April 11, 2021

The Premeditated Murderous Disaster at Wilson's Sawmill


William Zadoc “Zeb” Wilson was proud of the brand new boiler at his sawmill. He travelled to the Ohio manufacturer to deliver the desired specifications himself. According to the Journal-Miner, he “paid an extra price to have certain portions of it built extra strong.” When the boiler first arrived, it was examined by an engineer at Whipple and he testified that “he considered it the best boiler in the county.” Wilson’s pride was only equalled by the meticulous care he gave his new boiler.

However, at 7:30 in the morning of November 19, 1887, this brand-new, prized boiler would blast Wilson and five other workers straight into the afterlife. Worst of all, it was found to be a premeditated act.

It was a chilly morning and the men had congregated about the warming boiler. The boiler was checked to make sure it had sufficient water. The pressure gauge read 100 psi—short of the usual 160 psi, but enough to start the workday going. But as soon as they commenced sawing, it was found that “the pulley needed repairing and Mr. Wilson, one of the owners, called for assistance,” the Arizona Daily Star reported. “The engine was stopped and all the mill hands came to fix the pulley. [George Heisler] was ordered to oil [it] and while doing this, the explosion occurred." 

“A board struck him in the back, knocking him into the sawdust pit, where he was covered by falling debris, and a part of the burst boiler pass[ed] over him. After the lumber ceased falling, he extricated himself and discovered two or three mangled bodies. He started at once for the city.” 

Once he arrived with the news, “every available conveyance in Prescott was pressed into service to convey anxious and sorrowful crowds to the scene of the disaster" nine miles away on Lynx Creek, the paper reported. “The place was visited by hundreds of people during the afternoon and evening. A Journal-Miner representative was among the number of visitors, and the complete desolation presented to him cannot be told in words. The details of the fearful catastrophe are horrifying and sickening in the extreme.”

“The work of discovering and identification of the bodies commenced. The first discovered was  John Baker, foreman, who was killed where [he was] standing. The entire top of his head [was] blown away and could not be found. The body of WZ Wilson…was cut in two and both parts thrown 50 feet, his head could not be found and part of his backbone was found 200 feet away on top of the hill," the paper described.

“John Cowley, one of the employees, was found 75 feet from where he was standing, and could only be recognized by his clothing. [Andrew] Steinbrook was found under the roof of a wall of the engine room.” 

“The bodies of Charles Collins and. Bathone Taylor could not be found for several hours afterwards. Collins was found upon the hill 30 feet from the place he stood and could only be recognized by the boots he wore. Taylor was found 150 feet from the engine room, the paper reported." 

“The boiler parted in the middle, one piece flying 90 feet north, the other going 200 feet south.”

Four true, occasionally humorous stories about the most imprudent uses of dynamite in Yavapai County, AZ history. 

“It was late in the afternoon Saturday when the delivery wagon of [part owner] WC Bashford & Co., driven by Peter Marx, containing two of the victims of the morning’s explosion, drove up in front of [the Prescott Rifle’s] Armory Hall, and stout men commenced to unload its sickening contents,” the paper related. “A few minutes later the wagon of undertaker Randal came with another one of the victims, and later in the evening a large lumber wagon appeared containing the other three. A row of benches, neatly covered in white, had been previously arranged, on which were placed the mortal remains of what a few hours previously, were six robust, active and healthy young men, full of promise for the future. It was indeed a sad sight and one which caused the stoutest hearts to quail.”

“The men who so fearfully lost their lives were popularly known and respected in this community, and the terrible disaster has cast a sad gloom over the entire neighborhood,” the paper related. “The loss to the community, of six as active and good citizens as the men were, is of course beyond computation."

“On undressing the bodies…to wash and prepare them for burial, it was found that nearly all were more or less scalded, and all were horribly cut and bruised.” Despite the gruesome and horrifying condition of the bodies, “the remains [were displayed] at Armory Hall, back of the Journal-Miner office, where grief-stricken friends and relatives [were] preparing them for the grave.” The bodies were “viewed by a large number of people, including many ladies,” the paper revealed.

