The G.P. Griffith / The Great Lakes Second Worst Passenger Steamer Disaster

The Great Lakes have produced some of the most severe storms and waves on the surface of the earth. In this unpredictable environment was the burgeoning Great Lakes shipping industry. The toll on lives and vessels traversing the Great Lakes since the earliest times has largely been lost to history. Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes have been around as long as man has been sailing on them.

Beginning in the 1840s, lumber, coal, iron and agricultural products were hauled by boats over the Great Lakes. As an example, iron ore from the upper lakes region was carried east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. The early ships that traveled the lakes helped build the great cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit among others. The lake boats were the economic catalyst of the entire Great Lakes region.

On the Great Lakes During the Mid 1800’s

The year of 1850 proved to be the most deadly of any Great Lakes shipping season up to that date. The Great Lakes truly do have a shipping season since the winter months largely ice over all of the lakes. The season generally runs March through November although November has always been a question mark. The storms of November are infamous for taking down many vessels, large and small.

steamboat explosion

Steamboat boiler explosion

The loss of lives and ships during 1850 however didn’t seem to need much help from mother nature. If you were to name the biggest danger to ship, crew and passengers during this mid 1800’s time, aside from mother nature and storms, you would probably point to boiler explosions. In fact, steamboat boiler explosions raised havoc all throughout the eastern U.S. waterways. The boiler explosions of 1850 were not the first and they certainly weren’t the last. Most historians might say that the second culprit was fire. Fire not related to boiler explosions would be combustibles in the boats cargo hold. There was even a Great Lakes steamboat fire started by someone tamping out his smoking pipe on the wood deck. This was an era of wooden steamboats. Whether it by explosion or by fire, a wooden vessel would go up in flames many times faster than someone could leap overboard or put on a life jacket. Add to this the absence of any meaningful safety regulations and a culture among captains and crews of racing and you have the proverbial “accident waiting to happen”.

In this atmosphere was a country growing immensely. The mid 1800’s was an era of massive immigration. The Great Lakes served as a highway to the frontier because in 1850 the western frontier would have been roughly anything from Chicago westward. The forests of the upper Great Lakes would go on to provide needed lumber and would supplant the eastern forests which were essentially decimated. The Great Lakes was the often used route for immigrants from Europe who came to the U.S. with their life savings for the purchase of land.

A European immigrant might travel from New York City to Buffalo New York where he or she might then board a steamer for points west. Points west would include, among others, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. If the passenger had the funds then he or she might travel in a private cabin. If not, then steerage was the option and steerage accounted for the majority of travelers. Keep in mind, many of these people had already endured a lengthy voyage on the ocean before even arriving in Buffalo. In 1850, steamboat traffic on the Great Lakes was enormous. Today, we look at the Great Lakes as a venue for lake freighters and pleasure craft. In 1850 it represented the equivalence of the Santa Fe Trail, although without Indian attacks, for people wanting to travel to cities like Detroit and Chicago.

The Worst Disaster of 1850

Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes seemed to have been not an uncommon occurrence. During the infamous 1850 Great Lakes shipping season, the largest of all 1850 disasters occurred on June 17th. The burning of the steamer G. P. Griffith about twenty miles east of Cleveland, cost 286 lives to be lost. Some estimates I’ve seen put the total at 326. This was one of the greatest single event loss of life in Great lakes history. This disaster was the second of Lake Erie’s three great passenger steamer tragedies and the worst nautical disaster on the lakes until the SS Eastland capsizing while at port in Chicago in 1915. In that disaster, 844 people lost their lives. What’s incredible is that the worst Great Lakes loss of life occurred while the boat was tied up at a Chicago River dock. You might expect great shipwrecks  to occur during a storm or during an uncontrollable fire, but what happened to the SS Eastland is almost beyond belief.

