People had come from all over to San Francisco to celebrate California's admission to the Union on Oct. 29, 1850. There had been a grand parade with marching bands and prancing horses. There were speeches and songs.

Then the unthinkable happened.

As the steamer Sagamore, which was taking passengers back to Stockton, pulled away from the wharf, its boiler blew up.

"Masses of timber and human bodies were scattered in every direction. Many bodies were blown into the water, from which they were recovered by numerous boats, which thronged about the scene of the disaster. The boat was a complete wreck," reported the Alta California on the Thursday following the tragedy.

The steamer, which had been built in San Francisco at a cost of $30,000, was only 5 months old and was considered to be one of the best and fastest of its class.

The coroner's jury put the blame on the carelessness of the engineer.

"One of the passengers on board at the time of the explosion informs us that steam had not been blown off for half an hour previous to the accident," reported the Alta.

James Kirker, the well-known mountain man and Indian fighter, was aboard the Sagamore that day. He sent a letter to the editor.


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"I had just got on board and was going aft to pay my passage, when the explosion took place and was thrown some 10 or 15 feet in the air, and lit on the bodies of two persons (dead). When I recovered my presence of mind, and the steam had cleared away, I saw as many as 25 persons on deck who were apparently not hurt, and a great many who were either killed or very badly wounded. I saw two hanging on the side of the wreck, badly wounded and crying for help. I caught hold and pulled them in. By this time several boats had got alongside and were busy picking up those who were thrown into the water. As I was so late getting on board, I therefore know nothing of what was transpiring on board. I should think there were as many as 130 on the upper deck when the explosion took place.

"I have been in the Rocky Mountains since 1821, trapping beaver and killing grizzly bears, and for the last five years fighting the Apaches and other hostile tribes, as well as being Col. Doniphan's guide, spy and interpreter from Santa Fe to Matamoros. So that I have seen some service as well as being in some tight places, but this being blown sky high by a little hot water, and I (was) so mixed up that it was very uncertain how I would come down is more (than) I have been accustomed to."

The number killed in the explosion was at first reported to be about 30. Other sources put the number of dead at 50. It wasn't the first explosion of a steamer on the bay; just a few months earlier the steamer Fawn had blown up. These types of disasters kept happening until the end of the 19th century.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.