Milford Tragedy Remembered 111 Years Later

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55By Terry Rogers

Shipbuilding was an important part of Milford’s growth at the turn of the century. Many ships were built at several different shipyards throughout the town. In the preface to the book “Mispillion Built Sailing Vessels 1761-1917,” author Betty Harrington Macdonald wrote that William Penn himself wrote of the Mispillion Creek as a convenient method for transferring goods from one place to another.

When ships were completed, their launching was a holiday throughout the town. Schools were closed and the entire town turned out to send the ship off. September 27, 1904 was no exception when the Charles J. Dumas was launched from the Abbott Shipyard.

As with all launches at local shipyards, a scaffolding had been built so that those who wished to watch the ship launch could do so above the crowd. In the case of the Charles J. Dumas, school children, who had collected funds for a large bible that was presented to Captain Hutchins after the launch of the ship. Nearly 1,200 people were on hand to see the launch of a ship that had been proclaimed “one of the best productions” of the Abbott shipyard. The ship was to sail to Philadelphia for fitting out before the new owner, A.T. Hudgin, took possession.

Just after the launch of the ship, however, tragedy struck as the scaffolding full of school children collapsed. More than 100 people were injured in the collapse, many of them women and children. A newspaper account of the tragedy reads:

“The moans of over 200 maimed and suffering victims, hurled by a broken scaffold to the ground, nearly 30 feet below, silencd the sweet strains of the national anthem sung by school children guests as the new schooner Charles J. Bumas [sic] glided away from the ways at the Abbott yard on the banks of the Mispillion to-day.” The paper goes on to say that the victims were “piled in heaps among the fallen timbers.”

The injured included Alfred Miller, a 12-year old, who suffered back and chest injurie, Allison Gillis, who suffered a broken nose and facial injuries as well as Alfred Nutter, who was injured internally. Thomas Simpson, the son of W.I. Simpson, and Ralph Simpson, the grandson of W.I. Simpson, were both seriously injured internally. Ralph Simpson, who was only nine at the time, died a few days later of his injuries. Marshall Townsend, son of Colonel Theodore Townsend, who was then the editor of the Milford Chronicle, broke his wrist, while George Ross, Neal Marvel and Nehemiah Matthews all suffered foot or ankle injuries. George Davis, Erie Davis and Herman Griffith all suffered internal injuries while John Davis and John Jump suffered head wounds. The remainder of the injuries were bruises and cuts, none of which were life threatening.

Prior to the collapse, the gang plank leading to the ship was extremely crowded and officials feared an accident may occur. They ordered that no more people be permitted to board, causing a rush of people to step onto the scaffolding. This then caused the underpinning to give way and the scaffolding to fall just as the vessel glided into the water.

The Dumas never returned to Milford after its launch. The ship was used for foreign trade in the Caribbean, owned by four men from Baltimore and New York. Charles J. Dumas of Queens owned the largest share of the vessel along with George and William May, with W.J. Abbott also listed as an owner. It was the last vessel that the Mays’ owned out of the Mispillion shipyard. The ship sailed for seven years before being lost at Pea Island, North Carolina in December 1911.