Monday, September 3, 2018

The Kerley Sawmill Explosion

In searching randomly for Swain County news from 125 years ago, I tripped across today's tale, one that, though sad, deserves to be told in order to honor the victims of this tragedy.

Most Swain Countians are acquainted with several large-scale logging and milling operations that existed in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Ritter at Proctor, Norwood at Forney, Champion at Smokemont, and several others. However, many smaller operations using portable sawmills were also to be found in the mountains. These sawmills served a vital purpose for the community - producing usable lumber for building homes, barns, businesses, and other structures.

One such sawing business was located on Conley's Creek and was owned by Larkin Julius (L.J.) Kerlee. It appears to have begun operations by at least 1888, as an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times that year notes that 10 railcar loads of "elegant poplar lumber" from Kerlee had been shipped to New York. And according to the newspaper article below, some of his lumber appears to have been used to build the bridge across the Tuckasegee River in Whittier.

Source: Swain County Herald, 30 January 1890
The Kerlee family appears to have been prominent in the community, with members often making their way into the local papers. L.J. was one of three gentlemen tasked with the responsibility for holding the 1890 Democratic primary in Whittier. He was also a musician, as a newspaper article records Kerlee playing the guitar for a picnic for the Whittier School in 1890. (Though I have not researched it extensively, Kerlee [alternately spelled Kerley in other reports] was almost certainly a relative of Richard Manson Kerley, who was the first husband of Nancy Ann Conard - better known as "Nance Dude". Nancy's son, Will, settled on Conley's Creek in the 1920s.)

However, the Kerlee family's world was to be upended in 1893. On 22 September, the Murfreesboro Index (Murfreesboro, NC) had this sad news to report:

"The boiler of Kerley's saw mill, on Conley's Creek, near Whitter, Swain County, NC, exploded Monday (note: this would have been on 18 September) and instantly killed six men. Those killed are Richard Nichols, manager, of Asheville; James Kelley, Ben McMahan, Henry Smith, laborers; Jesse Gunter, farmer.

The accident is supposed to have resulted from too high pressure of steam. The mill was completely wrecked, the saws, carriage , being broken up and not a piece of the boiler was left near the foundation. The men were blown to pieces, and the fragments scattered. The number of deaths in this accident is greater than any that have occurred in this part of the state since 1883, when twenty-six men were drowned at the convict camps near the scene of the present trouble."

A steam-powered sawmill in Pennsylvania, circa 1895. It is likely that the Kerlee sawmill had a similar setup. Note the boiler on the right with the steam rising from it.
Who were the victims of this tragedy?
The employees:

  • Richard Nichols was born circa 1840 in Canada, and fought with the 23rd Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. He and his family relocated to Asheville, in the area known as the Tahkeeostee Farm (now the French Broad River Park) around 1890 and as of January 1893, he was working for the French Broad Lumber Company (likely the conduit to his employment in the sawmill). He left behind a wife and 7 children, 3 of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of his death. The estate he left was worth only $10 ($280 today). He is buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

Just 8 months prior to his death, Richard Nichols celebrated the marriage of one of his daughters.
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times, 26 January 1893

  • "James Kelley" was actually James O'Kelley, born 22 March 1864 in the Hominy area of Buncombe County. He was the son of Francis W. and Margaret Arminta (Young) O'Kelley. According to one account of the explosion, he was employed as a sawyer by Kerlee. At the time of his death, his estate was worth $200 ($5,600 today) and it appears to have been divided amongst his siblings. His brother, Walter, had a son in 1895 whom he named after his brother. He is buried in the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church Cemetery in Candler.
Probate record for James O'Kelley
  • Henry Smith was an African-American man from the community then known as "Coopers" (now Swannanoa) in Buncombe County. He was employed as the "fireman" for the mill on that fateful day. He presumably is the Henry Smith that married Matilda Patton in Asheville in 1881 and had at least one child, William, who was born in 1888. The newspaper reports that his body was returned to the Asheville area; as such, it is my presumption that he is buried in the South Asheville Cemetery, which was the primary designated cemetery for African-Americans in that area at that time.
The customers:
  • Ben (born 26 March 1871) and Lee McMahan (Lee being the unnamed 6th individual killed, born 06 February 1875) were the sons of John and Rutha (Dillard) McMahan. Tragedy stalked this family. The boys' 2 year-old brother, John, died in 1882; their father, John, died in 1885, their brother, William Love, died in 1891; and another brother, General Pinkney, had just died in May 1893. It is difficult to fathom the grief their widowed mother must have felt when she lost these boys, particularly in such close proximity to the death of Pinkney. Neither Ben nor Lee appear to have been married. They are buried near their parents and siblings in the Barkers Creek Cemetery.
  • Jessie Bowman Gunter (born 19 August 1867) was the son of George Marion and Elizabeth (Nations) Gunter. He married Tennessee "Tennie" Carringer of Graham County in 1889 and they had at least one child, Maggie, who was 3 years old at the time of his death (Tennie remarried in 1894 and stated for the 1900 census that she had 5 children, 4 of whom remained living. It is possible that the deceased child was also Jessie's.) He is buried in the Marion Gunter family cemetery in Whittier.
George Marion and Elizabeth Nations Gunter, parents of Jessie Bowman Gunter.
Source: Findagrave user "Troy", on GM Gunter findagrave memorial

As for the Kerlee family, after that sad day, L.J. stayed in the milling business for at least a time, as he's recorded as working as a sawyer for the Coffin and McDonald sawmill in 1896. By 1900 his family had returned to Buncombe County, and by 1910 they had made the permanent move to Skagit County, Washington, where he died in 1933.

What a sad day for the Whittier community.

(Postscript: The other tragedy referred to in the article above refers to the Cowee Tunnel disaster, in which 19 African-American convicts drowned while working to build the Southern Railway in Dillsboro. There is an excellent article on it located at this link.)
Asheville Citizen-Times, 17 May 1888.
Asheville Citizen-Times, 26 Jan 1893.
Asheville Weekly Citizen, 21 Sep 1893.
Bryson City Times, 03 Apr 1896. user "Troy".
Murfreesboro Index, 22 Sep 1893.
Muskogee Phoenix, 21 Sep 1893.
Pennsylvania Roots website:
Swain County Herald, 30 Jan 1890.
Swain County Herald, 05 Jun 1890.
Washington Gazette, 28 Sep 1893.