ss eastland in chicago

SS Eastland docked at Chicago

On the G P Griffith, one woman was the sole survivor and what is so surprising about the Griffith loss was that it occurred just three miles from shore. A fire was reported in the hold at about 4 in the morning. One seaman took the wheel and tried to steer the boat to shore but hit a sandbar reportedly only about 600 feet from shore. The vessel burned all the way to the water line while passengers jumped in the water. Lights could even be seen on shore but with the panic that ensued  the shore could have been 100 miles a way. Burned bodies would have to be buried on the shoreline and there they stayed. The G.P. Griffith disaster was not only a Great Lakes boating disaster but it was a tragedy for the mostly German, Irish, English and Scandanavian immigrants who had traveled so far already just to have their lives snuffed out so close to their intended destinations. Also among the victims were the captain and his family who was traveling with him.

With the lax regulations in place, boats built of wood, steam boilers that were sometimes left unattended and the eagerness to race a break time records, it’s almost amazing that there were not more accidents and lives lost during the mid 1800’s. It’s estimated that the Great Lakes are home to some 8,000 shipwrecks and about 2,000 of them are located in Lake Erie. One-hundred and fifty years ago Lake Erie would have looked like a traffic jammed street. Lake Erie for centuries was a bustling water highway. It’s reported that the majority of the Great lakes shipwrecks have not been discovered even to this day. Each year more wrecks are discovered. Some have been found by fishermen while working with their nets. Diving expeditions, which I hear draw divers from all over the world, are undertaken each year. By inputting as much information that is available, maps of Great Lakes shipwreck locations have been plotted out and these are referred to by divers. Shipwreck maps are often updated when new information is discovered.

eastland capsized in chicago

Effort to right the SS Eastland after the dockside disaster

If you’re somewhat familiar with the Cleveland Ohio area, the area of the sinking, according to a Willowick Ohio web site, is approximately an area north of Lake Shore Blvd. from Cresthaven to East 305th Street.

Today, there is a memorial in place in regards to the G P Griffith tragedy at Lakefront Park in Willowick Ohio, east of Cleveland.

I also have a short article about the devastating steamboat boiler explosion at the docks of Lawrence Kansas. Also an interesting article on the Mosquito Fleet and wrecks on Washington State’s Puget Sound. Another Great Lakes related story which is very interesting concerns the break up and sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley during a fierce Lake Michigan November storm.

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

(Photos are in the public domain)

The Storms of Lake Michigan And The Carl D. Bradley Sinking

The Great Lakes are truly a geographic wonder. If you have traveled on or near them during the summer months you are probably well aware of their natural beauty. In fact, the Great Lakes are one of America’s premiere vacation destinations covering a major part of the upper midwest. There are many cottages, hotels and resorts dotted along it’s shores that are excellent for family vacations. There are many interesting stories about the lakes and vessels who sailed and steamed on them. Many people who may not be familiar with the Great Lakes might also be a bit surprised by the degree in which they can be deadly.

french ship on the great lakes

The Le Griffon, the first vessel ever to sail on the upper Great Lakes in 1679

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

lake michigan

Lake Michigan from Big Sable Point Lighthouse

The Great Lakes cover an enormous area spanning some 1,500 miles from the end of Lake Superior to Lake Ontario. The first discoverers of these massive lakes were quite surprised that they contained fresh water. This was because they were so large, the early explorers actually referred to them as oceans. While they certainly aren’t oceans, what is certain, and some may not realize it, is that there are factors involved with these chain of lakes which often make storms more hazardous to shipping than the oceans themselves. The Great Lakes of course don’t possess the massive depths of the ocean but this fact in itself often make wave action more unpredictable and deadly to shipping. It’s believed that the lake waves come so frequently as compared to ocean waves that a ship gets hit by the next wave before she has a chance to recover from the first one. Interestingly enough, most Great lake sailors believe Lake Erie, the most shallow of the lakes, can put forth the most dangerous waves. By the same token, many sailors contend that Lake Superior is the best lake to be on during a gale because it offers much more room to navigate. Great Lakes shipwrecks fill the pages of many books.

