Sacramento History / The Steamboat

Sacramento history is all about the California Gold Rush and the thousands of gold seekers arriving in this area of northern California in the late 1840’s. When you tour Sacramento today, and in particular the Sacramento Old Town district, gold rush stories and historic buildings are aplenty.

old town sacramento

Today's Old Town Sacramento

Walk the streets of Old Town Sacramento and you’ll see names connected to the city’s earliest days. Sutter, Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins…these are just a few. The fact is that Sacramento grew tremendously because of it’s close proximity to the gold mines in the Sierra Nevada foothills and to the Sacramento River which was a natural waterway to both the port of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean.

The Gold Rush Transformed the Sacramento

There was no other river than the Sacramento that played such an important role in the growth and development of northern California. It also played a key role in the history of Sacramento. There is no other river west of the Rocky Mountains that is as rich in history and adventure than the Sacramento.

The California Gold Rush changed this river from a sleepy waterway to a bustling transportation highway. Before the gold rush no steamboats actually worked San Francisco Bay. Before the gold rush, San Francisco was a relatively small settlement with a few shacks.

california steam navigation company

The California Steam Navigation Company

Steam Navigation on the Sacramento

By the year 1850 it’s estimated that there were no less than twenty-eight steamers operating on the Sacramento River. Each year added to these numbers. During the very early years a passenger might have paid up to $30 for a trip between San Francisco and Sacramento. Stiff competition would eventually drive down fares to about one dollar. The competition was so fierce and the steamboats numbers grew so high that safety was completely overshadowed in the quest for maximum profits. Steamboat accidents on the Sacramento were many.

The competition became so intense that as soon as one steamboat operator would lower fares the others would soon follow. Eventually, the steamboat operators met and formed a monopoly to stop the madness. This was the birth of the California Steam Navigation Company. Nearly all would claim that this was a monopoly and indeed it was. Ridiculously low fares were a thing of the past but so was the chaos. Transportation fares stabilized and river transportation benefited.

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The Steamboat "Chrysopolis"

Those Great Sacramento River Steamers

Arguably, the most famous and popular steamboat ever to ply the waters of the Sacramento was the “Chrysopolis“. The steamers nickname at the time was the “Chryssie“. The 245 foot long Chrysopolis was built in 1860. The ship’s beam was forty feet and it’s depth ten feet. This magnificent steamboat had a 1,357 horsepower steam engine and huge paddle wheels that were thirty-six feet in diameter. This was an impressive steamboat which held the fastest speed record between San Francisco to Sacramento.

The Chrysopolis was built every bit as luxurious as the best steamboats on the Mississippi. Red plush upholstery, rosewood paneling,crystal chandeliers…the Chryssie had it all. In addition to the beautiful accommodations, the Chryssie offered passengers “all you could eat for one dollar“.

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The side wheeler Yosemite

The Yosemite

Constructed in 1862, the Yosemite  was placed in service in 1863 by the California Steam Navigation Company to operate along with the Chrysopolis.

In 1865, only two years after she was put into service, the Yosemite suffered a fatal boiler explosion as she was pulling out of Rio Vista Landing along the Sacramento. Fifty-five people were reported killed and many more injured. The history books are filled with incidents of steam boiler explosions. Indeed, this was the dangerous part of early steamboating. In the case of the Yosemite, her boilers were said to be of the safer, lower pressure design. Obviously, the safer design was a failure, at least in this instance. The steamboat itself was not destroyed in the blast and she was eventually equipped with new boilers.

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Side wheeler Wilson G. Hunt

The Wilson G. Hunt

The side wheeler Wilson G. Hunt was built in New York in 1849. The steamer had a single cylinder engine powered by a low pressure boiler. Her dimensions were 185.5 feet long, 25.8 feet abeam and with a depth of 6.75 feet. The 250 horsepower steam engine could drive the boat at about 15 knots.

The Wilson G. Hunt, like most of the steamers of the 1850’s, traveled to the west coast via Cape Horn. This in itself was a dangerous journey. During her lifetime she saw service in Puget Sound, the Fraser River, the Columbia River and then on the Sacramento River. On the Sacramento, the William G. Hunt operated beginning in 1850 by the California Steamship Navigation Company.

Steamboat racing on the Sacramento River was forbidden. Too many boiler explosions occurred when steamer captains tried to race one another. By the same token, expediency was desired and regardless of the prohibition against racing, it did occur. One such incident involving the Wilson G. Hunt occurred just above Benicia California when the steamboat New World suffered a boiler explosion while racing the Hunt. It was not long after this mishap that the owners of the Hunt joined in with the California Steam Navigation Company.

Following are links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy. The Stolen Boat the New World…the Fort Yuma Steamboats….and the King of the Steamboat Men on the Columbia River.

steamboat paddle wheel

Paddle wheel display at San Francisco Maritime Historical Park

Learn About the Great Steamboats

Here are few great venues to learn more about the steamboats that operated on the Sacramento River and offered ferry service during the gold rush era and beyond as well as on the great rivers of the northwest such as the Columbia.

