What caused the explosion of Locomotive No. 704? There are only three possibilities.

(1) Sabotage.

(2) Human error.

(3) Mechanical failure.

Sabotage - There were labor problems and the strikers had been out of work for months. "Scabs" had been brought in to replace the strikers. The Assistant Roundhouse Foreman was openly carrying a pistol. The strikers were composed of men who certainly knew how to tamper with and neutralize the pressure valves of an engine. One valve is found after the explosion indicating that it was screwed down tight.

That the locomotive’s fireman suddenly "forgot his watch" and had to return home just prior to the explosion and that the repair supervisor was absent and later stated his wife had begged him not to go to work that morning, would seem somewhat suspicious. Neither one was a "scab" and perhaps had been "tipped" that something was going to occur. Both were men who would, of necessity, be on or near the locomotive.

The newspaper reporters were constantly asking the investigators about the possibility of dynamite or the residue of an explosive. That the question was being openly and repeatedly asked would seem to indicate some level of expectancy in the community.

Present day site of Southern Pacific Yard

(note the five towers)

Human error - Locomotive No. 704 had been wrecked and upon repair had shown pressure problems that morning. The initial firing had been "in haste" according to one witness.12 Firing of the boiler was stopped and the steam pressure allowed to drop. The boiler was then refired and steam pressure allowed to build after orders were issued that the engine had to be in service that afternoon. It was during this second period that the event occurred.

There was pressure of the official kind on the repair facility to get the engine out of the shop and returned to service as quickly as possible. The job knowledge of many of the new men particularly concerning the reporting of pressure problems, was questionable. The type of explosion that occurred was typical in type to what occurs when the boiler is heated with low or no water and then water is suddenly introduced into the boiler.

Mechanical failure - That the internal metal structure of the boiler failed is not in question. Certain pieces of that internal structure may have been weakened in the initial accident, in Seguin, which would not be readily apparent, even upon close observation. The technological knowledge level of metallurgical diagnostics in 1912 must be taken into account.

The GH&SA Railroad paid all claims without going before a jury. This fact alone weighs heavily towards the most likely scenario; the incident was an accident with the GH&SA accepting negligence. If the company could have shown or even suggested sabotage and therefore an act outside their control, it would seem that to do so would have been to their advantage. Even if one were to advance labor relations positioning, i.e., not wanting to reveal an act of labor coercion, as a reason for the company to suppress the evidence of a criminal act, the Interstate Commerce Commission would probably not have shared their perspective and kept silent. While the actions of the Southern Pacific in being part of the subsequent investigations could be viewed as attempting to influence if not control the inquiry, such participation does not provide evidence in favor of any particular one of the three possibilities.

View from Austin & Mason where front of No.704 fell to earth, looking towards the S.P. yards.

(The towers can be seen in the distance.)

A known or suspected criminal act of sabotage as the cause of the explosion would have necessitated intentional suppression of evidence by the railroad, the Texas Railroad Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Interstate Commerce Commission at a minimum. While possible, such conspiratorial mutuality of purpose and inter-organizational cooperation would seem unlikely particularly in a case of what would be multiple murder. An argument based upon the Southern Pacific suppressing evidence in its own self interest must also show why individuals from various other agencies both state and federal would have been convinced to view suppression of multiple murder as being in their respective best interests.

The actual cause or combination of contributory causes will, almost certainly, never be known nor is it necessary. Tragedies occur, it is not the causes that are necessarily interesting, it is the subsequent actions of the various collectives of people impacted by the events of their time that are fascinating and worthy of study.

The immediate intervention by the military, totally outside their legal authority, saved many lives. Doctors providing on-scene aid to stabilize patients before transport certainly reduced the death toll. The immediate and long term aid provided by the social services reduced the suffering. The careful, detailed reporting of the disaster, the subsequent investigation and the progress of the charitable activity, acted as a social binding agent that kept everyone aware and directed towards the necessary goals.

The negation of the public investigation, whether or not by design or influence of the Southern Pacific, by way of an ever increasing state and federal bureaucracy is a portent of the course of our century. A sociological argument could be made that this was an excellent example of the ascendancy of the developing governmental-industrial organizational structure over the participatory-voluntary associations of progressive era urban America.

This event is not the same type of tragedy as the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that had occurred the year before on March 25th in New York City. At that fire, 146 people, mostly young girls, burned to death, trapped in a sweatshop. The owners were accused of locking the doors in order to keep their employees inside and at their machines. After the fire, pressure from local labor unions and the very real possibility of repeated occurrences forced the city administration to take various comprehensive fire control and safety actions. The owners were tried and found not guilty on one count of negligent homicide of a dead male caretaker and after subsequent indictments were quashed by the New York Supreme Court no one was every found to be at fault. The girls, while technically employees, were viewed by the newspapers as labor slaves and murdered victims of the sweatshop system.13 Neither is the San Antonio event the same as the great maritime disaster that was to occur within a few weeks. On 14 April, 1912, R.M.S. Titanic, a White Star steamship, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank with a loss of 1,523 lives. The subsequent investigations both in the United States and Great Britain resulted in basic changes to lifeboat regulations and the shifting of the sea lanes further south. Again, a great number of innocent persons, women and children were killed. They were not viewed as having accepted any employment risks.14

In San Antonio, the victims were almost all workers, killed in what today would be termed an industrial accident. It is difficult to perceive the level of hazard faced by a railroad employee of that time. 72,000 employees were killed and 2 million injured on the tracks between 1890 and 1917, 158,000 more were killed in repair shops and roundhouses. In just this 27 year period the railroad industry had 2,230,000 casualties.15 In all its wars combined, from the Revolution to the Persian Gulf, over 200 years, the United States has suffered only 2,427,094 casualties.16

That Superintendent Anderson, an employee of the Southern Pacific might have a conflict of interest when acting as the head of the public board of inquiry was apparently never considered or if so, it certainly was not voiced. However, if the event is seen as an industrial accident such as a mine disaster, Anderson’s selection seems less odd. That four of the six members of the second board of inquiry were also employees of the Southern Pacific, again apparently bothered no one.

Once a federal officer had arrived the entire investigation became his. The deference to authority, both federal and state is obvious. Almost as much so as the deference given to the "experts" who seemed to arrive in town unbidden, were allowed access to the evidence, performed their investigations and then departed with little return to the local community. If and when a public report was to be made by the federal government seemed to be of little concern to the newspapers. The media seemed to possess no need or drive to question the activities of the government officials. It was apparently felt that if action needed to be taken the government would do so. It was most certainly a different time.

1200 blk of North Hackberry

Another view of the present day site.

The great locomotive explosion is worthy of study from a number of sociological and historical perspectives. For both urban sociologists and social historians it is an excellent example of a stress reaction within a post-Victorian/Progressive Era urban social system. The systemic patterns of a developing bureaucracy should also be of interest to organizational theorists. Both conflict theorists and structural fundamentalists can find much to support their particular perspectives. The event surrounding Locomotive No.704 is fertile ground.

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