Written by J. Dennis Robinson
August 8, 1901
A reader letter prompts a quick investigation into a 1901 tragedy at the Portsmouth Naval shipyard. Includes details from the Portsmouth Herald as a freak "cyclone" killed two on the floating drydock in Kittery, Maine.
I am wondering if you or any of your readers might have some Information about an accident that took place at the Portsmouth Navy Yard dry dock about the turn of the century. There were a group of men working on a crane, or some other structure, at the edge of the dry dock when it collapsed and fell into the dry dock. Only one survived, my grandfather, Cornelius O'Keefe. I heard this story while I was growing up but I'd like to be able to document it. I'd look through the newspaper record if I had the year but I'm not sure when it was, other than the early 1900s. Cornelius O'Keefe was born in 1876 and died in 1961. He was also a Baseball player in his youth on a Portsmouth semi-pro team. He was also known as Cap or Cappie O'Keefe.If you have any information, please e-mail me. I am currently living in the Washington DC area and unfortunately don't get back to Portsmouth that often.
Tornado at the Naval Shipyard
Seavey's Island, Kittery, ME
August 8, 1901
A logbook from the Shipyard shows this entry on August 8, 1901: " Floating drydock breaks away in heavy gale. Stone cutter's shed of drydock contractors collapses during gale, killing 1 man and 1 woman."
The story appeared the next day in the Portsmouth Herald with a large front page headline reading -- "BRINGS DEATH: Cyclone Causes Disaster at the Navy Yard." An accompanying article in the Portsmouth Journal on August 10 lists two victims killed including Mrs. HV Mealey who had gone into the contractor's shack for shelter in the storm. She had a large timber thrown upon her chest in full view of her husband and son. A Boston quarryman Joel Pierson had both his legs crushed and later died at the hospital. A list of seven injured men is appended detailing every injury from cuts and bruises and man blown off his bicycle to another with his "finger torn out".
It appears the storm lasted only about 10 minutes. The huge shed was 150 by 60 feet and 200 men arrived quickly to offer aid. This is probably why Initial rumors, according to the paper, said 30 or 40 people died, but the total was only two. In Portsmouth only a few store signs were knocked down and windows splattered with mud from the street.
The Herald reporter said the "dusky browed skirmisher" placed its full force on Seavey's Island at the Navy Yard where the roof blew off and the shed was lifted into the air and dropped from the sky. The big traveling crane came down and the operator, though 50 feet in the air, miraculously escaped injury. The floating dry dock broke partially loose, but did not float away.
According to the Herald account, damage elsewhere was light. A lawn party has to be cancelled, but Wentworth by the Sea and other locations were undamaged. A rumor that a ship had capsized was false, as was the story that Samuel H. Robinson of Gardener Street had been lost at sea while fishing. Robinson, it turned out, was safely in harbor at the Isles of Shoals.
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