The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is located adjacent to Fishermans Wharf. The vessels on display there make it the largest museum collection in the National Park Service. Walk onto the pier to visit the park’s collection of historic ships and for great views of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. The park is open year round. Nearby to it is the park’s Maritime Museum in a 1939 Streamline Moderne Bathhouse Building.

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Historic steamboat wheel display at Columbia River Maritime Museum

The Columbia River Maritime Museum is located in Astoria Oregon, northwest of Portland at the mouth of the Columbia River. The museum is open all year and everyday with the exception on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Here you’ll see a great display of ship artifacts including bells, fog horns, whistles and navigation equipment. Included within this excellent museum is the Ted M. Natt Research Library which contains a large collection of historical resources pertaining to the maritime history of the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest. This is a world famous maritime museum with visitors from around the globe.

Two excellent books on this subject are Water Trails West by The Western Writers of America and Steamboats on the Western Rivers by author Louis C. Hunter and Beatrice Jones Hunter.

(Photos and images of steamboats are from the public domain. Photos of Old Town Sacramento, California Steam Navigation sign, paddle wheel and steamboat wheel are from author’s collection)



The Stolen Boat

An Incredible Journey

While researching the subject of steamboats and the people who piloted them, I came across a very strange, amusing and unique story. The story of the Stolen Boat actually has it’s tragic elements while at the same time is somewhat comical.

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New York Harbor painting by George McCord

It’s the story of a steamboat company whose owners and captain eluded eastern creditors and a sheriff and then managed to relocate the stolen boat to California where it had an illustrious life on the busy Sacramento River. Obviously, a steamboat is not the easiest thing to make off with and certainly not easy to hide.  How was this new vessel able to sneak out of New York harbor without being stopped by the sheriff who just happened to be one of the boat’s financial partners and creditors? 

What did the sheriff, who also just happened to be on the boat, think when the boilers were suddenly fired up? When asked…the skipper simply replied to the sheriff…”To wear the rust off the bearings and see that the engine worked well”. After riding around in the New York harbor for awhile, the crew then forced the outnumbered sheriff and his deputies off the vessel and headed out to the open sea. Thus the story of the stolen steamboat began.

This is one of those strange but true tales that just needs sharing. Here’s how the adventure began.

The Voyage of the “New World”

The steamboat “New World” was a 530 ton, 320 foot long sidewheeler. A fairly large vessel, the New World was actually built to steam from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn. As I mentioned in other articles, several of the steamboats on the western rivers were originally from New York and since there was no Panama Canal in 1851, going around the tip of South America was how a boat sailed from New York to California. In the year 1850, at the beginning of the great California Gold Rush, there were some twenty-eight steamboats operating on the Sacramento River. In future years this would only increase.

cape horn

Cape Horn

A Close Call in Rio

The first leg of the trip of the stolen steamboat began after the hasty departure of the New World from New York was Rio de Janiero.

Like many of her sister steamers, the New World endured her share of Atlantic storms. Weather forecasting was non existent and the ocean storms were expected.The storms however were not her major problem on the first leg down to South America. While on the way, the crew and passengers picked up yellow fever. The story down to Rio de Janiero gets even better. While approaching Rio the New World was chased into the harbor by a British frigate since she had no legal paperwork. Apparently, the paperwork was with the boat’s creditors who allegedly were owed a lot of money by it’s owner, William A. Brown. The creditors and the harbor police would not find out until after the fact that the vessel was steaming to California.

The skipper of the New World was a man by the name of Ed Wakeman. Wakeman worked for William Brown. It was under Brown’s instructions that Ed Wakeman was to take the vessel to San Francisco. With a British vessel in pursuit and no papers to show the authorities at Rio de Janeiro, Wakeman came up with an idea to fall overboard. When he was retrieved from the sea soaking wet he explained to the authorities that the papers had been with him in the water and were lost. He convinced the American consul of this tale in Rio and was given the clearance to depart.

Also, see our Trips Into History articles on the Steamboat Natchez and The King of the Steam Boat Men on the Columbia River.

The Much Shortened Quarantine in Valparaiso

Ed Wakeman departed Rio de Janeiro but with eighteen less crewmen who died from the yellow fever. All went well however and the New World successfully rounded Cape Horn and steamed up to Valparaiso Chile. When he reached the coastal city the authorities there demanded that the vessel be quarantined for twenty days. This of course didn’t suit Wakeman. The story is that the captain argued continuously with the authorities and many believe he was pretty liberal in handing out cash to the right people. It’s not sure which did the trick, the arguing or the cash, but nevertheless, he departed from Valparaiso after only eight days.

valparaiso harbor

Valparaiso Bay, 1830

Captain Ed Wakeman also picked up some useful information while handing out money in Chile. He learned that New York authorities, on behalf of the vessel creditors, were waiting for him in Panama hoping to make an arrest. They also had extradition papers already signed. All they needed was Wakeman in person along with the vessel. A man who had already thrown himself overboard to escape trouble in Rio was not going to steam all the way up to Panama just to get himself arrested and transported back to New York. Ed Wakeman had another plan.

