SS Kerry Range

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maryland.

Acting Leading Seaman Eustace Alfred Bromley, Royal Navy
(and Cadet Reginald Cyril Johnson, Mercantile Marine)
(and Seaman Algot Buske, Mercantile Marine)

SS Kerry Range scuttled in shallow water in Baltimore harbour
SS Kerry Range scuttled in shallow water in Baltimore harbour

Late on 30 October 1917 a fire broke out on Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Pier 9 at Locust Point in Baltimore, Maryland. The fire destroyed the pier, the old immigration building on it, and set fire to the SS Kerry Range, a British, armed, merchant ship that was moored alongside. Four men died and the damage caused was considerable—freight worth over $5,000,000 was destroyed and the Kerry Range was wrecked. The fire occurred at the height of anti-German hysteria and speculation about incendiaries placed by German agents led to the arrest of a number of ‘alien enemies’. An investigation concluded, however, that the blaze was caused by an electrical fire in one of the buildings on Pier 9, which ignited piles of oakum.[1]

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Pier 9, Locust Point, Baltimore
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Pier 9, Locust Point, Baltimore

Pier 9 had been purpose built in 1903 to service the needs of the immigration process—Baltimore was the third largest port of entry for European immigrants after New York and Boston and the closest to the mid-west; Pier 9 was America’s largest immigrant pier.

SS Kerry Range
SS Kerry Range

The 5,800-ton Kerry Range was a general cargo ship built by the Northumberland Shipbuilding Company in 1916 for Furness Withy & Co. Ltd. Having been armed with 4.7-inch guns, she plied the North Atlantic route, surviving more than one U-Boat attack. On one of her last journeys she departed Liverpool on 2 August 1917 for New York. On board was Acting Leading Seaman Eustace Bromley, the senior gunner, one of a number of Royal Navy sailors in the crew, whose principal role was to man the ship’s guns. Kerry Range arrived in New York on 16 August and sailed a few weeks later—her routes over the next weeks are not known but she arrived in Baltimore on the afternoon of 30 October and tied up at Pier 9.

Two teams of stevedores, one white and one Black, immediately began to load the Kerry Range and worked long into the night. Her 2,000-ton cargo comprised clay, manganese ore, mackerel, salt, and crockery.

That night a watchman saw a small fire on Pier 9 and ran to raise the alarm. By the time it sounded at 10.42pm, flames had reached the roof of the dock building. The watchman said that the flames travelled “as fast as a man could run”. Firemen were quickly on the dock and the fireboats Deluge and Cataract also arrived to fight the fire but the blaze was out of control—much of the freight stored on Pier 9 was wood pulp and the fire was intense and spread rapidly, destroying the pier and spreading to nearby Pier 8. With Pier 9 lost to the fire, the firemen and fireboats concentrated on saving Pier 8 and the Kerry Range.[2] Pier 8 was saved, largely due to a concrete firewall preventing the fire from spreading. The Kerry Range was not so lucky.

The fire at Pier 9, Locust Point
The fire at Pier 9, Locust Point

There was a strong westerly wind blowing and Kerry Range, docked bow-in at the eastern end of Pier 9, was soon ablaze. Her fate was described by district judge John C. Rose in a court case that followed:

The fire, in its first stages, spread with such rapidity that it was with difficulty that any of those on the steamship escaped with their lives, and a number of them perished. Her master, before he was forced from her decks, managed to have her lines, or most of them, cast off. Unfortunately the anchor chock burned, and the anchor dropped to the bottom. The steamship was about to sail, and she had on board shells and ammunition for her armament against submarines. So soon as the fire reached her stern, in which her magazine was, exploding shells made approach to her dangerous. From time to time different tugs contrived to get a line upon her. Three of them, pulling in tandem fashion, tried unavailingly to force her to drag her anchor. All they succeeded in doing was to pull her out into the stream so far as her 135 fathoms of chain would let her go. There they held her, with her bow about 200 or 250 feet away from the burning piers, until morning came, and with it men and an acetylene flame to cut her chain. They then towed her over to the flats, where by cutting holes in her sides, and having the powerful city fireboats pump water into her, she was scuttled in shallow water. It was not until a day or two later that the fire aboard her was finally put out. The salving tugs, or some of them, continued pumping on her from the time they first got her out into the stream until the fire on her was finally extinguished.’[3]

Pier 9 consumed by the fire
Pier 9 consumed by the fire

That was not the final ignominy for the Kerry Range. The morning after the fire, as dawn was breaking, the SS Anthony Groves Jr., arriving in Baltimore from Philadelphia, failed to see the inert ship, the circling tugs or to respond to warning alarms, and hit the Kerry Range amidships, causing more damage.