Lake Michigan is a very long lake running north to south and is the only Great Lake which doesn’t have an international boundary. It’s length is about 300 miles. An interesting fact about Lake Michigan which many may not realize is that it’s full length is longer than the entire U.S. northeastern seaboard. While the southern end of the lake is at a latitude similar to the southern coast of Cape Cod, the northernmost part of the lake is closer to the North Pole than Montreal Canada. Another characteristic of Lake Michigan is that it doesn’t have an abundance of natural harbors that most of the other lakes have. Indiana and Chicago are located on it’s southern end and the Straits of Mackinac mark it’s northern end. Between these two points, natural harbors really exist only in northern Wisconsin to the west and Grand Traverse Bay to the east in the northwest section of lower Michigan. A good two thirds of the lake’s southern part is without natural harbors. Lake Michigan is also known for having a variety of different currents caused by water running through the Straits of Mackinac. Weather in Lake Michigan also produces west to east crosswinds. Lake Michigan beaches on the eastern shore are characterized by their large sand dunes. As you can see, the lake is much more affected by geography than an ocean.

One of the most publicized Great Lake shipwrecks occurred in November of 1958 and was an exceptionally surprising event because of the ship involved. In fact, when it occurred it was the biggest Great Lakes disaster to date.

ship carl d bradley

Carl D. Bradley, 1958

The lake freighter Carl D. Bradley was built in Lorain Ohio in 1927 by the American Shipbuilding Company.. Lorain was a big ship building port located on the southern shore of Lake Erie just a bit west of Cleveland Ohio. The Bradley was built for the Bradley Steamship Company which was owned by U.S. Steel. When the vessel was launched, it was hailed as being the longest lake freighter to enter service. The Bradley at 640 feet in length was longer than two football fields. Built using riveted steel plates, the Carl D. Bradley was considered unsinkable and the safest vessel on the Great Lakes. Compared to earlier ship construction, the Carl Bradley was indeed a modern vessel for 1927.

The Carl Bradley was in service for decades. It wasn’t until the year 1958 where she and her crew met their doom. Like almost all Great Lakes ship disasters, there were some differing of opinion as to what exactly occurred. What is known was that there was some weakness reported in some of her plates. Missing rivets had been replaced with bolts and thus would have been fully repaired during the winter off season. When the Bradley was built in 1927, the use of rivets was the method of securing the steel plates. Since that time, welding is the method employed.

It’s well known that the long lake freighters like the Carl D. Bradley were built to be somewhat flexible. In other words, they were built like a tall building, being able to sway or bend rather than snap apart. After a strong lake storm it was quite common for crew members to pick up buckets full of torn off rivets. When a rivet would snap off during a storm it would shoot through the air like a bullet. It would be very dangerous to be in the immediate area. Many shipwrecks on the Great Lakes could easily have started with popping rivets.

The Carl D. Bradley’s last voyage would occur during November of 1958. November was considered the last month for lake traffic. Not all vessels would sail during November but the Bradley with her large length and several other large vessels, some approaching 700 feet, would try to get their last runs in. The Bradley steamed up Lake Huron and then turned west to go through the Straits of Mackinac. After that, it was just a run down Lake Michigan to her destination of Burlington Indiana where she would unload her cargo of limestone. In the book Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals by author William Ratigan, the Carl Bradley set out from Burlington Indiana after the winds and waves had been building up for a few days. The book points out that the rule of thumb regarding Great Lakes storms is that it takes three days for the storm to blow in and another three days to blow out. When the Bradley departed Indiana, the storm crossing Lake Michigan would probably have been at full strength. November storms on the Great Lakes, while not uncommon, were certainly not welcome. Over the centuries, the month of November has been no stranger to ship wrecks.

