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Steam Threshermen Feared Boiler Explosions, 1906


A healthy fear of farm machinery is a good thing, for farming has long been a most-hazardous occupation. A century ago, when farmers used steam-powered tractors to thresh their wheat, caution was necessary. The high-pressure boilers that produced the steam to power threshing machines required strict safety procedures to prevent explosions. Sadly, instantaneous deaths and mangling injuries resulted each harvest-season from engine blowouts.

On this date, in 1906, a Grand Forks newspaper told of a disastrous boiler-explosion east of Minto, near Warsaw. A steam engine owned by Alex Stoltman blew up, and the engineer tending it was “severely burned” by the scalding-steam and cut by flying fragments. Caregivers had little hope of his survival.

From the 1880s through the 1920s, steam-engines powered threshing machines. The boiler-men tending these tractors had the serious task of preventing pressure build-ups that could shatter boilerplates into shrapnel and release the fiercely-hot steam.

In the fall of 1889, about fifty men in threshing crews perished in such explosions. Similarly, in 1895, there were “numerous boiler explosions” in the state, “in which numerous lives were lost, and many persons [were] maimed and disfigured.”

At times, these tragedies happened because careless or incompetent operators refused to use good sense. Newspaper headlines shrieked: “Water Is Low, Boiler Lets Go,” telling of a boiler-man who brought catastrophe “by running his engine short of water to rush the head of steam,” his body “blown to atoms.” In another boiler-explosion, the deathly headline read: “Blown Into Eternity.”

The deepest blame went to farmers who used “old and worn” machines. Indeed, the “gradual deterioration of boilers” was the number-one cause of their failure. Corrosion caused weaknesses in boiler-metal so that the simmering strain of high-pressure steam would find a fatal defect, perhaps a single rivet, leading to explosive rupture. Engineers also faced dangers from worn-out safety valves or inaccurate pressure gauges.

Reformers called for inspectors to examine boilers, believing that the explosions were preventable. And state law eventually did provide for inspections, seeking to halt the “terrible slaughter.”

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Explosion May Result Fatally,” Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND], October 4, 1906, p. 8.

“Down In the Red River Valley,” Bismarck Tribune, June 1, 1890, p. 2.

“Last Fall There Were Numerous Boiler Explosions,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, August 30, 1895, p. 4.

“The Boiler Inspection Bill Killed,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, March 3, 1899, p. 2.

“Threshing Engine Exploded,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, November 4, 1891, p. 8.

“Water Is Low; Boiler Lets Go,” Weekly Times-Record [Valley City, ND], September 9, 1915, p. 12

“Steam Boiler Explosions,” New York Times, November 8, 1860, p. 4.

“Boiler Exploded,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 7, 1889, p. 1.

“Risky Business,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, December 4, 1891, p. 5.

“Six Men Killed, Terribly Fatal Boiler Explosion on a Farm Near Crystal,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, September 27, 1894, p. 1.

“Blown Into Eternity,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, October 2, 1890, p. 5.