Making New Friends in Panama

Panama was a must stop for any vessel heading up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. Ed Wakeman knew it and so did the New York authorities. But skipper Wakeman had a plan. Instead of steaming right into Panama he went to an island offshore and anchored the vessel on the far side of the island. He then was crafty enough to make his way onshore in Panama. Panama City was filled with gold seekers trying desperately to find passage to San Francisco and ultimately to the California gold fields. These were men who had spent days if not weeks trekking through the malaria filled Panama jungle to make it from the eastern shore to the western side. Being stranded in Panama City waiting for passage was not pleasant.

isthmus of panama map

Isthmus of Panama

After coming ashore in Panama, Ed Wakeman looked for several hundred Americans desiring to get themselves to San Francisco. They weren’t hard to find. Captain Wakeman offered them passage on the New World for $300 per man if, and this was a big if, they would intimidate the two deputies from New York and about a ten man guard unit assigned them. After spending a long time in Panama waiting to find a vessel heading north, it didn’t take much convincing. The New York deputies and the guards were threatened by the mob to such an extent that they tore up the extradition papers and fled the country. It was then that Wakeman could bring the New World into Panama and pick up his unexpected paying passengers. The ship left for San Francisco without incident.

san francisco harbor in 1851

San Francisco Harbor, 1851

The Luck of Captain Ed Wakeman

Three things that worked well in Wakeman’s favor was that in 1850-51, there was no railroad to California where New York authorities could simply send people directly there to retrieve the boat and Wakeman. Secondly, there would be no transcontinental telegraph system for over another ten years. Thirdly, Wakeman was lucky that a California Gold Rush had just begun where large groups of men were willing to do just about anything to gain passage. The route through the jungles of Panama, despite the hardships of the jungle, was more popular than the Cape Horn route or the overland Oregon Trail route. It wasn’t so many years since the ill fated Donner Party tragedy in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A New Life on the West Coast

After reaching San Francisco, the New World steamboat found work on the booming Sacramento River. This was the river heading into the gold country from San Francisco. The stolen boat New World ended up spending fourteen years going up and down the Sacramento under the operations of the California Steam Navigation Company. There is no information as to what action, if any, the New York creditors took to get the vessel back. It appears that the boat was sold prior to any action they could have taken in later years.

The New World was sold in the 1860’s to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company which had a monopoly at the time on the northwest rivers. As fate would have it, the New World returned to California after several years and was put in service as the Vallejo Ferry on San Francisco Bay.

In regards to Captain Ed Wakeman, the only information I could uncover was that he apparently lived out his years as a resident of San Francisco. I think we can assume that he didn’t have the urge to visit back east. It’s unknown what money, if any, the vessel’s questionable owner, William A. Brown, received after the boat was sold in California.

There is a great deal of information about the Sacramento River steamboats, including the New World, at the Maritime Museum-San Francisco located at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Another excellent museum regarding the old steamboats of the Columbia River is the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria Oregon.

(Photos from the public domain)


The Sonora Desert / Fort Yuma Steamboats

An American River Like No Other

sonora desert

Sonoran Desert

The Colorado is a river that exists in a part of the American Southwest where one would think there would be no river. The Colorado River didn’t flow past mighty settlements like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis and New Orleans. After all, this was the Sonora Desert. The Colorado River passed through hot sands and barren wilderness where next to nothing grew. Vegetation was spares to say the least and even the Native Americans who lived near it had a difficult time to even survive. This was a water stream that penetrated a land where there wasn’t water and for someone to think for a moment that this river, the Colorado and Fort Yuma, would someday be an aorta of commerce was totally laughable at best. the river would carry 500,000 tons of silt and sediment per day, in an average day, through the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River flow was unlike the large rivers of the midwest. The lower Colorado bisects two large deserts in the southwest, the Sonora Desert on the Arizona side and the Mojave Desert on the California side. To the south of the Mojave Desert was the Salton Basin which was a large depression 235 feet below sea level. This large depression would eventually fill up years later, in 1905, when a levee broke on the lower Colorado, after some tinkering by people trying to divert water to the Los Angeles area. What resulted is today’s Salton Sea which many people now see while flying to Los Angeles or San Diego. Yes, the Salton Sea happened by accident. The Salton Basin is about 70 feet deep, 50 miles long, and 15 miles wide, with a total water area of some 300 square miles.

The Colorado River Was Quite Different

The nature of the water that flowed down the Colorado River was different from any other river in North America.

