York Town Square

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100 years later in York, Jumbo’s terrible roar remembered

Ten died in an Aug. 10 industrial accident 100 years ago. The York Rolling Mills explosion appears to be the worst industrial accident in York County’s history. (York County Heritage Trust photo) Background posts: 1908: ‘Boiler Explosion At York Rolling MIlls Kills 9 Men; 20 injured’ , Freight locomotive ‘telescoped’ runaway Stewartstown Railroad car and York County lawmaker fought to aid the blind.

When Jumbo crosses paths with York County history, horrific things happen.

One example came when Jumbo, a traveling circus elephant, fell ill. A account of that memorable night is found in the York Town Square post: The day Jumbo screamed in North York – Elephant story Part II
The other recorded episode involving Jumbo came 100 years ago, when a boiler so named exploded at an industrial site, York Rolling Mill, near the Codorus Creek.
We pick up Teresa Boeckel’s account in a York Daily Record/Sunday News story (9/7/08) here:

It hurled a piece of the boiler, which weighed up to two tons, into the back of a home on North Queen Street.
And it attracted a crowd of about 5,000 people who either heard the explosion or felt the earth shake.
The explosion happened just before 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 10, 1908, and the headlines in “The Gazette” the following day declared it to be the “most horrible catastrophe” in the city’s history.
To this day, it’s a piece of history that’s still discussed.
The National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors published a brief article in its bulletin two years ago. It noted how one expert called the boiler “rotten.”
It was catastrophes such as the one in York that led to regulations that helped prevent such explosions.
What did rolling mills make?
Rolling mills took iron, made it hot and ran it through rolls operated by steam engines to form rods of all shapes, said Jack Loose, a historian and editor-in-chief with the Lancaster County Historical Society. The steam to operate those engines came from boilers.
The mills made hardware, such as girders for buildings and rails for railroads.
What was the cause of the blast at the York Rolling Mill?
Articles from the day after the explosion to a coroner’s inquest into the deaths indicated a problem with “Jumbo.” The boiler was reported to be “defective” in an article the day after the explosion.
A coroner’s jury found the iron of the boiler had been pitted and corroded to such an extent that there wasn’t more than one-sixteenth of an inch of metal thickness in many places, according to a copy of the handwritten report at the York County Heritage Trust.
That’s why the jury believed the boiler was unable to stand the steam pressure and exploded.
How have times changed?
Boiler explosions were problematic for a long time in American history, said David Hounshell, a professor of technology and social change at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Thousands of people died in steamboat explosions in the 19th century, he said. Regulations, such as restricting steamboat racing, helped to lower those accidents.
In factories, codes didn’t exist to regulate how boilers were operated, Hounshell said. People just accepted explosions as a part of progress.
But with the rise of the scientific research method and universities adding mechanical engineering departments, the knowledge and skills evolved on how to build safer boilers and operate them.
In 1916, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers received approval for a boiler code. Most of the explosions since that time have been attributed to operator error or improper maintenance, he said.
Boiler explosions are fairly uncommon. One of the last major boiler explosions killed six at a Ford’s River Rouge plant in Michigan in 1999, Hounshell said.
Is the York Rolling Mill explosion still considered to be the largest industrial accident in York County’s history?
“It’s certainly the worst one that I know of,” local historian Scott Butcher said. “It was just such a big event.”
What’s at the spot where the rolling mill used to stand?
The property where the rolling mill once stood is now owned by Metso Minerals. There’s a parking lot on the property now.
The rolling mill in 1908 was owned by a different company, the Susquehanna Iron and Steel Co.