At the height of the fire, sailors and stevedores had not been able to jump onto the dock because of the fire there and they leapt into the waters of the Patapsco River to escape. One man, Cadet James Graham, was asleep when the fire began and jumped into the harbour in his pyjamas—he was rescued and taken to a nearby saloon unable to speak due to the effects of the cold water.

Singly and in small groups the seamen and stevedores were pulled from the river. It would not be until the next morning that three crew members would be confirmed as missing and, for some time, 10 stevedores working on the ship and the wharf could not be accounted for. The final death toll was not as high as many expected. Four men died: Acting Leading Seaman Eustace Alfred Bromley, Royal Navy; Cadet Reginald Cyril Johnson and Seaman Algot Buske, Mercantile Marine—all from SS Kerry Range; and Michael J. Hand, a tally clerk from Furness Withy & Co. Ltd.

SS Kerry Range scuttled in shallow water in Baltimore harbour
SS Kerry Range scuttled in shallow water in Baltimore harbour

The speed with which the fire took hold, coupled with the evidence from ‘credible witnesses’. led everyone to believe that it had been caused deliberately, probably by ‘German intrigue’.[4] The investigation was led by the Secret Service, which still had some responsibilities for domestic intelligence and counterintelligence, aided by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Police Department. Within days suspects had been arrested and the piers were subject to tight security. The men arrested included a number of German and Austrian residents of the city. All were jailed, some were soon released but others were held for protracted periods.

The investigation finally determined that, in fact, the fire had been caused by electricity wires that sparked and ignited piles of oakum inside the pier building.

Acting Leading Seaman Eustace Alfred Bromley

Eustace Alfred Bromley was born on 18 February 1876 in St. Giles, London, the eldest of the five children of Walter Louis Bromley, an Army pensioner, and Mary Ann (née Wise).[5] He worked as a gardener before enlisting into the Royal Navy as a Boy Seaman on 19 August 1891, aged 15½.

His training began as a Boy 2nd Class on HMS Impregnable—the three-decker, first-rate, ship of the line used as a training ship at Devonport—and her sister training ship HMS Lion. He became a Boy 1st Class on 20 October 1892. Young Bromley was destined to be a gunner and his training in gunnery began with six months at HMS Boscowen at Portland in January 1893, before he returned to Devonport.

His first ship’s posting was to HMS Garnet, an Emerald class masted cruiser on the North America Station. It was during this posting that he turned 18 and became an Ordinary Seaman. In the next 12 years he spent the majority of his time at sea and some time undertaking gunnery training. He qualified as a Seaman Gunner on 1 March 1896, as a Seaman Gunner 1st Class on 17 February 1897, and as a Diver on 1 June that year.

At sea, he served in HMS Royal Arthur, an Edgar class cruiser—on this posting he was rated as a ‘Trained Man’ (an Able Seaman); HMS Melampus, an Apollo-class protected cruiser; the corvette HMS Cleopatra; HMS Cambrian, a second-class protected cruiser; and HMS Hyacinth, on which he was promoted to Leading Seaman. From March 1903 to June 1905 he served on the China Station with HMS Glory and HMS OceanCanopus-class battleships—and HMS Moorhen a river gunboat. His final months of service were spent in Plymouth and he was discharged on 17 February 1906.

Bromley went to work for the London & South Western Railway Company as an engine cleaner, and settled in Exeter. In the spring of 1908 he married Lily Bright. The following year their first child, Eustace Willie, was born and later that year, on 5 September, Bromley joined the Royal Fleet Reserve. Two more children followed: a daughter, Leah, in 1911 and another son, Leonard George, in 1913.[6]

Able Seaman Bromley was mobilized just before war broke out and joined HMS Theseus, an Edgar-class protected cruiser, on which he served in the Baltic until late in the year. He was then posted as a gunner on smaller vessels, including the tender HMS Sabrina—a Medina-class gunboat—and on defensively armed merchant ships from March 1916. It is not known when he joined SS Kerry Range but he sailed with her from Liverpool to New York on 2 August 1917.

