“Negligence Born of Familiarity”: Tragedy at the Penn Iron and Coal Company

The Penn Iron and Coal Company as depicted on a 1899 perspective map of Dover, Ohio. (Source: loc.gov)

I am often drawn to tragic stories because, in many cases, the individuals involved end up being lost to the historic record. This often happens because many tragedies occur when people are younger and have yet to establish themselves or create a family to carry on their names and stories. This is one such tragedy.

Four men arrived for work at the Penn Iron and Coal Company blast furnace in Dover, Ohio on Thursday, October 7, 1909. Their task that day was to repair one of the cylinders in the furnace’s massive 160-ton steam powered compound blowing engines. These engines were used to force air into the furnace when it was being operated and one of the massive pistons was causing some damage to the inside of the cylinder. The men waited as the huge engine cooled down so that they could climb inside the cylinder to make repairs.

The Master Mechanic who oversaw the work on that day had only worked at the furnace for a couple of weeks. William Dawson, born in 1871 in Guernsey County, married a Tuscarawas County woman in 1896 and the couple had five children by 1908. William moved with his young family to Dover around 1905 and the family lived on the 300 block of West Sixth Street in Dover. Dawson operated a steam laundry in town in addition to being employed by the furnace.

The foreman for the the crew that would undertake the actual work in the cylinder was a Washington County, Ohio native named John Gerber. Gerber was born, and grew up in, Washington County, Ohio where he had worked as carpenter. He married in 1895 and he and his wife, Catherine, moved to the town of Marietta. Likely drawn by the amount of work available, he relocated to Dover around 1905. Just two weeks earlier John’s wife had petitioned the court for a divorce; a request the court denied.

  • The Penn Iron and Coal Company depicted on the 1907 Sanborne Fire Insurance Map for Dover, Ohio. (Source: loc.gov)
  • A postcard image of the Penn Iron and Coal Company, Dover, Ohio, c. 1910. (Source: eBay.com)
  • A steam powered compound blowing engine shown in the 1905 book Modern Engines and Power Generators.

The other two men, and the youngest, that made up the work crew were William Lang and David Harrys. Lang, born in 1882, was the son of a Swiss immigrant blacksmith who worked in Dover. David was born in 1889 in the Welsh town of Llangennech, Carmarthenshire and immigrated alone to the United States in 1907. He had only recently arrived in Dover after working for a short time in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Both William and David were unmarried.

After the engine had cooled, the crew with help from other workers including one of William Lang’s brothers, turned the large, 20-ton counterweighted flywheel for the piston until the piston rested at the bottom of the cylinder. The men then braced the wheel with wood to prevent it moving and the three man crew stepped into the cylinder. William Dawson, the Master Mechanic, supervised the work from an opening in the top of the cylinder.

The three men, with occasional help from William Lang’s brother, had been working on the cylinder for about a half-an-hour when the unthinkable happened. The bracing on the flywheel failed and forced the piston head to top of the cylinder, crushing and killing all three men instantly. Blood and remains of the three men surged through the opening in the top of the cylinder, completely covering William Dawson. There was no question that the men inside the cylinder were dead.

  • Newspaper headline about the accident in East Liverpool, Ohio newspaper, October 1909. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • Newspaper headline about the accident in Norwalk, Ohio newspaper, October 1909. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • Newspaper headline about the accident in New Philadelphia newspaper, October 1909. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)

Master Mechanic William Dawson, now covered in the remains from the three workmen, immediately broke down mentally, screaming that it was his fault the men died. While he was taken to Union Hospital, other men took the task of trying to remove what remained of the three men from the top of the cylinder. According to the newspaper accounts of the scene, the three workmen’s remains were compressed into a three inch thick, four foot diameter mass at the top of the cylinder. It took the men an hour and half to remove the remains and they were transported to a nearby undertaker’s rooms for preparation for burial.

The next day Coroner Milton A. Romig (1842-1927) began his inquest into the cause of the accident by interviewing the workmen who had helped prepare the blower engine to be repaired. One man unable to attend was Master Mechanic William Dawson who was still recovering from the shock of the accident, and who doctors worried might not recover from this shock. William Lang’s brother testified that he thought perhaps there had been a steam leak that forced the wheel into motion, others thought that the men had been negligent in bracing the flywheel appropriately. Coroner Romig investigated the accident site, the blower engine, and the material used to brace the flywheel as part of his inquest.

Master Mechanic William Dawson recovered from his shock after several days and was able to testify in the Coroner’s inquest. Dawson’s testimony very much mirrored that of the other witnesses. He told of blocking the flywheel with a timber of oak about 9 inches square and that the wood snapped causing the flywheel to drive the piston head to the top of the cylinder. An examination of the piece of oak by Coroner Romig discovered that the oak was dry rotted on the inside, something that the men could not have known from the external appearance of the timber. Romig felt that even William Lang, a trained carpenter, would not have been able to tell that the oak timber was defective.

  • William Dawson around the time of his marriage, c. 1895. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • Death certificate of John Gerber, October 1909. (Source: familysearch.org)
  • Death certificate of David Harrys, October 1909. (Source: familysearch.org)
  • Death certificate of William Lang, October 1909. (Source: familysearch.org)

Coroner Romig determined that “I find no person was intentionally concerned in said deaths, but said deaths were altogether the result of negligence born of familiarity with such danger…” He argued that, in the future, the top of the cylinder should be removed in order to undertake repairs on them so that there would be no repeat of the accident. Romig stated that whether anyone, and he named the furnace’s Superintendent and William Dawson, was criminally liable for the accident was something for the courts to decide. There is no evidence that either man was charged with a crime.

The accident at the Penn Iron and Coal Company that grotesquely took the lives of three workmen was reported nationally in the press and trade publications. William Lang’s remains were buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Dover and David Harrys’ remains were returned to his family in Wales. After the death of her husband, Catherine Gerber returned to Marietta, Ohio where she lived for the rest of her life. William Dawson eventually left Dover, moving initially to Columbus, Ohio where he worked in a handful of jobs including painting and selling real estate. Dawson was living in Pasadena, California when he died, a widower, in 1961.

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2023.


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