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Steamboats at Yuma, 1875

The water was extremely silty, especially on the lower Colorado near Fort Yuma. To give you an idea of the nature of the water, prior to the modern day Glen Canyon Dam constructed at Page Arizona, the Colorado River would carry about 500,000 tons of silt and sediment per day, in an average day, through the Grand Canyon. This is what the people of the 1850’s saw when they reached the Colorado. It wasn’t like the Mississippi, the Missouri, the mighty Columbia or the Ohio Rivers. Yet, regardless of the river’s character and the fact that nobody ever thought the lower Colorado would be a busy transportation highway, it became just that.

You’ll also be interested in our articles on the Steamboat Natchez and High Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

It Was the Right River at the Right Time

The importance of the Colorado River in the 1850’s could not be overstated for those who traversed this arid region of America. Remember, the 1850’s were the early years of American settlement in the Southwest. The end of the Mexican American War gave title to the lands of the southwest to the United States Government. The trails to the southwest out of Missouri and Texas would bring more people than ever through this passageway across the Sonora Desert to California which was also ceded to the U.S. in 1848. Add to that the U.S. Army’s general incursion into the southwest after 1848 and the Colorado River and the future Fort Yuma suddenly became a significant, yet silty, body of water and a bustling port city. The most well known army post built on the river was indeed Fort Yuma on the west side of the Colorado. The fort was first established in 1849 as Camp Calhoun, after a U.S. Senator, and then as Camp Yuma in 1851, and then Fort Yuma in 1852. One of the main reasons the fort was established was to aid in the Yuman War. This was a Native American conflict that ran from about 1850 to 1853. A peace treaty in summer of 1853 was signed and hostilities ended between the Yuman and the United States government.

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Yuma Crossing and the Railroad Bridge in the 1880's

Even though hostilities had ended, supplying Fort Yuma was at best a daunting task. Years later this fort would also be important during the American Civil War when Union troops would be dispatched east to fight the Confederate troops in Arizona who were trying to push west into southern California. Yuma was also the site of the Yuma Territorial Prison.

The Busy Port of Yuma

A lot was happening in Yuma. Supplies would have to be sent by sea from San Diego, around the Baja Peninsula and to the mouth of the Colorado and then sent up on the Colorado with it’s strong currents. Supplies eventually were sent overland from San Diego but it was a difficult journey. Fort Yuma was also a stopping off point for the short lived, but important, Butterfield Overland Stage Line started in 1858 which was carrying passengers and more importantly, mail, along the southern route from Missouri, through Texas, through the Sonora Desert of southern Arizona and then into California. In addition to this, gold was being discovered near the Colorado River and this only added to the importance of transporting people and supplies. People generally follow the transportation routes. In the case of the lower Colorado River, it was really a case of transportation following the flow of people.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

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Warehouse at Yuma Quartermaster's Depot State Historic Park

To send supplies to settlements springing up on and near the Colorado River, a reliable way had to be found. The plan was to send supplies on ocean going vessels south from San Francisco, around the Baja California peninsula and up the lower Colorado by steamboat. As daunting of a task as this was, there were comers who thought they knew a way. The U.S. government took some surveys, particularly north of Yuma, and found that the river could be navigable. Several names emerged.

Captain James Turnbull launched the “Uncle Sam” in November 1852. Turnbull had a contract with the Army to supply river forts, including Fort Mohave to the north of Yuma, and had shipped the parts of his small steamboat from San Francisco in the hold of the larger vessel, named Capacity. The small steamer Turnbull purchased was then assembled at Yuma. Witnessed by Cocopah Indians, smoke belched from the Uncle Sam’s stack, sparks popped from her firebox and the engine shuddered. The Indians were at awe when they saw this strange and unusual craft. Unfortunately, the Uncle Sam had only a 20 HP motor and could haul only 35 tons of supplies at a time. It also took about two weeks to steam from Yuma down to the Gulf of California. At the time, a California newspaper, The Alta California, humorously wrote a story that a passenger found himself eight miles from Yuma by land, but as the boat followed the rivers windings for another 60 miles he found out that he was now 25 miles from Yuma. While Captain Turbull left the area to look for a larger engine for the small 65 foot boat, the Uncle Sam was lost when a drifting timber tore a hole in it.

Next up to bat was George Alonzo Johnson who was operating steamboats on the Sacramento River. Johnson took on the Colorado in 1854. Johnson brought the steamboat General Jessup down to the mouth of the Colorado River by steamer. It had been disassembled before the trip and had to be assembled again before starting upriver. After it was assembled, the General Jessup started carrying both freight and passengers up the river to Yuma. He continued to explore the river further north right up into Nevada. Johnson had good success and founded the George A. Johnson Company which eventually became the largest steamboat company on the Colorado.