The details of Bromley’s death are difficult to ascertain. He was reported to have been on watch and, having worked to save the ship, later jumped into the river, where he was seen swimming by William Saville, another crew member who was rescued from the river by the fireboat Cataract. Bromley’s body was found nearly two weeks later on 12 November near the destroyed pier. He had been burned and the cause of death was recorded as ‘probably drowned ‘ on 30 October, aged 41.[7]

His medals group comprises: 1914-15 Star; British War Medal 1914-20; and Victory Medal.

Cadet Reginald Cyril Johnson

Reginald Sirel (anglicized ‘Cyril’) Johnson was born in West Hartlepool on 5 June 1899, the second son, and one of three children, of Gabinus Frithiof Wilfrid Johnson and Margaret Hannah Frances (née Peel).[8] His father, a Swede, was born in Karlskrona, Sweden, and was a merchant navy officer, gaining his Master’s certificate in 1900. He became a naturalized British citizen in 1903. For his service as a Master during the First World War he was awarded the Mercantile Marine War Medal and the British War Medal 1914-20.

Johnson followed his father to sea and became an indentured apprentice in 1913, aged 14, initially with the Taylor and Sanderson Steamship Co. and then with Furness Withy & Co. Ltd. During the war he served on two of the company’s ships that were sunk by enemy action.[9] The first, SS Jessmore, was sunk on 13 May 1917 by U-48 en route from Baltimore to the United Kingdom. The second, SS Roanoke, was scuttled on 12 August 1917, the first of 35 ships sunk by UB-48.[10] Johnson then joined the Kerry Range. He was due to complete his apprenticeship on 19 November 1917 and to sit for his Board of Trade certificate as a second mate.

His body was found on 11 November near Pier 9. He had been burned and the cause of death was also recorded as ‘probably drowned’’ on 30 October, aged 18.[11]

Seaman Algot Buske

Algot Buske was born on 2 January 1890 near Jämshög, Sweden, the youngest child, and third son, of Sven Svensson Buske, who was a seaman (Båtsman) in the Swedish Navy, and Hanna Johansdotter.[12] [13]

Buske had served in a number of ships throughout the war on north/south American and trans-Atlantic routes as boatswain. As far as can be ascertained, he had arrived in New York as a seaman onboard the SS St Louis in September 1917 before paying off and transferring to the Kerry Range.

His body was found on 11 November near Pier 9 and, like Johnson, had been burned and the cause of death was recorded as ‘probably drowned ’ on 30 October, aged 27.[14]

Michael Joseph Hand

Michael Joseph Hand was born in Ireland on 16 January 1853. He emigrated to the United States in 1870, following his parents, and where his parents went on to have a large family. He married Hattie (née unknown) on 16 November 1873 and they had three children, Annette, James and Beatrice. Until the turn of the century he worked in restaurants and for his father, a butcher. He then became a clerk and by the time of the fire was working as a tally clerk for Furness Withy & Co. Ltd.

Michael Hand was working on Pier 9 when the fire broke out. As the fire took hold and swept down the pier, he, with customs inspector George V. McGowan and two other men, ran to the end of the pier. Hand decided to attempt to escape to landward and went back. The three men with him managed to avoid the blaze by jumping onto the Baltimore and Ohio tug Transfer that was able to get alongside.

There is no record of his body being found. His death is recorded as occurring on 30 October 1917.

Acting Leading Seaman Bromley, Cadet Johnson and Seaman Buske of the Kerry Range were buried on 13 November at Oak Lawn Cemetery in Baltimore. The burial service was conducted by Reverend J. Wynne Jones, of the Abbott Memorial Presbyterian Church. By the time of the funerals, most of the crew of the Kerry Range had been taken on by other steamers. As a consequence of the lack of Royal Navy personnel in Baltimore, Lieutenant Michael A. Leahy USN,[15] in charge of the naval recruiting station, formed a funeral party of seven US Navy ‘Bluejackets’ under the command of a Chief Master at Arms, who joined three Royal Navy sailors from another armed merchantman.[16] Bromley’s black casket was draped in the flag of the United States and the Union Flag and it was borne to the graveside by the uniformed sailors. The other two coffins were carried by the officers of the Kerry Range and the seamen still in Baltimore. After the address and prayers, a United States Navy Chief Master at Arms sounded ‘taps’.

The grave marker for Eustace Alfred Bromley
The grave marker for Eustace Alfred Bromley

Bromley and Buske were buried together in grave 254 and Johnson was buried beside them in grave 255. The graves are on the southern fence-line of the Knoll Wood section of Oak Lawn Cemetery.[17] The only grave marker is that for Bromley, who is commemorated by a flat Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone.

