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Fire on the Bay: 115 Years Ago This Month, a Deadly Explosion Rocked a Navy Ship

The (San Diego) Evening Tribune’s front page on July 21, 1905, the day of the USS Bennington disaster. / Image via Union-Tribune archives

From the pristine, freshly trimmed grass of Point Loma’s Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, you could stand next to a 60-foot-tall granite obelisk on Monday and peer across the bay as smoke unfurled from a Navy assault ship. The obelisk, which is “Dedicated to the Bennington’s Dead,” commemorates the 66 sailors who died in a ship explosion here 115 years ago this month, all victims of one of San Diego’s worst disasters.

As the USS Bonhomme Richard continues to burn, the massive steam explosion aboard the USS Bennington and its aftermath are reminders of heroism (11 men received Congressional Medals of Honor), grit (overwhelmed local volunteers struggled to care for the wounded and the dead) and the early years of San Diego’s Navy ties.

The disaster struck on the morning July 21, 1905, when sailors aboard the gunship were preparing for a trip to a port in San Luis Obispo after just a couple days in the bay. “The crew had to be disappointed … the Bennington had [just] completed a rough voyage from Honolulu, and weekend liberty in ‘Dago’ always proved enjoyable,” reported The Journal of San Diego History in a 1976 article [1] about the explosion.

“Enjoyable” may be an understatement. Around the turn of the 20th century, dozens of prostitutes worked the Stingaree [2], downtown San Diego’s red-light district, and sailors provided a steady clientele. “Every city election that came along heard candidates promising to clean up the Stingaree; but after the election, the subject was dropped,” one historian wrote [3]. A cleanup didn’t come until the 1912, when a newspaper headline [2] read: “138 Women Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City, Two to Reform.”

‘What a Terrible Way to Die’

The ship was just about ready to leave the bay when “a volcano of superheated steam erupted through the deck amidships,” reports the history journal. “Men tore their uniforms off in fits of frenzy and dove overboard to escape the murderous steam. Some injured themselves in the jump; others drowned before help could arrive. Sailors screamed and moaned piteously on the upper decks, the steady hiss of steam in their ears. A few men below decks scrambled to ladders, but many bluejackets were trapped in the various compartments.”

One sailor remembered the terror [4] this way: “the ship shuddered violently and we were enveloped in a roaring cloud of scalding steam. It struck me from behind and carried me willy-nilly and with great force like a leaf in a gale. There seemed no chance to escape, and my first thought was, ‘What a terrible way to die.’ ”

Sixty-six men died, and dozens were injured. The city’s hospitals – St. Joseph’s Sanitarium [5] in Hillcrest, at the corner of Eighth and University, and the Agnew Sanitarium [6], at Beech and Fifth in Bankers Hill – filled with the wounded.

“Men walked about naked with sheets of flesh clinging loosely to their bodies,” the history journal article reported. “Those individuals the doctors could not attend to dressed their wounds with generous amounts of vaseline and axle grease smeared onto their limbs. To alleviate the sufferings, the citizens of San Diego flooded the hospitals with pillows, blankets, literary materials, bedding, fruits, tobacco, and ice cream. Over one hundred women volunteered their services at the infirmaries.”

A few days after the disaster, dozens of the dead were buried at what was then called the Post Cemetery at Fort Rosecrans. “For one hour and fifteen minutes, survivors of the Bennington came forward in sixes to receive the coffins of their friends and to lay them in a long trench dug by a primitive steam shovel,” the history journal says. “A Protestant minister and a Roman Catholic priest read prayers over the caskets.”

Thousands Pay Tribute at Memorial Dedication

The USS Bennington Memorial obelisk at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on July 13, 2020. / Photo by Randy Dotinga

The memorial obelisk, made of local granite, was dedicated in 1908 in front of thousands. The ceremony featured speeches, a hymn (“Abide With Me), 66 wreaths for each of the dead provided by a Point Loma girls organization, according to The Evening Tribune. Taps was played and warship bands sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“At the time of its construction, [the obelisk] was the most visible object on Point Loma next to the lighthouse itself,” the San Diego Reader reported in 1987 [7].

Meanwhile, “an investigation found that a sailor in the boiler room had accidentally disabled a pressure gauge, allowing steam to fill a boiler until it exploded,” the history journal wrote. The ship’s commander and its chief engineer faced a court-martial trial downtown, but they were acquitted “when the court-martial board implied that the Navy erred in assigning a young officer to such complex duty.”

The Bennington explosion in 1905 occurred right as San Diego was on the cusp of transforming from a small backwater into one of the Navy’s top ports. Only a few years earlier, it had pushed the Navy to create a coal depot here. Over the next 35 years, the city would grow in importance [8] thanks to the efforts of a local congressman named William Kettner and Franklin D. Roosevelt, first as assistant secretary of the Navy and later as president.

Except for a blip before World War II, when Roosevelt sent doomed ships from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in order to guard against the Japanese, we’ve been crucial to the defense of the West Coast. Boosted by the military, the city’s population mushroomed from under 40,000 in 1900 to 192,000 in 1940 and more than 1.4 million today – all under the eye of a stone cemetery obelisk with a view of the bay and the ships at sea.