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Steamboat Mohave No. 2 at Yuma, 1876

The steamboats employed to run up and down the lower Colorado had to have very shallow drafts. The river’s depth varied greatly with plenty of sandbars. The river was also subject to drastic tidal changes which could make depths unpredictable. This river was nothing like the Sacramento. An old saying at the time was that the great steamboat pilots of the lower Colorado River could navigate up the river on merely “dew”.

The following to events proved once and for all that navigating far to the north of Yuma was very possible. In 1858, Captain George Johnson reached the mouth of a canyon he named Eldorado and also to the mouth of the Las Vegas Wash. A few months after that, a Lieutenant Ives, in his iron hulled Explorer, reached the Black Canyon, even further up river than Johnson. These two voyages proved beyond a doubt that, at high water and with a shallow draft vessel ( possibly only a two foot draft) , shipping was very possible nearly 500 miles upriver from Fort Yuma. Five hundred miles upstream covered a lot of settlements.

The Inevitable Railroad Comes to Yuma

As any history buff knows, the last part of the 1800’s was a time of great change for America’s transportation system. The famed Golden Spike was driven into the ground in Utah in 1869 marking the beginning of the transcontinental railroad. In regards to Fort Yuma, the big change occurred at the hands of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Southern Pacific didn’t only effect Yuma in a big way, but it’s also credited with the rapid growth of Los Angeles during the last quarter of the 1800’s. The Los Angeles population multiplied starting in the late 1870’s.

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Present day Yuma Amtrak Station

The tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad reached the west bank of the Colorado at Yuma in 1877. Port Isabel, which was the settlement at the end of the river on the Gulf of California delta (also known as the Sea of Cortez), was dismantled and abandoned in 1878. The Southern Pacific made it unnecessary to ship goods around Baja California to the mouth of the Colorado River. As they were often called at the time, “The Steamboats from Hell“, continued their hazardous voyages upriver from Yuma for several years after. Although the names of the companies changed as well as the names of the steamboats, the snags, sandbars and heavy silt of the mighty Colorado still remained. Mining was still going full tilt in these upper areas and the steamboat was the way people received supplies up from Yuma.

The Sanguinetti Museum and Garden

When you find yourself on a western road trip passing Yuma Arizona, you might just want to stop and visit the Sanguinetti House Museum and Garden. It’s located at 240 and 248 Madison Avenue in downtown Yuma. The house was built in the 1870’s by E.F. Sanguinetti, a Yuma merchant. The structure has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The museum and garden are sponsored by the Arizona Historical Society and offers visitors an excellent glimpse back to Yuma’s boom times, steamboats, settlers, desert fauna and it’s Native American roots.

For those visiting in the Pacific Northwest interested in steamboating, the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria Oregon is one of the finest maritime venues found anywhere.

Two excellent books about Yuma Arizona history are Early Yuma by author Robert Nelson and The Hidden Treasures of Arizona Special Edition by author Jesse Horn.

(Photos are in public domain)

River Steamboats / Steamboat Natchez

They Were Celebrities

Exactly who we consider celebrities within our social structure depends on what era you choose. There was a time before television, radio and Hollywood when celebrity status could depend on your chosen profession. The profession didn’t necessarily have to be show business.

Believe it or not, many steamboat captains during the mid to late 1800’s were considered every bit a celebrity, very similar to the celebrities we know today in the era of mass media. The big difference was that news traveled slower. It would take longer than a nanosecond to become famous.

Steamboats Natchez and Robert E. Lee

Steamboats were a major part of U.S. commerce during the 1800’s and rivers like the Mississippi were literally crowded with steamboats. In addition to river waterways like the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, steamboats were active all over the Great Lakes region. Whether on rivers, lakes or oceans, the speed of steamboats and steamships was very important to many people. If you were shipping supplies or traveling , you generally preferred a faster vessel. If you happened to be the master of a faster steamboat you had greater respect and probably greater business. That’s pretty much how it worked. If you were the winner of a steamboat race people knew your name. If you won several races and/or were known to beat speed records, you could be famous. Having the ability to push a vessel to it’s maximum was considered a talent.

Why Race a Steamboat?

Why does anyone race anything? Boats, horses, motorcycles, cars and airplanes. If it moves we race it. If you can race it you also may want to gamble on it. To win a race is to gain prestige. When it came to steamboats, faster was considered better and the winner was celebrated. If you won many races you gained a reputation. The age of steamboat racing was also an era where entertainment choices were limited. Very limited compared to today. This might also be one reason why throngs of spectators would line up the shores to watch the great race. As opposed to horse racing, steamboat racing was a race with machinery, moving parts and steam pressure.

A steamboat would race and overtax it’s boilers for business purposes as stated above. Passengers also liked faster river travel and shippers liked it as well. A captain who could figure out a way to get more from his steamboat was a man in demand of the boat owners. It was something a steamboat operator could brag about.

