Boiler Explosion, Fire Killed 22
One of Denver's deadliest accidents
By Vinny Del Giudice
On Aug. 19, 1895, a boiler exploded at downtown Denver's Gumry Hotel while the boiler operator was at a saloon.
"Naught but the walls were left intact," the Aspen Weekly Times reported.
A Utah newspaper called it "a gaunt and sinister ruin."
The explosion killed 22 people including Peter Gumry, proprietor.
Newspapers published graphic details of the disaster.
The hotel was located on Lawrence Street between Seventeenth and Eighteenth streets.
"The firemen, with light and torch, entered all parts of the hotel," according to a daily quoted by an insurance journal. "Out of the pile of brick, wood and iron below came feeble moans and piteous cries."
James Murphy, trapped in the ruins, pleaded with firemen to amputate his leg. Moments later a wall collapsed and buried Murphy. He died.
M.E. Letson, a dairyman, who waited 10 hours for rescuers to reach him, told a newspaper correspondent of his ordeal:
"You cannot have the slightest idea of my feelings as I lay there in the bottom of the basement with all the ruins on top and around me, hearing the excruciating cries of the dying and those in agony and being almost overcome by the shock, and also soaked with water and almost drowned and fearing that the next minute I would be buried alive."
A newspaper said: "Cries of a babe and the moans of men and women could be heard, but the flames and smoke increased, and finally the voices were all silenced."
Three Denver firemen - P. Gilchrist, J.E. Troy and Louis Maguire - were injured when a wall collapsed and "were almost suffocated to death by smoke and dust," according to a dispatch published in a New Jersey newspaper. [Daily True American of Trenton] The firemen were treated at the county hospital "where it was found they were not seriously injured."
Boiler operator Helmuth Loescher fled Denver and was returned to face investigators.
A coroner's jury determined it was impossible to assign blame, according to October 1895 edition of The Locomotive, a publication of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company.
Author Howard Potter Dunham, writing in a 1912 textbook [Google Books archive] entitled "The Business of Insurance," said the boiler contained adequate water.
However, the jury assailed Gumry and his business partner for allowing Loescher to work long hours; censured Loescher for negligence; and criticized the city boiler inspector for lax procedures and standards.
Excerpt of verdict [Chronicling America]:
"From the testimony submitted, which was conflicting, we are unable to fix the responsibility for the disaster upon any one person, but we believe the owners and managers, Peter Gumry and Robert C. Greiner, were blamable for requiring of the engineer sixteen hours' work out of twenty-four - a request far beyond the ability of any man to endure and perform good work; also for employing an engineer whose habits were dissipated and unreliable, and whose experience did not justify them in placing him in such a responsible position, all of which were well known to them.
"We find that the engineer, Helmuth Loescher, had been drinking on the night of the disaster, and further, he had not examined the safety valve to the boiler for two months, proving him unfit to occupy any position where security to life and property depends upon the faithful performance of duty."
Jury members: K. G. Cooper, F. B. Croke, F. E. Edbrooke, Charles W. Babcock, Frank M. Demange and R. W. Speer.
"Walls have been torn down, but three upper floors and an immense square skylight in the roof hangs suspended in midair directly over where the bodies are supposed to be … Firemen, laborers and their superintendents have worked incessantly, but little appears to have been accomplished … Chief of Police Goulding is in receipt of hundreds of letters and telegrams from all over the country making inquiry of the missing" - San Francisco Call [8/21]
"Every engine in the city was called to the scene … The firemen worked with great heroism. The heat was intense, and the smoke blinding. Electric light wires dangling in the alley, and walls tottering to a fall, increased the perils of the situation." - Oswego Daily Times [8/19]
List of Dead:
ROBERT C. GREINER; MRS. ROBERT C. GREINER; LIZZIE LAGER; LOUISE REINHUBER; EMMA MUHLERTHALER; PETER GUMRY; GENERAL CHARLES ADAMS; WILL RICHARDS; JAMES M. MURPHY; MYRON E. HAWLEY; E. W. EDWARDS, all of Denver; FRED HUBBOLD, Lisbon, Iowa; A. M. MUNROE, Colorado Springs; W. J. CORSON, Pueblo; E. F. McCLOSKEY, Cripple Creek; MRS. G. R. WOLFE; RUBY WOLFE, Lincoln, Neb.; BELA L. LORAH, Central City; FERDINAND FRENCH, Central City; GEORGE BURT, Colorado Springs; A. D. DODDS, Albany, N. Y.; ALBERT S. BLAKE, Pueblo