The Passing Point 5-11-17


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.


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, Part 2

The other boat, America, was upbound from Louisville that night with 192 passengers who braved the weather, and crew. Built at Cincinnati in 1867, she was even newer, larger, and finer than the United States. Together the magnificent sister boats had cost a half-million dollars, and were insured for half their construction costs. From the 1820s to 1868 the Mail Line Company had prospered without the loss of a single boat, a marvelous record.

In the early days of steamboat navigation, beginning in the teens and early twenties of the 19th Century, individuals and small companies built and ran steamboats. Some of these were poorly constructed, and they operated with unskilled crews. Owners’ greed for quick profits and the reckless nature of the captains accounted for many steamboat accidents. In those early days the western rivers were full of snags and other uncharted obstacles, which were deadly hazards for boats. Also, fires, boiler explosions, and collisions resulted in gruesome accidents. There were few navigation regulations until years later. In view of these facts, it was remarkable that the U. S. Mail Line, which began packet boat operation in 1820, was able to compile such an exemplary safety record.

During the Civil War, packet boat service was interrupted. The Union Army pressed many steamboats into war service. They were part of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan,” on rivers and coastlines ringing the Confederacy, whereby the Southern forces would be blockaded against naval imports by the Union’s stronger navy. Some of the commandeered steamers were used to transport supplies and ammunition, and others were outfitted as rams and gunboats. When the war ended the U. S. Mail Line saw the need for even larger and faster boats for the civilian trade, so they built the United States and the America.

Among the notable passengers on the America that evening, as she prepared to cast off from Louisville, was the celebrated Norwegian violinist Ole Bull and his troupe of musicians. They were scheduled to give a concert at Cincinnati the next evening at Pike’s Music Hall. Mr. Christopher G. Pearce, president of the Mail Line Company, was also on board. He had been captain and pilot on riverboats for thirty years. Another steamboat man, Captain Charles Nichols, of Covington, Kentucky, was a passenger on the America headed for Cincinnati that evening.

The America had a very sharp prow with an iron covering tightly attached over her bow and on down to her bottom where it extended toward her stern as far back as her sidewheels. Captain David Whitten was her master. He had been on the river over forty years, for part of that time commanding gunboats on the Mississippi during the war.

The two regular pilots on the America were Charles Ditman of Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Charles Dufour of Ghent, Kentucky. A few days previous to this, Dufour had gone home for a few days on a short leave, and Napoleon Jenkins came on board to relieve him for three round trips. Jenkins would stand watch in the pilot house until eleven PM, when Ditman would take over.

Jenkins, though an experienced pilot, was an elderly man and a substitute pilot for occasions such as this. He had been in trouble three years before, when the Major Anderson, which Jenkins was piloting, collided with the St. Charles at Cooper’s Bar below Hanover, Indiana. As a result of that accident, his license and that of John Hamilton of Vevay, who was on watch with him at the time, were suspended for thirty days. Napoleon Jenkins was also illiterate, which may not have enhanced his credentials as a pilot.

At the appointed hour that evening, Captain Whitten tapped the bell and the lines were thrown off. With much “scaping” of spent steam, Jenkins eased the America away from the Louisville wharfboat and she was soon on her way up the river. With the west wind pushing her broad stern and her smoke blowing straight out in front of her she might have been making ten miles per hour against the current, or a little more when running directly before the wind. When she reached Grassy Flats, seventeen miles above Louisville, the wind became stronger, and on past Eighteen Mile Island, Westport, and Bethlehem it continued unabated. From there on up to Madison the country was very dark on that cloudy winter night. The hillsides, which in some places come right down to the water’s edge, were heavily wooded and farmhouses were few. In 1868 there were no headlights on the boats and no autos with lights on riverside roads.

The America’s superstructure stood high above the water like a sail, which caused the boat to slide away from the channel when the wind hit her broadside in the bends. Up in the creaking glass pilot house it took all of Jenkins’s skill to keep her in the channel. Boats like the sisters America and United States were shallow-drafted and flat-bottomed, having no keels to steady them against the wind.