Captain Grant Marsh who piloted the Far West during the Sioux War of 1876

There was the story of one steamboat captain who they say attached an anvil to the steam boiler pressure outlet so that the pressure would continue to rise and deliver more power to the paddle wheels. Why let pressure escape? The problem was that nobody really understood the physics of steam boiler operation. What they did understand was that more pressure meant a faster vessel. It would be decades later that boiler physics were fully understood. Racing a steamboat is the same as racing a boiler and whether it was a race between two vessels or a racing of the boilers to simply go faster than before, the results often were generally the same…exploding boilers and fire destruction.

The Great Race of 1870

What was chronicled as the Great Race of it’s time was the New Orleans to St. Louis steamboat race in June of 1870. The race was between the steamboats Natchez and the Robert E. Lee. This was quite an event, covered not only by the newspapers but also by the nationally popular Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s was known to cover many events in the frontier region and the important Mississippi River was part of it. The winner of the three day race was the Robert E. Lee who arrived in St. Louis about six hours before the Natchez. Newspapers stories of the time indicated that many passengers did recognize the inherent dangers of steamboat racing but overall found the event exciting. There is no question that steamboat captains put their passengers in harms way when racing.

The Far West Breaks Speed Records

The steamboat Far West operated on the Missouri River during 1976 and took part in the Sioux campaign of that year involving Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The captain of the Far West was one of the most distinguished and admired steamboat captains of the era. Captain Grant Marsh was master of the Far West and during the 1876 Sioux War steered his vessel upriver on the Yellowstone to the very mouth of the Little Bighorn River. That in itself was a feat and one many others wouldn’t be capable of. Grant Marsh was a well known steamboat captain.

Explosion of steamboat Lucy Walker

On June 30, Marsh and General Terry received news of the Indian victory over Custer. It loaded wounded soldiers from another battle and traveled 710 miles down the Missouri River in only 54 hours to bring the wounded soldiers and the news of Custer’s defeat to Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Captain Grant Marsh and the Far West steamed back upriver nine days later with horses and supplies for the troops still there. The 54 hour and 710 mile distance set a record for average steamboat speed at that time. It’s quite interesting that such a speed record was attained in a real life and death situation and involving day and dangerous night running rather than during a staged race event. The Far West lasted another seven years until her sinking in 1883. Steamboats had a very short life span in those days.

A Fatal Hudson River Race

The Hudson River in New York state was a popular steamboat racing venue. In the year 1852 there were plenty of steamboats and plenty of passenger traffic. The book Death Passage on the Hudson by author Kris A. Hansen, gives a detailed account of what took place during this incident, the deaths involved and the aftermath. The 198 foot side wheeler steamboat Henry Clay appeared to be racing the steamboat Armenia between Albany and New York City. The two steamboats had been regulars on that Hudson River run and were in big competition for passengers. The faster you could reach a stop and pick up passengers before the other vessel the more money you would make. What occurred in July of 1852 was not considered a one time event. The two vessels apparently raced each other often. Racing was both a prestige and business goal. Passenger safety concerns in 1852 were secondary.

During this race down the Hudson, it was obvious to all aboard the Henry Clay that her boilers were going to the maximum. The noise and shaking was evident to everyone. Some passengers reportedly disembarked at stops simply because of what was going on. They would find alternate transportation. It was reported that some protested to the crew that they were placing the vessel in jeopardy. Apparently, the protestations had little effect.

Disaster struck when the overheated boiler on the Henry Clay caused the adjacent woodwork to catch fire. The fire spread fast trapping many of the passengers. What’s a bit surprising is that the boilers didn’t actually explode which you would have expected under the circumstances. With the boat on fire, the Henry Clay turned toward the shore and at full speed ran up the river bank just south of Yonkers but not before the fire in the boat’s midsection trapped passengers in the stern area.

Explosion of steamboat Sultana off Memphis Tennessee in April 1865

The Henry Clay slid way up on the river bank allowing most of the people in the front section of the boat to escape, but those trapped on the stern were still about 140 feet off shore in deep water. Dozens of people lost their lives by fire or drowning. The public was shocked and outraged as were the newspapers accounts. Some of the dead were prominent citizens which made the newspaper outcry even louder. The newspapers blamed the disaster on racing. The book, Death Passage on the Hudson, tells a very personal story of the tragedy and a detailed description of the racing.

Apparently, after the fact, there were some conflicting opinions as to whether an actual race did take place. The description of events seem to confirm that a race did indeed take place on that fatal day. When speaking of the Henry Clay officers, one newspaper story stated, ” They are liable, as common carriers, for the property entrusted to them, unless the loss is caused by act of God”. Also, “Let them reap what they have sown. Let them bear the responsibility they have assumed”. Hearings were held and the newspapers condemned the officers of the Henry Clay. Congressional hearings resulted and laws were passed prohibiting steamboat racing. To give you an idea of how dangerous steamboat travel could be,the Scientific American magazine reported that deaths aboard American steamboats totaled 487 in the first eleven months of 1860. This is a huge number even today, and based on the population of 1860, it’s even larger.