Meanwhile, a man named CB Collins arrived at the Prescott train depot. He was in town for a surprise visit to his brother when he heard the news of the explosion. The excitement of the visit quickly vanished when he learned that one of the victims was his brother, Munroe C Collins. Instead of a joyous reunion, he would be attending what was described as “the largest funeral procession ever seen [in Prescott]."

Collins wrote a public card of gratitude “to thank the people of Prescott and vicinity, for their kindness to him during his visit of sadness to this place, also for their manifestation of sympathy over the bereavement sustained in the loss of his brother.”

John Ackers, a Mason, was buried at that cemetery, while the graves of the other five men adjoin each other at the Citizens Cemetery.

The entire county—even the Territory, was in shock and disbelief over the incident. A coroner’s jury would try to make sense of it all. “The mill itself was a complete wreck, not enough of it remaining in place to identify its location,” the paper described. “Pieces of the wreck were thrown in all directions several hundred feet from the site of the mill.”

“All the witnesses…examined before the coroner’s inquest stated that they distinctly heard two reports. The first a sharp, and the second a kind of dull roar. A number of expert engineers testified that an explosion by steam wouldn’t cause the boiler to break into the number of pieces it did.” They also agreed “that they never saw better metal in a boiler than the broken pieces showed.”

“From this and other circumstances it [was] thought that the explosion of the boiler was occasioned by placing nitro glycerin, giant powder or some other powerful explosion in such a way that the heat from the boiler exploded it.” Indeed, the experts were “satisfied the explosion was caused by chemical action in the boiler.” One of the witnesses testified that such an agent could be easily introduced through the safety valve.

The way of death in 1879 Yavapai County paints a poignant picture of a most difficult way of life.

As soon as the disaster occurred, suspicion immediately fell on one man: Louis Beck. The Friday before, Beck approached Wilson yet again complaining that Wilson was felling timber off  of Beck’s land reducing its worth. Wilson was so disturbed that he “stated to his men he thought he would put a guard over the mill at night as he was afraid Beck would do some damage,” the coroner’s inquest found. “A mill had once stood on the same place that this one did and one night had been mysteriously burned. This was attributed to Beck, who, it [was] stated by one witness, never did like Wilson…”

“Had it not been for the presence of the sheriff…the mill hands, assisted by the drivers of the logging teams, would undoubtedly have made short work of Mr. Beck, who a few minutes after the explosion, was on the scene.” Another newspaper was more specific: “The survivors of the late explosion were very indignant, and would no doubt have lynched Beck had not the Sheriff been present.”

“Emphasis is added to this theory by the fact that the mill was burned before on the same spot, and Beck was suspected of that crime. A subpoena  has been issued for Louis Beck who, it is thought, knows something of the explosion,” the paper reported. “A search warrant was issued to search Beck’s premises for explosives or a treatise on chemistry.”

Anticipation was high for the second session of the coroner’s inquest. However, little was revealed. Louis Beck testified, but claimed ignorance “without throwing any light on the matter.”

Two other sawmill workers, who were not in the vicinity when the disaster occurred, “were unable to throw any light on the case.”

In the end, whomever was responsible for the carnage and disaster remained one step ahead of the law of mortal justice and no charges were ever brought. The surviving owners, Bashford and Burmister, rebuilt the sawmill after suffering the equivalent financial loss of $140,000 today. Unfortunately, that infrastructure also mysteriously burned-down the following year in 1888; fortunately, no one was injured.



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Weekly Journal-Miner, 11/23/1887; Pg. 1, Col. 3.

Arizona Champion, 12/3/1887; Pg. 4, Col. 2.

Mohave County Miner, 11/26/1887; Pg. 3, Col. 4.

Arizona Daily Star, 11/20/1887; Pg. 1, Col. 3.

Tucson Citizen, 11/22/1887; Pg. 1, Col. 3.

Sharlot Hall Museum Volunteer Training Manual, 2017; PP 127-129.

Tucson Citizen, 11/26/1887; Pg. 2, Col. 3.

Arizona Weekly Citizen, 12/3/1887; Pg. 1, Col. 3.

Mohave County Miner, 12/3/1887; Pg. 2, Col. 2.

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