Upside Down Under: Terrific explosion revisited…

Written by: Marvin Baker

Some locals in the Carpio area still talk about an explosion on a nearby farm that happened 100 years ago on Aug. 31.
This was no ordinary explosion like you would think. It wasn’t gasoline and it wasn’t spontaneous combustion. This bomb went boom when 500 pounds of steam in a threshing crew boiler caused the boiler to blow up, sending debris all over the neighborhood and killing two men working on the boiler.


According to an account in the Aug. 31, 1922 edition of the Renville County Farmer in Mohall, the accident occurred on the Carl Vaagen farm, five miles northeast of Carpio at 1:35 p.m. on Aug. 31.


According to the Farmer, Gunder Larson, the 35-year-old engineer, was on top the boiler oiling the engine and talking to his brother John Larson, 39 who was firing, and was also the tank man who was alongside the engine pumping water.
Both men realized something was wrong, that there was too much steam built up. Seconds later the boiler exploded. Gunder Larson was hurled 700 feet where he landed in a ditch. Eyewitnesses said his body was unrecognizable.
John Larson was thrown 75 feet to the back of the engine and was scalded from head to toe from the boiling water. Both men were stripped of all their clothing and fragments of cloth were strewn over an area of several hundred yards.
Several others working on the threshing crew were stunned, slightly injured or unscathed. One individual was thrown over the top of a team of horses and landed on the ground, but wasn’t seriously injured.


As for the boiler itself, which weighed more than a ton, flew approximately 150 feet in the air and the bulk of it was found 500 feet away from where the explosion occurred. As it came down, it struck a horse of a team driven by Joseph Vaagen, tearing off one leg.


Vaagen saw the boiler coming toward him end over end, dropped the lines and ran. He told the Renville County Farmer the boiler looked like a stove pipe it was so far in the air.
Five wagons loaded with bundles, as well as several shocks of rye caught fire and burned. The tender, water tank and a wagon loaded with bundles were completely demolished.


The cause of the catastrophe was attributed to the high steam pressure built up by a sticking safety valve, as well as a gauge that failed to operate when it was needed most.


Numerous other items were found scattered all over the field where the faulty boiler was located that included parts of Gunder Larson’s body. Because John Larson’s body was identifiable, members of the threshing crew were able to ascertain the unidentified body parts were those of Gunder Larson. According to the report in the Renville County Farmer, crew members who weren’t injured stood guard near the body until the coroner arrived to officially declare Gunder Larson deceased.
This story has been told numerous times over the years in this small area of Ward and Renville counties and for all intents and purposes, as remained accurate. One current Renville County resident, who is a history buff, said old timers had told him stories of windows in nearby homes being blown out and entire structures being shaken as if a Big Bertha was firing artillery into the area.


Both Gunder and John Larson were bachelors. Gunder Larson had lived in Carpio since 1912 and John Larson had recently moved to North Dakota from Iowa. No other relatives were known to have lived in North Dakota.
The funeral services for both men were held the following morning. According to coroner Dr. E.C. Fitzmaurice, the conditions of the mens’ remains made it impossible to delay services.

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