Disasters by Intentionally Overtaxing Boilers

Articles written during the steamboat era placed high value on speed. A steamboat race didn’t need to be a side by side event. A steamboat captain knew how long it generally took to travel between ports. Beating that time was considered a good thing. It was considered a noteworthy accomplishment. A captain would be publicly awarded for this type of feat. For a steamboat to travel faster, considering equal loads, it’s boiler pressure would have to be raised. When boiler pressure was raised, and in boilers of the era with their less advanced technology, explosions were a distinct possibility. In these early days, the physics and mechanics of boiler explosions was not well understood. Many lives were lost to boiler explosions caused by captains who intentionally pushed them to the limit and obviously beyond. The Saluda explosion in 1852 just off the docks in Lexington Missouri was such a case. Because of strong river currents, the Saluda was behind schedule going upriver on the Missouri River. The vessel departed the dock with orders to put boilers to the maximum in an effort to get around a bend of swift moving water that the captain had been unable to do for two days. The overtaxed boilers exploded after the paddle wheel barely made one turn. It was still essentially at the dock. Over one-hundred people were killed in the explosion including the captain and several people on shore. Parts of bodies and of the steamboat were found in the town itself. It was a tremendous disaster even during the exploding steamboat era. Today, there is a memorial in Lexington Kansas regarding this tragic event. As a side note, many of the passengers were Mormon pilgrims from England traveling west to Utah. There were similar explosions while vessels were departing and departure was then considered a dangerous part of the voyage. High boiler pressure at departure was the cause of many steamboat disasters.

The 144 foot long steamboat Lucy Walker exploded her three boilers on the Ohio River near New Albany Indiana in October of 1844 resulted in the deaths of thirty-six passengers and twenty crew members. The passenger manifest and records were lost and there was no way to know if the death toll actually may have been higher. There was newspaper speculation that the boilers had construction flaws and there was some speculation that the vessel was racing. Nothing definitive was ever decided on the cause.

The biggest steamboat disaster occurred in April 1865 when the Sultana exploded just after leaving Memphis Tennessee. This vessel was grossly overloaded with passengers including Union soldiers returning to the North at the end of the Civil War. Many of these soldiers had been in Confederate prison camps. Witnesses confirmed that the steamboat was extremely overcrowded with some deciding to disembark. The steamboat would be paid by the government per passenger carried therefore the more passengers the more it’s profit. The heavy load required the boilers to be at maximum pressure as the boat was leaving the dock and heading upriver against the strong current. Just after the Sultana rounded a bend north of Memphis it’s boilers exploded with the result of thousands of deaths. Theses numbers then were staggering. They’re staggering for today. It was by far the worst disaster on an American inland waterway. All investigations later concluded that the overloaded conditions made it necessary for the boilers to be overtaxed in order to move the vessel against the current. There was also a question about the boilers maintenance. The fault was placed on the boats owners and master for allowing the extreme overcrowding. The effort to make more money caused a disaster like no other.

The prohibiting of steamboat racing, whether competitively or for cutting time off the run, was seen as a step forward in passenger safety. It was always assumed that some racing did continue and I think that was a fair assumption. It certainly occured in 1870 during the Great Race. Little by little, laws were enacted, licenses required, training enforced, inspections were made mandatory and technology advanced. All of this together helped to prevent future disasters of the scale that occurred when steamboating was an anything goes proposition.

Additional related articles that you will find interesting are the Day of the Saluda Explosion, the Columbia River and the King of the Steamboatmen and High Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

(Photos are in the public domain)


The General Slocum / Little Germany

There is a memorial in Tompkins Park in Manhattan Island, New York City, which is there as a reminder of what was, prior to September 11, 2001, the worst disaster in terms of loss of life in New York. The disaster was the burning of the General Slocum steamboat on the East River of New York City. The boat fire disaster occurred in the year 1904 and there are reasons why this event somehow was shadowed by other events which may have contributed to the fading of it’s memory.

There has been a lot written about steamboat safety in general, particularly during the mid 1800’s. Because steam power was the power of choice, it was employed extensively. Steamboats plied rivers all over the country including even in the far west. Knowledge of the technology of steam power was another matter.

steamboat general slocum

Steamboat General Slocum

Steamboat boiler explosions were happening much too often and in some cases with hundreds of fatalities. The most deadly steamboat boiler explosion recognized by many historians was the Sultana explosion in April 1865 just north of Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River. The Sultana was packed, even overly packed, with Union soldiers heading back to the north at the end of the American Civil War. In the book Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, author Alan Huffman describes how the steamboat operators were paid by head count thus encouraging them to grossly overload many vessels. The boat was so overloaded that it was difficult to even find room to lay down.

