The America, The United States: steamboat collision part of county history

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Editor’s Note: Vevay Media Group is proud to share with our readers a series of articles written by former resident Don Morrison, detailing one of the most deadly steamboat collisions along this area of the Ohio River in history.

Over the next few weeks, Morrison’s series will be presented.

NOTE

This article is primarily the compilation and summary of the previous work of two writers, Dr. Carl Bogardus (1977-80) of Warsaw, Kentucky, and Claude Brown (1956) of Switzerland County, Indiana, though their work was never published except in serial form in local newspapers. (See Selected Sources.)

Information was found in newspaper reports of the events of that night at Rayl’s Landing from publications as far-flung as Lawrence, Kansas; Concord, New Hampshire; New York; Philadelphia; and beyond. New facts were found in the memoir of Marcus Toney, the biography of Ole Bull and from Dan Back, steamboat historian.

Some of the material derived from these sources was found to be contradictory. For example, most sources agreed that these two steamboats made two stops on their nightly runs from Cincinnati to Louisville, and vice versa. One stop was at Madison, Indiana, but some of the references indicated the second stop was at Aurora, Indiana, while others stated it was Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Because whiskey was loaded onto the United States at this stop on this night, and Lawrenceburg was well known for its spirit distillation industry, beginning in 1847, this town was chosen as the correct location.

Also, Mary Johnson was listed by some references as being from Madison, Indiana, and others stated she was a Louisville, Kentucky girl. Eva Jones was variously reported as being from Tallahassee and Pensacola, and her mother’s name in some references was Hattie, and in others Nellie.

Some survivors found to their consternation that newspaper articles had reported their deaths in the tragedy. Ole Bull’s biography, by Haugen and Cai, claimed he and his troupe were going downriver that night, which would have been impossible if they were traveling from Louisville to their next engagement at Cincinnati.

Perhaps most unusual is the statement in Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994, which one reader called “the Sine Qua Non for anyone studying the steamboats of the western waters,” that the night of the disaster was “clear,” which contradicts all the other sources concerning the weather on that night. Also, the same source differs from others as to the movements of the United States immediately following the collision.

These problems should not be surprising considering the emotional state of witnesses involved in those desperate moments of the disaster, the difficulty encountered by reporters trying to get to the scene and the frailties of human memory as time passes following a tragic incident.

The author wishes to thank Linda Weaver of Alcoa, Tennessee, a retired writer and editor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Linda gave the manuscript a thorough edit, inserted the images and gave valuable advice along the way.

Don Morrison, Maryville, Tennessee, April, 2017

Prelude

On the afternoon of December 4th, 1868, Marcus Toney bought a ticket from Cincinnati down to Louisville on the steamer United States. The United States, like her sister boat, the America, was a state-of-the-art steamboat in the evening trade between Cincinnati and Louisville on the Ohio River. Both of these wooden-hulled boats were built and owned by the U. S. Mail Line Company, based in Cincinnati. One of the sisters embarked from Cincinnati every evening and the other left Louisville so that they passed during the night, usually near Rayl’s Landing on the Indiana side not far from the village of Florence, Indiana, and across from the larger town of Warsaw, Kentucky. These large steamers made no landings on the way except at Lawrenceburg and Madison, both on the Indiana side.

Artist’s rendition of a wharfboat, probably at Cincinnati, between the shoreline and a steamboat as it originally appeared in Harper’s Weekly, circa mid-19th century.

Together these boats were the most formidable rivals of the railroads at that time. As boats became larger and steamboat trade on the Ohio became more competitive after the war, and as more of the obstacles in the river had been removed, the larger boats no longer tied up at the shore at night, but continued on their way throughout the hours of darkness. At five-thirty in the evening, the United States, which had been in service for two-and-a-half years, was scheduled to cast off her lines from the wharfboat at the foot of Vine Street in Cincinnati.