Bromley is also commemorated on the London & South Western Railway Company Roll of Honour at Waterloo Station. Johnson is commemorated on the West Hartlepool War Memorial. There is no record of any commemoration for Algot Buske. Neither Johnson nor Buske are commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission because they were merchant seamen and their deaths were not caused by enemy action (see footnote here).

The SS Kerry Range was repaired and re-entered service. In 1918 she was sold to the Canadian Steam Navigation Company, and underwent a complete overhaul. She was sold in 1925 to Jugoslavenski Lloyd and renamed Vojvoda Putnik. On 8 March 1943, during an engagement between Convoy SC-121, sailing from Nova Scotia to the united Kingdom, and a German U-Boat wolfpack, she was sunk by U-591 about 600 miles east-southeast of Cape Farewell, Greenland with the loss of 37 Yugoslav crew, the British Second Radio Officer, and four Royal Navy and two British Army gunners. The convoy had been scattered by stormy weather; 11 other ships were sunk during the attack, which took place over three days from 6-9 March.[18]

Geoff Spence for the photo of West Hartlepool war memorial.
The Wrecksite for the photograph of SS Kerry Range.

The Baltimore Sun

1. (Back) ‘Arrested for Pier Fire’. (25 November 1917). The Baltimore Sun. p 14.
2. (Back) Considerable effort had been made to protect the piers and their stacked freight from fire. Fire alarms were located throughout the area of the piers and they were tested daily—there were 10 fire alarm stations on Pier 9. Three and a half miles of 12-inch pipe were installed in a lattice over the area with 54 hydrants tapped into it, with each hydrant being in a hose-house equipped with a 250-feet hose and fire-fighting equipment. All of this was operated by the Locust Point Fire Department, part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co. At that time, Deluge was the largest fireboat in the world, with a capacity of 12,000 gallons per minute at 200 lbs pressure. The tug Transfer was also able to fight fires from a nozzle on the roof of the pilot house. See: Short, E. F. (September 1916). ‘Fire Protection at Locust Point’. Baltimore and Ohio Employes (sic) Magazine. Volume 4, number 5. pp 33-40. Baltimore: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co.
3. (Back) ‘The Kerry Range. The Anthony Groves, Jr.’ (October 1918). The Federal Reporter. Volume 251. pp 380-383. St. Paul: West Publishing Company.
4. (Back) ‘Fire’s Toll Put At Four’. (3 November 1917). The Baltimore Sun. p 4.
5. (Back) Walter Louis Bromley (1851–6 April 1905) married Mary Ann (née Wise) (c1852) in London in 1873. Laura Christina M Bromley (1878–1961); Maud M Bromley (1880); Kathleen Erin May Bromley (c1881); Walter Hyland Bromley (1884)—his brother served with the Corps of Royal Engineers as a driver from 1904-1912 and then throughout the war.
6. (Back) Lily Bromley (née Bright) (1882–1955); Eustace Willie (15 June 1909–1979); Leah Bromley (9 January 1911–1982); and Leonard George (25 July 1913–1995).
7. (Back) Certificate of Death. (12 November 1917). Health Department, City of Baltimore. Certificate number 10006. Recorded as ‘Eustace Bromley’ and amended in pen to read ‘Eustace A. Bromley’.
8. (Back) Gabinus Frithiof Wilfrid Johnson (19 February 1864–1947) married Margaret Hannah Frances Peel (6 June 1874–2 May 1959) on 13 January 1895 at Hartlepool; John Sven Wilfrid Johnson (28 September 1895–7 May 1973); Gwynneth Eleanor Madge Johnson (1908-1913); and Muriel Madge Johnson (later Katsapaos) (5 May 1916–1 June 1993).
9. (Back) The information about his sea service is gleaned from newspaper reports. See, for example, ‘Fire’s Toll Put At Four’. Op. Cit.
10. (Back) The same numbers for these submarines is coincidence: U-48 was an ocean-going, diesel-powered, torpedo, attack boat (Class U-43); UB-48 was a coastal, torpedo, attack boat (Class UB-III).
11. (Back) Certificate of Death. (12 November 1917). Health Department, City of Baltimore. Certificate number 10004. Recorded as ‘E. Johnson’ and amended in pen to read ‘Reginald Cyril Johnson’.
12. (Back) Lund Regional Archives. Jämshögs church archives C I:9, p 185/1. Births 1882-1894. Found at Demografisk Databas Södra Sverige.
13. (Back) Sven Svensson Buske (12 March 1840–9 May 1894) married (his second wife) Hanna Johansdotter (11 February 1849) on 10 May 1872. In addition to Algot, they had seven children Hanna (12 February 1872); Hilda (31 July 1874–11 September 1874); Sven Johan August (1 September 1875); Adolf (25 November 1877–2 June 1961); Hilda Sofia (22 April 1880); Hulda (26 January 1883–6 April 1884); and Hulda (21 September 1885).
14. (Back) Certificate of Death. (12 November 1917). Health Department, City of Baltimore. Certificate number 10005. Recorded as ‘Albert Bask’ and amended in pen to read ‘Algot Baske’ [sic].
15. (Back) Michael Arthur Leahy was born in Wisconsin on 15 March 1886, the son of Michael Arthur Leahy, a well known lawyer and an officer in the 35th Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He was admitted into the United States Naval Academy on 10 May 1904, graduated in 1908, and retired on 8 March 1915. Recalled from the reserve, he was in charge of the naval recruiting station in Baltimore at the time of the Kerry Range incident. He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 21 June 1930 and to Captain on 29 August 1942. Throughout the Second World War he commanded the Navy section at the Chemical Warfare School, Edgewood Arsenal and retired on 16 February 1946. He died on 4 February 1956, aged 69, at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife, Ethel Norton Leahy, who died on 1 April 1941. His brother was Fleet Admiral William Daniel Leahy.
16. (Back) The funeral party comprised:
Royal Navy: Able Seaman John Henry Shaw, Able Seaman Evan Evans, Able Seaman Frederick John Reeves.
United States Navy: Chief Master at Arms Michael Cox, Chief Master at Arms F. C. Roach, Quartermaster Frank Duffin, Machinist Mate Charles McLean, Boatswain Frank G. Gibler, Yeoman S. M. Jameson, Yeoman O. E. Harvey, Machinist Mate M. E. Fahey.
17. (Back) Oak Lawn Cemetery Burial Records show that Algot Buske is buried under the name ‘Albert Bask’, and Reginald Cyril Johnson is buried under the name ‘E Johnson’; these were the details shown on their death certificates prior to amendment.
18. (Back) The crew commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are:
Second Radio Operator Syed Moonis Hassan Akbari, Merchant Navy
Able Seaman Hubert Lawrence Dunford Fishlock, Royal Navy
Gunner Edward Jones, 6th Maritime Regiment, Royal Regiment of Artillery
Gunner Ronald Charles Long, 6th Maritime Regiment, Royal Regiment of Artillery
Able Seaman Herbert Saunders, Royal Navy
Able Seaman John Frederick Simons, Royal Navy
Leading Seaman Sydney Charles Slaney, Royal Navy
Second Radio Operator Akbari is commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial; Able Seamen Fishlock and Simons, and Leading Seaman Slaney are commemorated on Portsmouth Naval Memorial; Gunners Jones and Long are commemorated on Plymouth Naval Memorial; and Able Seaman Saunders is commemorated on Chatham Naval Memorial.

