It was the first and one of the worst river disasters in the history of the Pittsburgh Port. Nineteen people died and 18 were injured as a result of an explosion aboard a huge and lavish excursion boat — the Island Queen.
In 1947, the Island Queen was considered one of the largest excursion steamers in the United States and the largest river pleasure boat in the world. It was built at Midland, Pa., in 1924 and completed in Cincinnati in 1925. The estimated half-million-dollar excursion steamer was 286 feet by 45.6 feet and had accommodations for 4,000 passengers.
On Sept. 9th, 1947, the day of its tragic end, the Island Queen — a luxury boat with a huge dance floor and dazzling interior design — was in Pittsburgh during its 10-day excursion tour. It had a scenic tour scheduled for 9 p.m. Tuesday. There were no passengers aboard that afternoon when the blast shook the boat, but about 40 crew members were aboard preparing for the regularly scheduled trip later that day.
According to the Post-Gazette, the blast occurred at 1:16 p.m. and was followed by a roaring fire with with flames shooting 200 feet or more into the air. Bodies were thrown by the force of the blast, then dropped more than 30 feet away into the Monongahela River. At 1:20 p.m., less than five minutes after the explosion, the structure of the boat began to crumble. The five-deck boat was completely enveloped by flames and smoke; fire was raging inside and all around the boat. Onlookers gathered ashore to witness in horror as the tragedy unfolded. They could see and hear as the boat was being scorched by fire with members of the crew on board. Fifteen of the crew members were believed asleep aboard the vessel during the blast.
The entire Downtown was shaken by the force of the explosion, which was described by some near the scene as a single blast, by others as two almost simultaneous blasts and by still others as a continuous rumble lasting several seconds and sounding as though it was made up of a series of five or six explosions following each other in quick succession.
The devastating force of the blast knocked several people to the ground on nearby streets. One of them, the Post-Gazette reported, was Joseph Miller, manager of the Union Bus Terminal, who was standing in the terminal yards when the blast occurred. “I picked myself up and at first I could not figure what happened,” he said. “It was as if an atomic bomb had gone off. Then I saw the boat burning and ran across First Avenue and notified the fire department.”
The big boat “was a blazing inferno within seconds after the explosion.” According to the Post-Gazette, the boat turned into a mass of flames very quickly and it became clear that very few would have a chance to escape. “After burning for two hours, the once charred and blackened hulk of the once proud steamer sank in the Monongahela.”
The explosion created traffic hazards: the blast drew thousands to the scene. People were rushing across the streets toward the river and motorists were driving to get a close-up view. “So great was the crowd on the Smithfield Street Bridge that police were forced to clear it, fearing the additional weight might cause it to collapse, Post-Gazette reported. “As the crowds ran along Smithfield, Wood and Market streets toward the river, they found the sidewalks in many places littered with glass.” Thousands of workers and shoppers hurried toward the Monongahela Wharf in the Golden Triangle to view the wreckage of the excursion boat Island Queen. They waded through water from fire hoses and crowded onto the outer sidewalk of Water Street Boulevard. Many of the spectators had been on the ship during its stay in Pittsburgh, and many others were planning scenic trips on the river in the floating palace.
The blast was so powerful that it shattered windows of store and office buildings in the “concussion-rocked” Monongahela waterfront area; authorities had to establish a strict guard to prevent looting that night. Many automobiles in the city parking lot on the wharf below Smithfield Street were damaged as well, including the eleven that were so badly damaged and scorched that they could not have been driven away and had to be towed to a City of Pittsburgh garage.
A follow up investigation concluded that the explosion on the Queen Island was caused by sparks from welding work being done that set the boat ablaze. The monetary loss of that tragedy was estimated at $1,000,000.