Wharfboats were used as staging platforms for loading and unloading steamboats. A boat was needed for the purpose, rather than a fixed wharf, because it could rise and fall with the river stage, just as the boats did. Large ports like Cincinnati and Louisville built huge wharfboats that equaled the size of large steamboats. Smaller river towns built more modest structures for freight handling, and some of the lesser steamboat stops were likely to use wharfboats repurposed from steamboats that had gone out of service. The worn or damaged bows and sterns were cut off and bulkheaded up. Weak places were patched and the interiors stripped to become cavernous bays for the staging of freight to be onloaded to, and offloaded from, packet boats, which were steamers that carried freight, mail, and passengers. Each small port of call up and down the river had its own version of a wharfboat. A pilot who could land a big wind-catching steamboat alongside one of these structures in bad weather without sinking his steamer, the wharfboat, or both, won the admiration of the kids and old men who hung about the wharf at river towns along the way.

At the Cincinnati Mail Line wharfboat, deckhands, usually Irishmen or Negroes, carried the freight from an arriving boat onto the wharfboat and stacked it in piles, or tiers, so that it could be loaded onto drays and hauled away. When the incoming freight had been unloaded, the rousters would start reloading the boat.

In preparation for the reloading, a procession of big four-wheel drays from warehouses of the shipping companies came down the bank and onto the wharfboat. These drays had low, heavy wooden wheels with iron tires and were drawn by teams of draft horses. The noise from many of these drays rolling over the rough cobblestone levy could drown out other wharfside sounds. They rumbled up across the wooden landing stage and into the wharfboat, the horses’ hooves thumping on the uneven oak planks. The deckhands, if they were Negroes, would often break into a coonjine, or rhythmic song, that gave their work a cadence and provided a diversion for boarding passengers.

While the loading was in progress, the passengers began to arrive, Marcus Toney among them. He stood at the rail a few minutes, back to the wind, collar of his heavy coat turned up, black bowler hat clamped on his head and gloves protecting his hands from the freezing metal railing. He looked down on the bustling beehive below as the drays came down making their deafening way across the rough levy, and roustabouts transferred their heavy loads from the wharfboat onto the steamer.

The young man drew a deep breath and tried to parse the myriad odors that wafted over the waterfront in the swirling wind. The redolence of hot grease from supper cooking in the wharfside eateries and the smell of coal smoke from the banked fireboxes of the United States were easy to identify. All of it was overlaid with the stench of waste from the slaughterhouses that was routinely dumped into the river. Even these foul smells brought a smile to Mr. Toney’s face. It was good to be traveling, seeing new things, noticing sights and sounds he hadn’t really considered in years, and without thoughts of the recent war and prison on his mind. He relished the idea that at the end of his journey he would be home in Nashville visiting his parents and siblings. For him life was becoming normal again. He had a good job, and he was looking forward to a few days off.

Soon tiring of the blustery wind and rain, Marcus went down the stairs to watch freight being loaded onto the lower deck by the rousters and deckhands. The inside of the wharfboat was especially gloomy on this December evening. Twilight had come early and the interior of the place was lighted only by coal oil lanterns swinging from above. Outside on the river the cold wind whipped up angry whitecaps, and gusts swept in the open doors of the wharfboat. The freight clerk hustled about his duties in a long, heavy overcoat and a hat that came down over his ears. He warmed his fingers with his breath.

Oliver Noble, the mate, could be heard above the din and clatter roaring his orders to the rousters and deckhands. People unversed in the ways of steamboat men thought he was overbearing, but he was expert in the use of mate’s English and the laborers thought him eloquent.

Inside the lower deck of the United States deck hands took the freight from the rousters who carried, dragged, or rolled it on board. Among the cargo being loaded were twenty-five or thirty wooden barrels, painted blue and marked “coal oil.” The barrels were rolled over the steel plate at the lower end of the wooden stage and up into the boat. This type of freight had to be carried in a place with good air circulation, so they were headed up, and some of them stowed in single tiers outside the baggage room of the boat. Other barrels were stowed in a single tier on the forecastle, some eight feet forward of the front steps to the upper deck, and near the capstan.

