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“The Reckless Spirit of Enterprise”: A Third Lesson on Tragedy

In the search for meaning after the tragedy, Rev. Frederic Hinckley at the Unitarian Church of the Saviour preached not on the tragedy as a sign of man’s sinfulness, but linked the explosion to the dangers of man’s reliance on enterprise. Why did so many men die needlessly on Potter Street? According to Hinckley, they were “sacrificed.” “Yes,” he elaborated, “sacrificed to the reckless spirit of enterprise of this mid-century; uselessly, murderously destroyed that more physical power might be obtained, more speed secured, more work performed, and greater material results produced.”

He delighted in the power of steam to increase the speed and reach of travel and to bolster industry and the production of goods, but worried about the human cost. Steam was a power that humans still did not fully understand, and men in business would do well to be cautious of its use and the dangers it posed. It was foolish, he argued, for factory owners to house a boiler in the center of the factory where its explosion could kill so many. Further, no man should be allowed to engineer steam power for a factory without the upmost training. More attention should be placed on the human price of labor, and not the material gains of frenzied production. “In our demands upon travel or labor,” Hinckley noted of the use of steam power, “. . . we prefer safety to speed, and value human life above material power.”