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


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.

This week’s installment concludes Morrison’s series.


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

Historical Perspective

In 1875, James Stewart bought the Indiana farm bordering on Bryant’s Creek and the Ohio River, the former Rayl farm. Tenants on his farm were an African-American family. The old grandmother once said, shaking her head solemnly and pointing to the scene of the steamboat disaster, “I never look over that way after dark!” One day her grandson was down on the bank of the river poking around for shells when he unearthed the case of a small gold watch. Inside the lid was engraved “Dora Cook.” This find came to the notice of the editor of the Vevay Reveille, W.J. Baird, and he printed a story about it, adding questions as to who Dora Cook might have been. Other papers copied the story and presently letters came from a Mrs. Cook and a Mr. McFerrin, of St. Louis. It was their daughter and son, respectively, who were the younger of the bridal couples on board the United States, and neither survived. On identification, the watch case was sent to Mrs. Cook and the finder was suitably rewarded.

The following article was brought to light in the publication Northern Kentucky Views around 2015. It was apparently found in a newspaper printed in a community near the site of the wreck. From the statement that the lamp had been in the water 27 years after the 1868 collision, the newspaper clipping probably dated from 1895.

“During the low water and the pleasant weather of the past couple of weeks there have been quite a number of visitors to the wreck of the steamer America, which lies at the mouth of Bryant’s Creek. The double-cabined steamers America and United States collided about Bryant’s Creek the night of December 4, 1868.

“Both parts of the ill-fated (America) are plain to be seen now, and nearly every day parties go there to dig for relics, and usually get something of value. (For example,) several silver strainer spoons used in the bar (were found). The lamp (that was found) was half-filled with coal oil, and although it had been in the water twenty-seven years, it is still in serviceable condition. Several other articles of value were found and all were in good condition. There was quite a large crowd at the wreck Sunday afternoon, Vevay, Florence, Markland, and Warsaw being well represented. The hulk is covered with mud and drift and everything of value is obtained by digging or dragging in the water.”

In 1934, Mrs. Belle Summons Brown, a septuagenarian living at Warsaw, vividly remembered that as a child of ten she and her family saw the two burning steamers from the upstairs window of their house, two miles above Warsaw. She said to her father, William Summons, “It’s the Aurora Borealis.” Her father said, “Aurora Borealis, hell, it’s a steamboat fire!” In three-quarters of an hour it was over. Both boats had burned to the waterline and all survivors were on the Indiana shore. The conflagration had lighted the sky, visible for miles around, and now it had receded to darkness again.

Mr. James Stewart told a visitor to his farm in the 1940s that in order to show their appreciation for the help rendered the survivors of the tragedy by Elias Rayl and his family, the U.S. Mail Line gave them passes good for any time and any place on their boats. At that time in the 1940s no one named Rayl lived on or near their original farm.

In the 1950s Robert McCann, purser on the steamer Delta Queen, told a passenger that following the disaster, the U.S. Mail Line, to further show their appreciation for the kindnesses of the Rayl family, had their ship’s carpenters build the Rayls a new house. This house was damaged by the 1937 flood and the porch torn away, but it stood until 1954. The U.S. Mail Line spelled the name “Rail,” and Elias Rayl said, “If the company wants it that way, then that’s the way it will be.” The navigation charts continued showing that location, until at least the 1970s, as “Rails Landing Light.”

The losses to all parties were great. The company lost two of its finest steamers, and the insurance payments were far from enough to replace them. Still, the company was in sound financial condition and continued rendering service between Cincinnati and Louisville until the Great Depression forced it out of business in 1931.