All accounts about the last voyage of the Carl Bradley were that the ship steamed northward on November 17th and was handling the storm well. Late in the afternoon of November 18th, as the ship was approaching the Beaver Islands, northwest of Traverse City Michigan, things changed fast. The captain and first officer were in the pilot house which on a Great Lakes freighter was located on the bow. The other superstructure was at the stern. Normal sounds of strain were heard by there was really nothing to do but  the captain which wasn’t all too irregular during a gale. Then the sound of thuds were heard, each getting a bit louder. Looking back out of the pilothouse toward the stern, the captain and first officer could see the stern bending downward. Seconds later the stern bent downward more. At this point there was really nothing anyone could do but watch. When the situation looked worse, the captain had the first officer radio out ‘maydays”. The captain sent out an abandon ship signal with his horn and everybody went for the life jackets.  At about this same time the final thud was heard and the ship broke in two.This also cut off power to the radio.

coast guard cutter

Two USCG Cutters similar to this were dispatched to the scene of the Bradley sinking

Life rafts were employed, crewmen were thrown into the water and the two sections of the carl D. Bradley were headed to the bottom of Lake Michigan. The distress calls were heard by the Coast Guard and boats and aircraft were deployed but in a storm through darkness the Coast Guard was hampered in getting their boats to the scene in any timely manner. They were well aware of the search area which was only about 47 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station but getting there in a gale was another thing. Real recovery couldn’t happen until dawn and by that time the freezing cold water of Lake Michigan would surely take it’s toll.

The scope of this disaster wouldn’t be realized until sunrise. The two Coast Guard cutters and a German freighter that made it to the scene were able to retrieve only two survivors. One was the first officer and another a deckhand. Only two survivors out of a thirty-five man crew. The swiftness in which the breakup occurred, the quick sinking of the two sections and the freezing water certainly made chances of survival slim. In a way, it was quite the opposite of what occurred to the Titanic about fifty years earlier in the North Atlantic. The Titanic took on water and there was a reasonable amount of time to get lifeboats prepared. Not the case with the Carl D. Bradley.

When you look at the design of a lake freighter, you can clearly see that the weak point of the vessel would be in the center. This was well known to almost everyone. In fact, a lake freighter is much more vulnerable when it steams empty. To compensate a bit for this, the captain took on a water ballast in Indiana that compensated for about half a normal cargo load. Freighters handle lake storms better when weighed down a bit. Sitting higher in the water increases the chances of a breakup in a gale.

The breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley demonstrated that the Great Lakes present unique dangers to sailors and that whether a vessel happens to be large or small, lake storms can be devastating.

Boatmen have lived with danger for a long time. A century earlier, steamboats had their own problems on our inland river system. Before the advances in construction, boiler explosions were a common occurrence. The following two articles describe the deadly explosions of the river steamboats Sultana off Memphis Tennessee and the Saluda near the dock in Lexington Missouri.

(Photos and images are in the public domain)


The Columbia River and the “King of the Steamboatmen”

The Columbia River was and still is the aorta of the American Northwest. Along with it’s tributaries such as the Snake and the Williamette, the famed Columbia River stretches for thousands of miles. What was once a mighty river that needed to be tamed now is a mighty river that Oregon tourists enjoy continually. Riding up the Columbia River to the beautiful Columbia Gorge and viewing the scenery that Lewis and Clark did is a fascinating trip into history. A Columbia River map will show you just how large this river is. The Columbia River has a rich history that the following story will help tell.

The Columbia was recognized very early on by the Native Americans to be a highway through otherwise difficult and sometimes impossible terrain. The Columbia ran it’s course through jagged mountains and remote flat lands. This amazing river spread so far to the east into Montana and Idaho that it almost converged with the Yellowstone River which flowed in an opposite direction. A some points, a rain drop could run in either direction, west to the Pacific Ocean or eastward down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. The Columbia River of course made it possible for Lewis and Clark to reach present day Oregon.

john AinsworthOne of the best ways to fully understand the significance of the Columbia River and learn what it took to make it a navigable route, is to take a glimpse into the life and feats of one of it’s very first river pilots. This man was named Captain John C. Ainsworth ( pictured left) and many referred to him as the “King of the Columbia River Steamboatmen”. He arrived in Oregon in 1850.

