On a warm summer night on July 23, 1883, a tragedy of such breadth occurred on the North Point peninsula that it was described by a contemporary reporter with the following words: “Never in its history has Baltimore been visited with a calamity so appalling in the magnitude and so heart rendering in its details.”
It began on what was, by all reports, a beautiful day. The newly formed Mount Royal Beneficial Society, an organization dedicated to providing rural excursions for city families, had arranged for boats to bring revelers from Baltimore City to Tivoli, a beach and picnicking ground on North Point known earlier as Holly Grove. The site was near Steelton, the community that would eventually grow into Sparrows Point.
Three boatloads of people, happy to escape the coal smoke, horse dung and summer fevers of Baltimore, arrived that day at Tivoli. They ate and sang and danced. Many swam while others just enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine. Children played everywhere.
Some people returned to the city on early boats, but by 6:00 p.m. there were still hundreds of people at Tivoli. At that time, the last boat left Baltimore. It was scheduled to arrive at the resort at 7:30 but was delayed. At about 9:00, after night had fallen, the boat approached Tivoli’s wooden pier.
On board were many people who came to escort loved ones back home. Most of the new arrivals were men who had been unable to go with their lady friends or wives and families. The excursioners determined to welcome these latecomers with a procession, led by a band, down to the pier. It was estimated that 700 to 800 people marched in this column down the long wooden pier to where the steamer was mooring.
Tivoli manager Frank Dibilious knew this procession was a bad idea. He grabbed two assistants, and they shouldered through the throng to close the gates of the pier. They succeeded, but only after close to 1,000 people, mostly women and children, passed. The steamer came slowly into its moorings, but, even so, it bumped the pier.
Then all hell broke loose.
As the men on shore and in the steamer looked on in horror, the timbers in the middle of the pier fell away with a crack. The remaining structure heaved and groaned, and hundreds fell into the river.
The scene was pandemonium. People flailed in the water, screaming for help. Hundreds were trapped on the uncollapsed part of the pier. The men on the steamer rushed down its gangplank to rescue those trapped, while others threw anything that could float into the water to help save victims from drowning.
Men on shore dove in and began to haul out survivors and corpses alike. The night was cloudy and dark. Rescuers could only follow cries for help until a huge bonfire was built on shore to assist the rescue efforts. After they had light, the men struggled for hours to drag people out of the river.
After midnight, the Rev. William E. Starr, pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church (sponsor of the Mount Royal Beneficial Society), directed that a barge loaded with injured, their families and 25 corpses be towed back to the city. Until its arrival at Henderson’s wharf, no word of the disaster had reached Baltimore.
On Henderson and Light Street wharves crowded hundreds who awaited the arrival of their loved ones. The steamer, which should have returned by 9:00, was still absent by midnight and the crowd was nervous. When the barge arrived, the worst suspicions were confirmed and cries of grief and anguish went up from the throng.
And the first was not the only barge to arrive. All told, 64 men, women and children died at Tivoli.
One can only imagine the horror of the survivors on the city wharves. The corpses were laid out in a warehouse, and agonized relatives filed past to identify them. In one case, a waiting father learned that his whole family had died at Tivoli.
The entire city mourned, according to one report. Every undertaker in Baltimore was employed to prepare the bodies, and the streets were crowded with funeral processions. Mayor William Pinkey Whyte started a relief fund for victims and launched a formal investigation.
The investigators discovered in the wreckage of the pier at Tivoli over 300 patches to its timber and four improvised supports. They also found low-quality girders had been used. They concluded that the Tivoli management had failed to take steps to insure public safety. Tivoli was abandoned.
The event that took place in our own backyard still ranks as the worst maritime disaster in Baltimore history. The pier collapse took the lives of 34 women, 24 children and 6 men. Now, somebody send me a more cheerful topic. Reporting on disasters is depressing, and it’s really hard to end on a high note.
(first published 2003)