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)