Skip to main content

Tragedy on the Susquehanna: The Explosion of the Steamboat 'Montour'



Saturday morning, July 13, 1901, dawned sunny and bright and the streets of Sunbury were buzzing with activity. While the women of the city made their weekly rounds to the shops and markets, the men and children headed to the river to fish and swim and make the most of this beautiful, lazy summer day.

At the Market Street wharf, where the Clements coal dredge and a number of small wooden boats were moored, a number of boys were casting their lines into the water. Among them were Roy McDonald, age 11, Harry Reed, age 12, and William Pullen, 17. These boys were joined by two sets of brothers, Frank and Charles Keller, ages 8 and 12, and Arthur and Allen Fetzer, 11 and 14.

The boys were probably too preoccupied to pay much attention to the gathering of prominent Williamsport gentlemen who waited on the wharf with their poles and tackle boxes in hand.  And they probably paid even less attention to Butler Wendt and William Gaughler, the engineers tinkering with the steam gauge of the Montour, a pleasure boat owned by the Sunbury Boat Club that was moored thirty-five feet away.

The Montour had just returned from Shamokin Dam earlier that morning, and Wendt and Gaughler were making the steamboat ready for its next excursion. Superintendent E.B. Westfall, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, had invited a party of railroad officials, bankers, lawyers and other prominent businessmen out for a day of fishing on the Susquehanna. It was just after nine o'clock, and the engineers were almost done with their preparations.

Butler Wendt opened the fire door and threw in a few shovelfuls of coal. He then checked the steam gauge-- it registered a perfect sixty-five pounds of steam. The water gauge indicated that the boiler was full. Satisfied that the Montour was ready to take Superintendent Westfall and his friends on their fishing trip, the engineers turned over the boat to her pilot, George Frymeyer, a veteran riverman who knew the Susquehanna better than anyone in Sunbury.

After his job was done, Wendt walked uptown to run some errands. By 9:45 he had nearly reached the Central Hotel, and that was when he heard what sounded like the blast of a mighty cannon. The explosion was so loud that everyone for miles around heard it. Women fled from the markets in fear, dropping their baskets of groceries to the ground. Some shouted that it was an earthquake. Others ran for cover, wondering if the quiet, rural countryside had been invaded by an unknown enemy army. When the initial shock subsided it was evident that the explosion had come from the river, and several hundred residents of Sunbury raced to the wharf eager to discover what had happened.

The sight that met their searching eyes was far worse than anything they could have ever imagined.
One description of the tragedy, from the Lewisburg Chronicle, reads:

Women turned pale and had to be helped away, and even robust men turned and left, so sad and pathetic was the scene.

One reporter from the Williamsport Sun-Gazette wrote sadly, but poetically:

The scene was an awful one. Lying on the ground, writhing in great agony, suffering untold tortures and staining the grass with their life's blood, lay five young boys, while about 100 feet away, lying near the water's edge, the shattered remains of what was once a steamboat told the awful tale of what had occurred.

Soon hundreds of people flocked to the the scene and the spectacle was of such a nature that it will live forever in their memories. Bruised, burned and mangled, dripping with blood, with distorted and unrecognizable features, the injured boys, in their terrible pain and distress, called loudly to their loved ones to come to their assistance and alleviate their awful sufferings.


One of the first women on the scene was Mrs. Fetzer, whose children had left home to go fishing that morning. "Where are my boys?" she cried, elbowing her way through the shell-shocked crowd. There are no words in any language ever spoken by the human tongue that could describe how the worried mother must have felt when she reached the wharf and recognized the horribly mutilated body of her 14-year-old son Allen lying cold in death, and her youngest son, Arthur, bloodied and broken, barely clinging to life. Arthur was rushed to the Mary Packer Hospital, but died hours later.

Roy McDonald, one of the boys who had survived the explosion with minor injuries, gave the following description what had happened:

"I heard a loud noise and when I turned to look to see what was wrong I saw a boy which proved to be Allen Fetzer going up in the air. He went as high as the trees along the bank and fell in a pile of wood. Pieces of wood and iron fell in all directions and I saw several other boys fall in the water, but it came so sudden that I didn't know what happened until the men came."