Like many experienced steamboat men, John Ainsworth gained his river piloting skills along the Mississippi River. He recognized the opportunities present in the northwest. Fellow steamboatmen would ask John Ainsworth the  question…why would a skilled river pilot waste his time in the relative wilderness of Oregon when there was plenty of money to be made down in California?

Ainsworth had the good fortune at the time to meet a man by the name of Lot Whitcomb (pictured below right). What Whitcomb didn’t have in knowledge of piloting a steamboat, he did have in industriousness. Whitcomb was buying up materials to construct the first home built steamboat made in Oregon. The boat that Lot Whitcomb would build was named, unsurprisingly, after himself, the “Lot Whitcomb”.The vessel was 160 feet long with a 24 foot beam, two boilers producing 140 horsepower and capable of 12 MPH on the open river. It was a sidewheeler boat. The Lot Whitcomb steamboat was roomy, had a dining room and an interior of polished wood. Whitcomb’s new vessel offered elegance in the wilderness. It was the best looking boat in Oregon.

lot whitcombAlthough it was a very impressive vessel, the “Lot Whitcomb” was a sidewheeler. The feeling however among boatmen was that a sternwheeler would have better control on a swift flowing current. The Columbia River promised to have many such currents. Sternwheelers were  known to be able to penetrate narrower waterways for the very reason they could be narrower by design, not having wide paddles on each side of the vessel. With the rudders placed close to the rear paddlewheel,of a sternwheeler,  quicker maneuverability could be expected. All good things to have on a river like the Columbia.

The steamboat was built simply because Lot Whitcomb believed in the potential for steamboats in the northwest just as John Ainsworth did. Whitcomb eventually offered the job of commanding his new steamboat to Ainsworth. He accepted. Unfortunately, the two found out they didn’t get along too well. Most historians attribute this to the fact that Whitcomb could have been envious of Ainsworth steamboat piloting abilities. He knew river navigation much better than Whitcomb. Regardless, John Ainsworth stuck it out with Whitcomb and kept envisioning the potential for himself to operate a fleet of steamboats on the very river that Lewis and Clark in 1804 used to explore to the Pacific Ocean. relations with Whitcomb didn’t improve and as far as Ainsworth was concerned it was only a matter of time that he would leave and strike out on his own. The problem however was money. Ainsworth didn’t have the needed funds to begin his own operation. His plan was to convince fellow Oregonians to fund an able steamboat captain like himself. He would need to convince them of the economic potential of Columbia River steamboating. As time went on and John Ainsworth was piloting on the Columbia River the population was growing. That also meant that the commerce was growing. Competition from other boats grew and Ainsworth had the uncomfortable thought that perhaps some other experienced boat men from the Mississippi would emerge and steal his dream.

steamboat lot whitcombA strange thing happened shortly after the official brass band accompanied launch of the Lot Whitcomb ( sketch at left). The steamboat got itself hung up on a reef. At first, people who heard the news blamed Ainsworth, but as it turned out, he had taken the day off and the boat was piloted by none other than Lot Whitcomb himself and an assistant. Whitcomb of course called Ainsworth for help in freeing the vessel at which he flatly refused. he didn’t want to get aboard until the boat was back where he left it. The story is that Whitcomb had spread rumors that the hang up was Ainsworth’s fault even though he was nowhere near the accident scene. The rumors started to tarnish Ainsworth’s reputation as an excellent steamboat pilot. That signaled the end of the association between the two men. Ainsworth received a payment of $3,500 for his time with Whitcomb. At the same time Whitcomb had severe financial problems and sold had to give a controlling interest to an Oregon City Company. Ainsworth stayed on piloting the “Lot” and plowed his money back into the steamboat. For this he received a share of the ownership. In 1854 the Lot was sold for $40,000 and was to be sent to work on the Sacramento River in California. Ainsworth received $4,000 from the sale as his ten percent share.

