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Titus Sheard — a gentle man, but a very explosive steamboat

When well-respected former State Senator Titus Sheard died suddenly of heart disease at his Little Falls home on April 13, 1904, his death was roundly lamented. His was one of many rags to riches 19th Century success stories. He had, according to the April 14 New York Times, come to America from England with only an older sister as a companion at the age of 15 in 1841, carrying nothing but pocket change, just enough to travel as far west as Little Falls, where he found work in textile factories.

Sheard must have be a real go-getter, for by 1864 he was sole owner of the Eagle Woolen Mill. In 1877, he was elected to the state Assembly and later beat out Theodore Roosevelt as House Speaker. In 1880, he was elected state senator, so there’s no surprise both a railroad engine and a steam canal boat would be named after him, and so they were. The railroad engine didn’t explode. The canal boat did.

Launched in 1886, the Aug. 26 Watkins Democrat described the Sheard as, “forty feet long and twelve feet in breadth, Captain A. B. Van Gorder, a nice, swift little craft. Her engine is ‘six-by-six’ and a first class one of Van Gorder’s own make, and he declares the boat can make twelve miles an hour.”

Van Gorder, a veteran railroad engineer and Little Falls resident, designed the boat’s engine himself and generally ran it fairly close to home, carrying small tourist groups on pleasant canal excursions. With the creation of the nearby Taylor Driving Park, his craft became the primary transporter of tourists between it and Little Falls. Most often another man, ‘Engineer’ Van Buren Young, operated it, and in the end, it was lucky for Van Gorder that Young did, for when it finally exploded, the Titus Sheard did so in a very violent, spectacular fashion, and Van Buren Young ‘engineered’ no more.

Under the headline, “The Little Falls Horror”, The Morning Herald reported that on June 18, 1895, “The boiler of the pleasure steamer ‘Honorable Titus Sheard’ exploded as the boat carried passengers from Little Falls to the bicycle races at Taylor Driving Park, one mile west of the city. Eighteen persons were on board. Ten passengers, nine men and one woman, were either instantly killed or died shortly after. Two more are probably fatally injured, another two are very seriously injured, and two are completely missing. The explosion occurred just as the engineer shut off steam at the Taylor Park landing.”

What exactly was the Taylor Driving Park?

According to a May 12, 2016 Utica Observer-Dispatch article written by David Krutz of the Little Falls Historical Society, it consisted of a one-half mile racing track plus bleachers and baseball field, where bicycle and trotting races and ball games were held, lying between what was then the canal and railroad tracks. Well and good, but by 1896 the park’s attraction had worn thin, attendance was waning, and the Panic of 1896 placed it on the ragged edge of failure. Still, investors hoped for a comeback, and on that beautiful but fatal June day, a special event, an important New York State Wheelmen’s Association bicycle race, had already brought a large attendance at 25 cents a head. According to Historian Krutz, the Titus Sheard was the primary shuttle between Little Falls and the park, and its explosion “was the death knell of Taylor Park.”

Imagine the scene — a pleasant day in June, a happy group of pleasure seekers expecting to enjoy a pleasant afternoon watching an important bicycle race — remember that 1896 was smack in the middle of the great 1890s bicycle craze — but then, just as the Sheard arrived at Taylor Park’s wharf — kaboom! The explosion’s tremendous force, newspapers all reported, sent the 750-pound engine skyward, and it splashed into the canal 200 feet away. Metal shrapnel flew everywhere, injuring many not even close to the boat. As Mr. Krutz reports, “body parts littered the towpath and floated in the canal. Ghastly visions of a decapitated man and of a mangled corpse thrown onto the deck of another boat would remain with many the rest of their days.” Ironically, George White, Titus Sheard’s woolen factory superintendent, was among those decapitated.

The Syracuse Standard’s account ended by stating, “The explosion occurred just as the races began. They were called off at once, as the crowd hastened to the scene of the disaster.”

Apparently, blood and gore trumped cycle races, especially when it was someone else’s gore.

Engineer Young, according to the Little Falls Journal Courier, “was conscious until dying and stated he could give no reason for the explosion. He had only 80 pounds of steam on and enough water in the boiler.”

So what happened?

At the inquest, experts in boiler construction testified. Mr. Joel Oman, for example, president of Utica’s Curtis Boiler Works, stated “the boiler was properly constructed, he saw no evidence of low water, but noted the boiler’s barrel bands had no supporting braces, and thought the accident wouldn’t have occurred if it had. The tubes in the flues, however, he thought were close to the end of their life span.”

The experts prattled on, but in the end, no firm explanation ever emerged, nor was blame fixed. The Honorable Titus Sheard simply exploded. No one ever explained why.

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