The men Roy was referring to were Frank Lawrence and Samuel Welker, workmen who were closest to the wharf when the explosion took place. Lawrence stated:

"By the time we reached the ground an awful sight was ready for our view. The entire roof and side walls of the Montour had been blown to atoms and ruin was to be seen on every side. The contents of the boat were scattered among the pile of debris and the machinery on a nearby digger was twisted into an almost useless mass of scrap iron... We got Frank Keller out from under the engine on the coal digger and the other boys were taken from the water. The body of Allen Fetzer lay along the bank about 25 feet away. We heard him groan once, but before we got to his side he was dead."

Charles Keller died at the hospital the following night. The twelve-year-old boy had been so severely injured that most people were amazed that he clung to life as long as he did. He had sustained several broken ribs, a severed artery in his shoulder, and was badly burned all over his entire body.

It took two days to locate the pilot of the steamboat, George Frymeyer, who was blown more than one hundred feet out over the river. Frank Keller, from the Sunbury hospital, told investigators that Frymeyer had just put water into the boiler and was standing with his hand on the valve when the boiler exploded.

A party of more than fifty searchers and divers dragged and dredged the river with hooker poles and grappling irons all day Saturday, without success. Two of Frymeyer's brothers were in the search party, going about their ghastly task in stoic silence, never stopping for a moment-- not even as their elderly gray-haired father wept from the riverbank.

Fate had been unreasonably cruel to old Mr. Frymeyer. Twenty years earlier another one of his sons had met his death through the explosion of a boiler at a saw mill in Shamokin Dam.

The remains of the steamboat pilot weren't found until Sunday afternoon. When his corpse was recovered from beneath twenty feet of water, it was evident that he had received the full force of the blast; his entire chest had been caved in, his skull was fractured, and his right leg was dangling by a thread.

On Friday, July 19, the coroner's jury reported that they were unable to find the cause of the explosion and, therefore, nobody could be held responsible for the tragedy. Numerous experts had inspected the wreckage and, by all accounts, there was no earthly explanation for why the boiler had malfunctioned.



Business Owners: Reach 300,000+ potential customers per month for just pennies a day by advertising on Pennsylvania Oddities!

Popular posts from this blog

Natalie, Pennsylvania: A Murderer's Paradise

When a miner named Michael Wanzie was murdered in June of 1905, it was evident that something wasn't quite right in the tiny village of Natalie. Although the scenic mountain village had a population of less than two hundred, the slaying of Michael Wanzie was the fourth murder committed in the village in less than a decade.

By 1924 the population had nearly doubled, thanks to a building "boom" that saw the construction of 40 new homes during the preceding year by builders employed by the Colonial Collieries Company, owners of the Natalie Colliery. Twenty of these homes, many of which still stand today, were built by the Evert Construction Company of Kulpmont. In 1923 there were 56 homes in the village, housing 375 residents. By April of 1924 that number would swell to just under 400 residents and 93 homes.

Although the building boom lent a measure of respectability to the village, Natalie was still imbued with a notorious reputation as being one of the most lawless place…

The Lutz Axe Murder

A small two-story house standing at the corner of Franklin and Montgomery streets in West Pittston presents a humble appearance. Simple in design and white in color, it is remarkable only because it is so unremarkable. A local resident may drive by the house every day for years without ever noticing it, or thinking about it. Certainly, from its understated appearance, nobody would ever guess that this humble house was the home of John Lutz, who, in 1899, committed of the most heinous murders in the history of Luzerne County.

The tiny house at the corner of Franklin and Montgomery is, in fact, a murder house. It is the scene of a gruesome crime that took place more than a century ago. What you are about to read is the story of that house and the killer who lived inside.

On November 29, 1899, John Lutz came home to his 31-year-old wife, Augusta, and their five young children. Lutz, who was nearly ten years older than his wife, was said to have been suffering from feelings of jealousy. Th…

The Murder of Daisy Smith

On a Monday morning in early October of 1898, about two miles below the iron railroad bridge which crosses the river to Selinsgrove, a farmer's horse had fallen ill.  Henry Smith sent out his teenage daughter, Daisy, to gather some sweet fern.  Hours passed and the Daisy had not returned with the medicinal herb so Mr. Smith decided to look for her after dinner.  He discovered the body of his beloved daughter next to the highway not far from the barn, face down beneath a large chestnut tree; her throat cut ear from to ear.

Of all the murders that took place in Northumberland County, it is the murder of pretty Daisy Smith which has become the most famous, largely due to the brutality of the crime. Daisy, who was just sixteen at the time, was found with a gash across her neck so deep that her backbone was visible, and her body had been riddled with several loads of buckshot.  It was the type of death befitting the most heinous of villains, and the fact that this fate had befallen su…