John Ainsworth, now with his $4,000 to get started, befriended a Mississippi River man who was an excellent engineer, and they together made plans to build a sternwheeler for Ainsworth to operate. The boat envisioned was to be built and named the “Jennie Clark”. She would be 115 feet long and 18.5 feet at the beam. The boiler was centered on the vessel and the rudders were to be placed very near the rear paddlewheel to give maximum control. The Jennie Clark was built and launched in 1855 and didn’t take long at all to start making a profit with both passengers and freight. The story of John C. Ainsworth and his steamboat company only grew from here. The public domain image below is of Astoria, Oregon in 1868.

astoria oregon 1868John Ainsworth and a group of investors incorporated the Oregon Steam Navigation Company in 1860. Ainsworth’s company was so large it controlled the shipping routes of steamers, railroads, and freight lines. It essentially became the biggest transportation monopoly in the Pacific.Northwest. The company also began operating steamers between San Francisco and ports along the Columbia River such as Astoria and Portland. By the year 1869 the OSN Company virtually controlled Columbia River traffic. Then, In 1872, Ainsworth exchanged a controlling interest in the OSN to the Northern Pacific Railroad in return for the railroad’s bonds.In less than twenty years John Ainsworth turned an idea and a dream into vast wealth. To be sure, it was the right idea at precisely the right location.

In April 1879, Henry Villard purchased the Oregon Steam Navigation Company for its full capitalized value of $5 million. Ainsworth then relocated to Oak Lawn, California, a very wealthy man. This was not however the last of Ainsworth business ventures. After selling out his shares in OSN, in 1883 he entered the banking business. Ainsworth founded the Ainsworth National Bank in Portland and later in 1892 he started the Central Bank of Oakland.

The Columbia River and it’s famed Columbia Gorge continue to marvel visitors. Today, tourists have the opportunity to ride up and down the river enjoying cruises lasting a week or longer or they can simply take a picturesque day cruise and get some great photo opportunities. Many people also enjoy the dinner cruises on the boat Portland Spirit. If you have the opportunity to do any of these things you just may want to remember the dream of John C. Ainsworth and the great success he had operating a fleet of steamboats.

John C. Ainsworth passed away on December 30, 1893 near Oakland California. He was seventy-one years of age.

(Photos and images are in the public domain)





The Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Missing Engineer

The history of steamboats is fascinating. Steamboats helped America expand westward. It was able to travel where there were no roads. It carried people and needed supplies to hard to reach places. During the mid 1800’s, this remarkable invention in transportation had only one problem, and it was a big problem. It’s boilers could and would explode. The boilers that powered the steam boat engine were a huge concern. The explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 13, 1858 is very representative of the dangers river travelers faced during the period. Steam boat history is filled with stories like it.

steamboats in memphisDuring this era steam boilers the size required to run a steamboat were a relatively new creation. Pressure instruments were not what they are today and the strength needed in the materials used in boiler construction was a bit sketchy. This required that the boilers be physically monitored. Simply put, if too much pressure were allowed to build up, the boiler might explode. And explode they did and with great numbers of people lost. In the case of steamboats, boilers naturally were placed down within the infrastructure of the boat. Explosions therefore had a catastrophic effect occurring deep inside a wooden vessel. Steamboats would literally blow apart in a ball of fire and hot steam. In many cases, those who didn’t die during the explosion itself often drowned after jumping or being thrown into the water. The huge loss of life was even more significant when you consider how much smaller the general population was in the mid 1800’s.

Steamboat mishap statistics during the mid 1800’s tells quite a story. During the years 1838 and 1870 a total of 2,200 people were killed.and hundreds injured. The largest explosion ever recorded was that of the SS Sultana just north of Memphis Tennessee in April 1865 with an estimated 1,800+ loss of life. The Sultana was grossly overloaded with returning Union soldiers from the recently ended American Civil War, most of whom spent the past few years in Confederate POW camps including the infamous Andersonville Prison. The Sultana was supposed to be their ticket home after the war. In addition to these statistics concerning steamboats, there were 111 deaths attributed to industrial boiler explosions during the period. A picture of the Sultana in early 1865 just prior to the explosion is shown below right.

