There’s more than just a bit of history in the faded photograph of Collett’s Sawmill. Look hard enough, and you’ll also get a glimpse of 19th-century journalism practices.
I came across the cabinet card while sorting through some material I had stashed away years ago. The photo is labeled “C.W. Collett’s Saw Mill, Ridgeville, Ind.” Pictured are eight men in the shop yard. The back of the mount is dated 1890.
Located in Randolph County, Indiana, the sawmill was destroyed by a boiler explosion on December 17, 1891. The accident killed three men and injured three others.
The New York Times published an article on the explosion the day after the event. The story noted the boiler was large and in good working condition at the time of the incident. According to the copy, the boiler “had three gauges of water and started up under the usual amount of steam, running both saws.”
When a belt was thrown, the engine was temporarily shut down. It was then the blast happened. “As all in the building were killed it will never be known how the explosion occurred. The mill is a total wreck and the explosion was felt all over the town.”
The dead were listed as William Wise, the engineer; William Collett, head sawyer, son of the proprietor; and James Clawson.
As intriguing was news of the most seriously injured: “Isaac Nicholson, foot torn off and left arm so badly mangled that it must be amputated; will die.” Suffering lesser injuries were two men struck by flying debris.
The blunt language used regarding Isaac Nicholson makes this one history lesson within another. That a boiler explosion roughly 650 miles away would make news in New York is intriguing. Yet, it’s the frank approach to journalism that truly comes through in this story.