot by two German agents whom the Burns Detective Agency had been hired to trail by Japanese shippers contracted to haul the dynamite to Vladivostok.

Roy Lillico, the private launch operator in charge of the scow, assured reporters that cased dynamite was "as safe as so much brown sugar." Lillico declared "it was exploded by someone with a desire to injure the cause of the Allied armies. I'm sure of it." Lillico recounted that soon after the dynamite arrived from San Francisco on May 14, the captain of the Kaifuku Maru, the Japanese vessel scheduled to carry it to Russia, received an anonymous letter threatening to blow up his ship if he followed through with this plan. As a precaution, Lillico had hired a day-labor watchman -- his friends called this watchman "Fat" -- to watch over the T.T.B. Certainly, some thought, Fat had been blown-up with the barge. Others thought the saboteurs had persuaded him to disappear. A Fat Watch was organized with public pleas to look out for him.

The Alleged Mr. Brown and His Alleged Wife

Every available agent -- federal, state, county, local -- was sent running down clues. The first break came from Tacoma (the blast had been heard, seen, or felt from Port Townsend to Tacoma.) On the day before the explosion, a man calling himself Walter Brown had purchased 500 feet of fuse from a local company.

On the day after the blast Brown, who, according to neighbors, spoke with a slightly Teutonic accent and carried himself in a military manner, suddenly fled the Tacoma home he and his wife had rented for two weeks. Searching the abandoned home, agents found German papers, steamship literature, and a diagram officers thought might have been of the barge T.T.B. in the bay.

Earlier, it was determined that Brown had used a Tacoma hotel to receive, under the pseudonym "Smith," coded messages from San Francisco. Brown's abandoned neighbors felt especially suspicious of his wife. Mrs. Brown was ordinarily silent but when she did speak it was with "whining nasal tones that frequently broke into deep guttural with a distinct Irish accent." Also, she wore a heavy veil knotted behind her head to hide her neck and expensive furs to hide her lower face. Her shoes were the size of a man's and she "walked with a slouchy stride .... [She] found it difficult to walk in skirts with the natural ease of a woman." Mrs. Brown, her neighbors agreed, was certainly a man.

The Glass Business

Back in Seattle, the glass companies rallied. It was estimated that from 5,000 to 7,000 separate sheets of glass had been destroyed. Their work began within the hour of the blast. Belknap Glass alone sent out 13 wagons.

Meanwhile, Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919) announced that the city was not liable. Certain insurance companies advanced their own "war time theory" that they were not obliged to pay for the broken panes. The "risks not covered" included "breakage resulting from insurrection, riot, military or usurped power ...."

"I am a Californian!" -- Mr. Brown

Back in Tacoma, the insurance agents' best hope, Mr. Brown (actually Mr. L. J. Smith), marched angrily into the local police station carrying the 500-foot use, "demanding to know why he should be held up as the butt of a practical joke of doubtful taste." Smith declared, "I am not a German but a Californian!" He and Mrs. Smith had left their poultry farm in Petaluma for an extended vacation on a small ranch they had purchased outside of Tacoma. The fuse was for blasting stumps. Their Tacoma rental was a temporary convenience and they used the pseudonym Brown as part of their incognito plan to "settle down for a little rest." Mrs. Smith was a long-time employee of the state of California, and she liked to dress up. She could afford it. L. J. Smith noted "when I refused to take sides in the war, people thought I was a German. I am an American ... and my family have been Americans for generations past, I know that my great-great-great-grandmother was a Delaware Indian."

Back in Seattle, all that remained of the barge T.T.B. was a single piece of wreckage a few feet in length. Seattle's pioneer aviator Herbert Munter (1897-1970) flew over the site at 12 noon on Sunday and could see only a cleared bottom of white sand and no trace of wreckage.

The Morning After

On Monday, one J. M. Hendricks woke up in jail with a terrific hangover. Earlier that morning he had confessed to a crowded saloon that it was he who had blown up the barge. Now he refused to believe that he had made such claims.

By Tuesday June 1, agents were again clueless. In the morning Post-Intelligencer, cartoonist Thurlby offered a Rube Goldberg explanation (see accompanying cartoon) with most of the players, including a German agent, a sleeping watch-dogfish, and the joyful plate glass merchants.

Fat was not found.

Sources:
The Seattle Times, May 30-June 4, 1915; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30-June 4, 1915.


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Detail, cartoon,Seattle Post-Intelligencer , June 1, 1915



Detail, cartoon,Seattle Post-Intelligencer , June 1, 1915



Detail of cartoon published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 1, 1915



Detail, cartoon,Seattle Post-Intelligencer , June 1, 1915



 
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