Mr. Toney noticed other passengers arriving. Out-of-town travelers came down in horse-drawn hacks from the Spencer House, the Burnet House, and smaller hotels. Wealthy Cincinnatians came in their own carriages drawn by beautiful horses made more spirited by the chilly weather. Homeward bound shoppers from smaller downriver towns trudged down over the levy on foot. There were no crowds coming down to wish their kinfolk and associates goodbye and to linger until the boat departed. On this winter evening only the passengers’ closest friends and family braved the miserable weather.

Up in the boat’s office, Purser Robert Riley was on hand to greet the passengers and to assign them their staterooms. Riley was quite popular, personally acquainted with many of the businessmen passengers from Cincinnati, Louisville, and Madison. He looked up to see his friends, Captain John Scott and his wife, both well known around Cincinnati.

The Scotts had brought a couple of ladies down to embark on the United States, Mrs. Nellie Jones, a youthful-appearing lady and a cousin of the Scotts, along with her daughter, Eva, about twenty and also good-looking. Mother and daughter were from Pensacola, Florida. The Scotts put the two ladies under the care of another cousin, Captain Joe McCammant, for the trip down to Louisville.

Shortly after the Scotts bade the Jones ladies goodbye, fifty-two year old Captain Richard Wade tapped the big bell on the roof, and the Negro deckhands, called “darkies” by the boat’s officers, dragged the lines back on board. Jacob Remlein was on watch in the pilot house. He signaled the engine room from the bellstand and maneuvered the United States slowly away from the wharfboat. He stepped on the whistle treadle, sending echoes of the departure signal rolling out over the dark lowlands. He rounded the vessel to and proceeded downriver under full steam. The boat clerk’s list showed 168 passengers and crew on board, but due to the weather, not all who had bought tickets actually boarded for Louisville.

To the few hardy souls who stayed on the waterfront to see the departure of the United States, she was soon lost in darkness. Likewise, to Marcus Toney and the others on the boat the shore line made a pale presentation with only the oil-fueled street lights and lamps glowing dimly from windows to be seen through the murky rain and darkness.

Dropping down the river, battling the headwind at a speed of twelve to fifteen miles per hour, the United States passed Sedamsville, edged by the dark shadows of the hills behind Modoc Bar, and on past the mouth of the Big Miami River.

At Lawrenceburg she put in and picked up a shipment of whiskey in wooden barrels. They were rolled up the stage and set head-up on the forecastle next to the coal oil barrels. The rain was now freezing on the decks. The deckhands howled as the wind drove the stinging drops against their faces. Oliver Noble’s harsh voice urged the men to speed up their work. There was no coonjine during this loading.

After leaving a landing, Noble would often go up to visit with the pilot, but he had his little boy, Lon, making the trip with him. He was up in the Texas, asleep in his father’s room. The Texas was the top deck just below the pilot house where some of the officers and crew had their sleeping quarters. These top decks began to appear on new steamboats around 1845, the year Texas was admitted to the Union, whence the name. Oliver went up to the Texas, joined his son, and turned in for the night. Down in the baggage room Elijah Forte, a Negro porter, snoozed in a large chair. He’d experienced a boiler explosion on the General Lytle two years ago. After that experience he took out a $6,000 life insurance policy and kept it paid up.

One observer noted that this night was “dark as a dungeon” and “the wind had fangs.” Pilot Jake Remlein drove the prow of the United States into the heavy swells rolling up the reach, or channel, below Aurora. She shuddered as her lead plowed into the waves. River captains and pilots say December nights are the blackest and longest of the year. And no nights are darker or lonelier, they say, than nights up in that glass cage with the wind driving rain against the window panes, high up above the unseen muddy waters of the river, no path visible ahead, no shoreline in sight, just the inky shadows of the hills. A steamboat pilot needed to know the river, her moods, her depths, her winding course, like a horse knows his way home at night.

