At no time was the community feeling aboard the North Dakota tested more seriously than on the occasion of the fire. It was September 8, 1910, and the North Dakota had been fit for sea duty for only a few months. She was returning with her relatively young and inexperienced crew to Hampton Roads, Virginia after fleet exercises and was running on fuel oil. A fire broke out around 10:30 a.m. in the fuel oil stored in Room No. 3. Captain Gleaves ordered the ship to drop out of formation so as not to endanger the other ships of the division. Immediately he also gave two sets of orders: put out the fire, and retrieve the dead and injured from the engine room.
While dense black smoke poured out of the ventilators and hatchways (doors to the lower levels of the ship), the fire was dampened by flooding the engine room and the oil storage area with sea water. The hold of the ship filled with nine feet of water, but the fire continued to burn above that level.
Without the engines, the pumps could not be operated to put out the rest of the fire. The Commander in Chief of the Fleet, Admiral Schroeder, ordered a tugboat and the USS New Hampshire to stand by the North Dakotato give all aid possible. The tugboat pumped water onto the fires burning above the flooded engine room. For about one hour, the North Dakota was in grave danger of exploding because the powder magazine (gun powder storeroom) was located just above the fire. Fortunately, the flames did not reach the gun powder.
Later in the day, the North Dakota was able to put four boilers back into service. With the little power they provided, the ship was able to raise the anchors and steam slowly into port.
In spite of the quick efforts to put out the flames, three men, Joseph Schmidt, Robert Gilmore, and Joseph Strait, died in the fire. All were enlisted men who held the job of coal passer. Ten men, including one officer, were injured and were moved to a hospital ship, the USS Solace, for treatment before being transferred to a hospital in Virginia.
At the board of inquiry, Lieutenant Commander Orin G. Murfin, who sustained burns in the fire, testified that he was in the engine room and ordered the room abandoned when he saw a flash of flame run along the oil lines. But the fire quickly grew and filled the room with gasses and flames preventing three of the men from escaping the fire room.
Ten men were honored for heroic actions in the fire. Thomas Davis, John Quinlan, George Ellis, and Arnold J. Smith received warm commendations. Six men were awarded the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism.” They were Thomas Stanton, Karl Westa, Patrick Reid, August Holz, Charles Roberts, and Harry Lipscomb. They also received a one-hundred dollar bonus.
Davis, Quinlan, Ellis, and Smith closed off the engine fires in a fire room where the heat was so intense they had to be sprayed with fire hoses to avoid dying of the heat. Stanton, Westa, Reid, Holz, Roberts, and Lipscomb were honored for entering the burning engine room to put out the fire. They also removed the dead through waist-deep water in intense heat and dense smoke. Charles Roberts, a machinist’s mate, was overcome by smoke.
The board of inquiry found that a leak in the oil pipes had led to the fire. The crew repaired the damage, and the ship rejoined the fleet by September 29. The Navy declared that the fire was not due to a flawed design – many ships around the world sailed with similar designs. The fire did raise the question of the safety of fuel oil, but the Navy declared that it would not abandon that form of fuel. Instead, the Navy made efforts to protect the powder magazines from the heat and possible fires in the engine rooms.
This fire – not the last that the North Dakota would experience – tested the men and prepared them to deal with future emergencies. It also called upon the officers to apply everything they knew about the ship to the effort to save her.
The newspapers reported that “realizing this danger – they worked coolly and with great courage. Capt. Gleaves and every officer aboard fought flames shoulder to shoulder with the men, and when the danger had passed they were as grimy as [coal] stokers.”
Historical records give us very little information about the men who died in the fire. We know little more than that Joseph Schmidt was from Brooklyn, New York; Robert Gilmore was from Connecticut, and Joseph Strait enlisted in Michigan.
Before World War II (1941 – 1945) it was possible to earn the Medal of Honor for bravery in non-combat situations which was the case for these six men. Charles Roberts was born in 1882 and died in 1957. Harry Lipscomb was born in Washington, D.C., in 1878 and died in 1926. He married, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. August Holz was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1871. He died in Long Island, New York in 1935. Thomas Stanton was born in Ireland in 1869, but entered the Navy from Rhode Island. He lived until 1950. Karl Westa was born in Norway in 1875 and lived until 1949. He, too, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. There is no information available about Patrick Reid.
Unfortunately, the North Dakota had another fire and one more death. After repairs to the damages from the September 8 fire, the ship sailed with the fleet to England and France. On December 14, 1910, an explosion in the coal bunkers burned a sailor identified only as Evans. Evans died of the burns shortly after, but little more was mentioned in the newspapers about the event.
The North Dakota continued to have trouble with the Curtis turbine engines. In February 1915, the engines were damaged while returning from Cuba. In June 1915, the North Dakota was ordered into a shipyard where the engines were to be repaired or replaced in a major overhaul to the satisfaction of the engineer officers who found these turbines to be unreliable.
Engine trouble turned out to be the North Dakota’s greatest failing. When she was running well, she could operate efficiently and at great speed. But when troubles came, they tested the strength, courage, and devotion to duty of all members of this ship’s community.
Source: New York Times, September 9, 1910
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