The steamer Josephine explodes in Puget Sound near Mukilteo, killing eight or nine people, on January 16, 1883.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 12/31/2006
  • Essay 8041
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On January 16, 1883, the steamer Josephine, enroute from Seattle to the Skagit River, explodes in Puget Sound near Mukilteo. Eight or nine people are killed, another five are injured, and about 15 escape injury. The cause of the accident is traced to insufficient water in the boiler as well as carelessness of those in command at the time of the explosion.

A Puget Sound Steamer

Steamboats were a popular method of travel along Puget Sound during the latter decades of the nineteenth century when land travel was limited to railroads and a few rough wagon roads.  In the early 1880s, there were a number of popular steamboat routes between Seattle and destinations south and north.  The Josephine began making regular runs between Seattle and the Upper Skagit River in 1878.

The Josephine had been built in Lake’s Yard in North Seattle during 1878.  She was outfitted with a boiler and engine from the 20-year-old steamer Wenat, which had sunk in the Skagit River in March 1878.  Although the boiler had been in use on the Wenat for at least 10 years, it was overhauled when installed in the Josephine. A government inspection three weeks before the accident found it to be in good working order.

In January 1883 the Josephine made regular runs between Seattle and the Upper Skagit River on Tuesdays and Fridays, departing from Seattle at 7 a.m. on both days.  However, on Tuesday, January 16, the vessel left half an hour early.  Although this early departure was announced at least a day in advance, about 10 or 15 people did not get notice of it and missed the boat, possibly saving their lives in the process. Robert Bailey was serving as acting captain and pilot that day, standing in for Fritz Dibbons, one of the owners of the Josephine, who usually served as the steamer’s commander.

A Routine Run

The Josephine left Seattle at 6:30 a.m. and proceeded north through Puget Sound. It was, “on the whole, a disagreeable day ... being sloppy underfoot, and snowing some in the morning” (Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer, January 20, 1883), with the temperature a few degrees above freezing.  By noon, the boat was between Mukilteo and Hat Island, approximately one mile off shore.

At noon, the gong sounded for the noontime meal, called “dinner.”   Captain Robert Bailey relieved engineer Dennis Lawler in the engine room, and Lawler went upstairs to eat. According to the Post-Intelligencer, only an “ordinary stoker” replaced Lawler in the engine room, although Lawler claimed to have checked the boiler before he left:  “Before going up I went to the boiler, and the gauge indicated 90 pounds of steam, and the glass was half-full of water” (Seattle Daily P-I, January 17, 1883).

A Terrible Explosion

At about 12:05 p.m., the boiler exploded.   A deck-hand, Frank Murphy, described what happened:

"The gong had just sounded for dinner. The engineer had been relieved by Captain Bailey, and had gone upstairs to eat. The steamer was about a mile from shore, just off the ‘potlatch house’ [a log longhouse capable of holding some 200 people], a large Indian camp at Port Susan, when all of a sudden, a terrible explosion occurred, which sounded like 49 cannons, all firing at once.  The crown-sheet [a part of the boiler] passed directly up through the pilothouse, and carried Johnson, the deck-hand at the wheel, far off into the air.  The steamer immediately split in two, and the portion containing the boiler sunk in 30 feet of water. The cabin and a portion of the hull floated. The scene was terrible and indescribable.  The wounded women and men were groaning and crying, and the uninjured were rushing frantically around the wreck, not knowing which way to turn" (Seattle Daily P-I, January 17, 1883).
The hull, made largely of wood, remained afloat.

One small boat that had not been blown from the wreck was launched to carry the survivors to shore.  At about the same time some loggers working nearby came out with a boat, and Native Americans (it is not recorded from which tribe) also arrived in canoes to help rescue survivors. They were taken to the potlatch house. In the meantime, several Indians canoed to the steamer Politkofsky (nicknamed the “Polly”), which happened to be about two miles away, and told Captain Frank Smith what had happened. Smith went to the scene and brought the wounded and a few of the dead (several bodies remained missing for several days) back to Seattle, arriving at 10 p.m. that night.

The injured were taken to Providence Hospital, and the next day a Post-Intelligencer reporter interviewed all five of them there. Several survivors reported that they had felt dry steam from the boiler when it exploded, but, noting that no one had been scalded, correctly surmised that a lack of water in the steam engine had caused the explosion.

Survivor Simon Ryan described his close encounter:

"I heard a noise like the report of a cannon. The cabin floor raised a little, and the roof settled down on me before I could get out. One of my feet caught in the wreck, and I could not extricate myself until the water had almost covered me.  I worked hard to get loose, realizing that I would drown.  Finally the wreck settled, till the buoyancy of the water raised the weight from my back, and my foot was released at the same time.  I then scrambled on top of the wreck" (Seattle Daily P-I, January 18, 1883).

Many of the survivors suffered both leg and head injuries. The force of the explosion pushed up the cabin floor, trapping the legs of victims seated at the dining table. With their legs jammed under the table, many suffered broken or sprained legs, ankles, and feet. At the same time the roof collapsed, causing head and facial injuries.

Most accounts of the explosion list eight fatalities: six crew members and two passengers. However, An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties  records nine fatalities, noting that a third passenger, A. G. Kelley, died several days after the disaster. This may be correct:  A January 25 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted that Kelley was in critical condition and reported that it would be necessary that day to amputate one of his legs; the doctor handling the operation said that “the chances are nine to one that he cannot recover from the effects of the operation” (Seattle Daily P-I, January 25, 1883). The P-I did not report whether or not Kelley died or recovered.


In the wee hours of January 18, two days after the accident, the Politkofsky left Seattle to go in search of the wreck of the Josephine, finding it later that morning bottom up four miles below Mukilteo and four miles south of the accident scene. The “Polly” towed the wreck to Tulalip Bay. Three days later another steamer, the Libby, towed the Josephine back to Seattle. It was quickly determined that the hull could be rebuilt. The steamer's machinery, except for the boiler, was little damaged.

By the end of January, an inquiry had confirmed passengers’ suspicions that low water in the boiler had caused the explosion. The investigators charged the Josephine’s commanders with gross and criminal negligence at the time of the explosion.

The Josephine was rebuilt and made its trial trip on March 24, 1883.  In 1891 the ship was sold and began making runs between Olympia and Shelton.

Sources: An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties Vol. 1 (Interstate Publishing Company, 1906), 131;  E. W. Wright, Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Antiquarian Press, 1961), 261-264, 297, 313, 323;  “Terrible Steamboat Accident,” Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer, January 17, 1883, p. 4;  “Additional Particulars,” Ibid., January 18, 1883, p. 4;  “Recovery of the Wreck,” Ibid.,  January 19, 1883, p. 4;  “The Cold Wave,” Ibid.,  January 20, 1883, p. 4;  “Daily Post-Intelligencer,” Ibid., January 23, 1883, p. 4;  “Cannot Recover”, Ibid., January 25, 1883, p.4;  “Daily Post-Intelligencer,” Ibid., January 31, 1883, p. 4.

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