The sidewheel steamboat General Slocum, launched in 1891, was named after Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War General of some fame who was also a congressman from the state of New York. The vessel was owned and operated by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company and generally worked carrying passengers around the New York City waterways. The boat was captained by William H. Van Schaik who was 68 years of age.

The Disaster

It so happened that the General Slocum was chartered by a Lutheran Church in New York, St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church, to take a group of St Marks New York church members on a picnic to Eatons Neck Long Island. The vessel was chartered for a cost of $350 for the date of June 15, 1904. Most of those who be making the trip were women and children. As the church band played while the General Slocum departed at 9:30 am everyone onboard was looking ahead for a fine ride and a day away from the big bustling city. Trouble started relatively soon on the voyage. About forty minutes after pulling away from the dock and heading north on the East River a fire erupted onboard the boat.

burned wreckage of steamboat general slocum

Burned wreckage of the General Slocum

Afterwards, some would say the fire started in the Lamp Room and some others would point to a storage room. Some would also go on to say that the boat fire was caused, whether in either room, by a carelessly discarded cigarette. Many eyewitnesses even claimed the fire started in several different locations. Nevertheless, the blaze spread very rapidly.

Upon learning of the fire, Captain Schaik, with 1,358 passengers from St. Marks Church, headed for land at full steam. He was steering for Randalls Island but the blaze was engulfing the entire vessel aided by a strong breeze and the wind caused by the boat moving at full power. Heading at full steam to Randalls Island would later be a major criticism of Schaik’s handling of the emergency. It was suggested that he would have been wiser just heading to a nearby landing or just grounding the vessel. His speeding of the boat was felt to have added to the fires rapid spread. The vessel eventually beached at North brother Island.

The Aftermath

As with many large disasters and especially one that occurred around the beginning of the 20th century, statistics differ slightly. Officially, it was thought that 1,021 people were lost.  The cause was either burning in the fire or drowning in the river. In the book, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, author Edward T. O’Donnell points out that there were not many among the church group who were experienced swimmers. The trip was to be a short hop and the fact that most people couldn’t swim didn’t seem to matter. Obviously, this was an enormous loss of life. For comparison, the much publicized Triangle Shirtwaist Building fire of 1911 in New York City claimed 146 mostly young immigrant women.

Investigations after the General Slocum burning turned up a host of safety violations. The violations were so serious that one might wonder why a vessel in this condition was carrying paid passengers in the first place. Among the safety violations were rotting fire hoses incapable of holding any water pressure, oily rags and straw on the floor of several rooms and inferior life preservers that some reports stated were manufactured incorrectly. Also, the boat fire extinguishers were inoperable. All of this combined to cause New York City’s second most deadly disaster.

The public outrage was predictable. A Federal Grand Jury indicted eight individuals. In addition to Captain Schaik, two safety inspectors and officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted.

triangle shirtwaist fire

Fire crews racing to the Triangle Fire in 1911

The only one convicted was Captain Schaik of the charges of criminal negligence, failure to conduct fire drills and not maintaining workable fire extinguishers. Incredibly, the steamship company received rather modest fines regarding the altering of inspection reports. Schaik’s sentence was ten years at Sing Sing Prison but Schaik was paroled after just three and one-half years. Just as with the exploding boiler problems on steamboats, after the General Slocum disaster, the federal government passed many new regulations regarding passenger ship emergency equipment.

There are several opinions why a disaster of this magnitude did not really receive it’s deserved place in history. The sheer number of fatalities in a single tragedy guaranteed worldwide shock. The question that remains is why was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, with many less deaths, perceived as the worst disaster in New York at the beginning of the 20th century? By the 1920s the Triangle disaster stayed more strongly in the public consciousness. What was remembered of the General Slocum fire was a small, annual commemoration at the Lutheran cemetery in Queens. One theory is that the Slocum fire involved German immigrants. There was quite a bit of German hostility leading up to, through and after World War One causing the public legacy of the tragedy to fade from memory. There was simply less sympathy for Germans as opposed to the young immigrants killed in the Triangle Fire. Also, with the Triangle Fire it came to be found that the factory owners had purposely locked the exits as a matter of policy to keep the workers at their sewing machines. While many of the General Slocum Fire deaths resulted from the failure to maintain safety devices like boat fire extinguishers and life jackets, there wasn’t perceived criminal action by the owners which could still certainly be debated.

Two additional stories we have on Trips Into History which you will find interesting are the Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Storms of Lake Michigan and the sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley.

The General Slocum Fire spelled the beginning of the end for the closely knit “Little Germany” section of Manhattan’s lower east side. St Marks New York eventually was sold and became a synagogue. While the disaster claimed only about one percent of the city’s German population, the continual immigration of people from other European countries, mainly eastern Europe, splintered the population more and Little Germany residents scattered to other New York City locales.

(All photos are from the public domain)