The tragic explosion of the SS Pennsylvania was not only a disaster for the nation but was a personal disaster for the ex-steamboat pilot Mark Twain. It so happened that Mark Twain, who was quite fond of steamboats, was working as a steersman on the SS Pennsylvania up until a few days before the explosion. He had personal differences with the boat’s master and resigned, but not before getting his brother a job on the vessel. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s) brother was killed during the riverboat disaster. Understandably, Clemens was haunted with this reminder the rest of his life.

st louis steamboatsConcerning the boiler explosion itself, it seems that the SS Pennsylvania engineer tasked with keeping an eye on the boilers steam pressure was aft, away from his post, speaking with female passengers. According to the New York newspapers at the time, an eyewitness gave court testimony to the fact that the engineer was not at his post in the engine room just prior to the explosion and was seen with the women. All four of the boilers exploded while the SS Pennsylvania was about 75 miles below Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River and about 300 yards from shore. It was estimated that the entire structure of the boat was in flames only about a minute after the explosion. The SS Pennsylvania left New-Orleans on the ninth of the month with one hundred and twenty-five cabin passengers and one hundred and fifty-eight crew. With stops on the way up the river at Baton Rouge, Natchez and Vicksburg, there were a total of about 450 people in all.
Out of this number, 182 were rescued by a another boat, and about 70 others escaped. These numbers included the wounded and burned. About 200 were estimated lost and missing.
The wreck of the SS Pennsylvania floated about two miles down river and burned all the way to the water line.

steamboat sultanaThe SS Pennsylvania explosion unfortunately was one of many during the 1800’s. The federal government was pressured to do something to safeguard the traveling public and as a result passed several maritime bills. The bills tried to set certain requirements and training standards and to some degree they helped but certainly didn’t rectify the problem. Compounding the problem of faulty equipment and poor monitoring was the habit of steamboats trying to make speed records on their runs and in some cases racing. This just overtaxed the boilers and was the cause of more than one disaster. The boilers could be unpredictable as in the case of the Saluda explosion just off the docks at Lexington Missouri on April 9, 1852. The Missouri River was swollen from spring rains and snow melt and the captain was determined to make it upriver around a sandbar. He had been held back by the current previously and this time was determined to make it. He called for maximum boiler pressure while leaving the dock.The resulting explosion which occurred right after the paddle wheel started to turn threw bodies all through the town of Lexington and even killed some standing on the dock.The body of the captain, last seen standing on the roof of the boat, was eventually found on the far side of a dock warehouse. The explosion was so violent that just about all of the passengers, and some bystanders, died. Out of 250+ people on board, most of them Mormons traveling to Salt Lake City, only about 40 to 50 survived. It ranked as one of the worst steamboat disasters.

Over the decades, progress was made it both safety and boiler construction. The string of federal regulations put in place continued into the 1900’s. As dangerous as steamboat travel could be, people needed the transportation especially before road improvements and before the transcontinental railroad. Probably, the area most improved by federal regulations had to do with training. This helped some in the type of people made responsible for boiler monitoring. Boiler construction materials and pressure instruments also improved over the years. What essentially was an unregulated industry became more and more regulated.

There are some interesting historic sites regarding  steam boat history.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is an excellent place to learn more about the early days of steamboats. The museum is located at 400 Grand Blvd in Kansas City Missouri. The side wheeler steamboat Arabia hit a snag in September of 1856 on the Missouri River. The boat sank and was eventually found in 1988 by researchers. The Arabia Steamboat Museum now displays a wide collection of artifacts taken from the old vessel. They have a very impressive collection. Well worth the visit when you travel to Kansas City MO.

Another very good museum is the Howard Steamboat Museum located in Jeffersonville Indiana. According to the Howard Steamboat Museum, their mission is to preserve the Howard family story, their mansion and the history of their shipyards and to foster an appreciation of the development of river steamboats and commerce along inland rivers. The Howard Shipyard was started in 1834. The museum address is 1101 E. Market Street, Jeffersonville Indiana.

(Photos in public domain)