The captain knew that on the deck below the Texas, in the staterooms, most of the passengers were sleeping, trusting his skill and steady hand. In the high-ceilinged cabin on the same deck a dance was in progress. Two bridal couples had been discovered on board and a celebration was arranged in their honor. One couple was elderly, the other young.

Four thrones were set up at the back of the ladies’ cabin for the newlyweds using an arrangement of chairs covered with tapestry provided by the cabin crew. A magician gave an impromptu exhibition of his skill, and an Italian orchestra, employed by the Mail Line, played favorite songs of the day and waltzes that brought dancers to the floor. Melodies wafted through the long cabin, and the crystal chandeliers with crimson shades provided a soft glow from frescoed beams overhead. The dancers bowed as they passed the two honored couples.

Marcus Toney noticed that all eyes of the passengers were on two beautiful girls in the ballroom that night. They nearly stole the limelight from the brides, and the young men lined up to dance with them. One of the ladies was a Madison girl, Mary Johnson, the beloved daughter of Colonel A.Y. Johnson. Col. Johnson had sent Mary’s cousin, Lewis Johnson, to Cincinnati to accompany his long-absent daughter on the last leg of her journey home. Mary had been introduced to Eva Jones during the wedding celebration. They quickly became friends and were the belles of the evening. Eva’s mother, Nellie, sat on the sidelines with Joe McCammant.

Captain Wade came down from the pilothouse to preside over the festivities, leaving pilot Jake Remlein at the wheel. Along the side, businessmen were seated in little groups discussing the topics of the day, and a small group of men from Madison stood in the gangway near the barber shop watching the gay proceedings and talking casually to each other. Marcus Toney joined this group.

Mr. Toney listened to the conversation and watched the other young people whirling and stepping spritely on the ballroom floor. He saw Mary Johnson and Eva Jones coming toward him, chatting happily as they returned from the powder room. One of the Madison men mentioned Mary’s name to the others when they saw the girls approaching. Marcus smiled and bowed slightly as the girls passed. His eyes followed them as they made their way onto the dance floor and were immediately engaged in bright conversation by two young gents.

Captain Wade looked toward the windows of the salon, and out into the darkness. A barely discernable look of apprehension crept into his eyes just before he turned and graciously took leave of the three ladies who had been speaking with him. He then stepped outside and went up on the roof to look things over. What he saw did not encourage him. The black clouds overhead had turned gray, indicating the moon had risen, but visibility had not improved.

The captain had consulted his almanac and knew tonight’s moon had risen at 8:22 PM, would set at 11:40 AM the next day, and that it was a three-quarter moon, in the waning gibbous stage and three days past full. Were it not for the heavy cloud cover the visibility would have been quite good, but the mist and rain and gray conditions made it difficult for the pilot and captain to judge distances accurately. In spite of the weather, pilot Remlein and the pilot in training, Bill Turpin, seemed to have things under control, so the captain returned to the festivities below. The other pilot, John Hamilton, was resting in his room in the Texas. He was due to go on duty in the pilot house in a little less than an hour, at eleven o’clock.

Below in the engine room, Charles Marshall was in charge of the watch. He had his engines working smoothly, rolling the big wheels over with that uneven rhythm peculiar to sidewheelers. The boat pushed into the wind and down past Patriot, a village on the Indiana side. Charles’s brother, Chief Engineer Arrin Marshall, was asleep in the Texas, also due to come on duty at eleven.

Some railroad men among the passengers complained to Captain Wade that the noise of the party outside their doors so late at night was keeping them awake. The hands of the big clock in the cabin pointed to half past ten. Captain Wade then stopped the entertainment, and most of the revelers retired to their rooms.