July 30th, 1871 – Staten Island Ferry Explodes!


On July 30th, 1871, disaster struck the Staten Island Ferry as the Westfield’s boiler exploded, resulting in the deaths of over 85 people.

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During the 1850s, Staten Island developed rapidly, and its ferry accordingly grew in importance; however, the poor condition of the boats became a source of chronic complaint, as did the limited schedule. The opening of the Staten Island Railway in 1860 increased traffic further and newer boats were acquired, named after the towns of Richmond County which covered the whole of Staten Island.

One of these ferries, the Westfield, was damaged when its boiler exploded while sitting in its slip at South Ferry at about 1:30 in the afternoon of July 30th, 1871. Within days of the disaster, some 85 were identified as dead and hundreds injured, and several more were added to the death toll in the weeks following. Jacob Vanderbilt, president of the Staten Island Railway, was arrested for murder, though he escaped conviction. The engineer of Westfield was a black man, which aroused openly racist commentary in New York’s newspapers, though Vanderbilt stoutly defended his employee. Victims were never compensated for damages.


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