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But none of these explanations account for the fact that no bodies were ever recovered — nor for the fact that at least two of the ship’s complement of three lifeboats were somehow launched, but stripped of their oars and provisions.
A boiler explosion?
There is one possibility that makes sense, and there’s actually some evidence to support it — scant evidence, but evidence nonetheless. It’s a boiler explosion.
Boiler explosions, in 1930, were about as common as chicken lips. During the pre-Civil-War heyday of river steamboats and railroad locomotives, back when these powerful and dangerous appliances were assembled and operated in ways that substituted competitive recklessness for engineering expertise, boiler explosions were a big enough problem that the government formed the Steamboat Inspection Service in 1852 to deal with them. The new agency did a yeoman's job; by 1887, when the South Coast was built, boilers just didn’t explode any more. And the one on the South Coast had been working just fine for three decades.
But the ship was grossly underpowered — its engine put out just 190 horsepower. That’s the same amount produced by the engine of a new Chevrolet Malibu, but instead of a one-and-a-half-ton automobile, it was muscling around a 301-ton freighter. This engine had been running at full throttle, day in and day out, since it was first installed in the ship. Metal fatigue is a real possibility under such conditions, and the ship was fully laden when it blew, so the power plant would have been working hard.
Furthermore, a group of Gold Beach residents reported seeing a blue flash on the horizon, followed by the sound of a distant explosion, on the night the ship vanished.
This could explain a number of things. Photos of the South Coast show two lifeboats on davit cranes atop the aft end of the deckhouse. The boiler was situated beneath the forward end. Had it exploded and taken the deckhouse off the ship, it’s entirely possible that those crane arms might have been broken off, releasing the boats. The residents saw the flash at night, or at least after sundown, so most of the crew would have been inside the deckhouse at the time — sitting ducks. Many if not all of them would have been severely mangled by the blast, which means there would have been plenty of blood in the water to attract sharks — which could explain the fact that no bodies washed ashore.
Such a blast also would have removed the upper works — decks, deckload, masts, stuff that would float — from the waterlogged timbers of the hull, which would not.
Well — it’s a theory. But to prove or disprove it, a person would have to look at the evidence … and the evidence was all shelled and sunk by the Cahokia’s deck gunner.
So we’ll never really know.