5 thoughts on “SS Kerry Range

  1. My wife, Maria Jane Bateman (nee Slade) is Eustace A Bromley’s great grand-daughter. His grand- daughter (my wife’s mother), Judy Slade (nee Bromley) lives close to us in Swindon, England.
    I remember his son, also called Eustace, very well. Up until reading this amazingly detailed account of these tragic events, we were given to believe that a U-Boat was responsible.
    Thank you very much for sharing this.


      1. No joy yet with tracing those medals. We were going to take Judy to Waterloo Station today on the 100th anniversary of this tragic event, but it didn’t work out. I have linked this page to a Facebook posting earlier today so that our friends and family (some of who are his descendants) can remember him and the other unfortunate souls.


  2. I very much enjoyed your blog article on the SS Kerry Range. I am particularly interested on a further source(s) for the cause of the fire. I am working on an extensive history of Pier 9 at Locust Point from its opening until it was destroyed in 1917. I had found a reference several years ago to a government report addressing the cause of the fire as you described it – but I can’t find it now. I’m also going to have a “conversation” with the Maryland Historical Society about a related matter and would dearly love to have the information if you are willing to share it. If you are interested in my work, I’d be happy to share it but it will be awhile. It’s a big subject and the records are tough to find. But chatting is good and I’m always interested in Pier 9 talk.


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