Down in the engine room Engineer James Holmes watched his gauges. The cook house was closed after dinner was served, but there was food on the galley table for night lunches for the crew. In the office the freight clerk was balancing his books under the amber glow of a shaded coal oil lamp. Groups of men sat around in the passenger cabin and swapped yarns. Mr. Pearce, president of the Mail Line, had retired to his room, no doubt secure in his knowledge that his company had the best boats, officers, and crews on the river.

Ole Bull, a gregarious man, chatted with his new friends at the bar, having introduced himself by properly pronouncing his name as “Ol-uh Bool,” not “Old Bull,” as some Americans called him. They told him tales of the river and legends of the many boats that had burned or were sunk by snags or storms. They spoke of others destroyed by boiler explosions, such as the Moselle at Cincinnati in April, 1838 and the Lucy Walker below New Albany in October, 1844. In this disaster, large pieces of iron were hurled out over bordering cornfields and human bodies were torn asunder.

The Norwegian violinist said he did not fear storms or accidents, but that tonight he would follow his usual custom. When traveling on boats or the cars, he said, he always slept in his clothes in order to be prepared for a hasty exit if the need arose.

Madison came into view, not the modern town with its electric lights, but the ancient Madison, shrouded by dark hills, and with its dim candles and coal oil lamps. After the routine stop at Madison, Jenkins’s sidewheeler continued upriver, powering past Brooksburg, Carrollton, and Vevay. Along this stretch of the river there were broader and more frequent bottomlands between the river and bordering hills. These places were not regular landing points for the grand sister steamers. Cincinnati, Madison, and Louisville packets, smaller boats, made these villages.

With Neb Jenkins still at the wheel, the America moved on up past Warsaw. One writer characterized this section of the river with the understatement, “The channel was somewhat devious at this point.” The pilot pulled the head of the America out as she approached the wreck of the sternwheeler Tom Scott, sunk in 1863. Large boils in the water marked the wreck site, near the lower end of the place where the channel crossed over to the Indiana side toward Rayl’s Landing.

It was in this same double bend of the river that the Telegraph collided with the brand new Kentucky Home in 1855, and sank her. Also, the Lady Walton and the Norman collided and sank here. If those weren’t sufficient hazards for pilots, add to these obstacles a sunken barge and a large bar with exposed rocks at the mouth of Bryant’s Creek on the Indiana side.

Ahead, Jenkins saw dim lights of a steamboat coming down as he made the crossing. He later stated that he did not see the signal lights of the United States, only the lights from her cabin and furnace doors. He judged the lights to be about two miles distant, and he soon made out the ghostly form of the United States approaching. He judged she was making about twelve miles an hour. The stage of the river at this point was about seventeen feet in the channel.

Captain David Whitten was in the pilot house with Jenkins. When the pilot recognized the approaching lights he remarked to the captain, “Yonder comes Uncle Dick now,” meaning Captain Richard Wade of the United States.

Pilot Remlein on the United States said he saw the signal lights and the lights from the cabin and fire doors of the America at about the same time. He steered down the channel, which here favored the Indiana side and was straight and about four hundred yards wide on down to Rayl’s Landing. From there the channel crossed to the Kentucky side where the America was then crossing, coming up.

The America completed the crossing, and Jenkins had her straightened up with the Indiana shore, about a hundred yards out. He said he believed the United States to be a little farther out from the Indiana shore, and coming straight down. He judged the boats were about a mile apart when he blew two long and distinct whistles about three seconds apart, and at the same time gave the America the wheel toward the left, or Indiana shore.

By Rule One of the steamboat navigation manual, when two boats prepare to pass, the upbound boat must signal first as to which side she wishes to pass on, one whistle if she intends to pass to her right, two if to the left. Having sounded two whistles, Jenkins announced his intention to pass the United States between her and the Indiana shore.

But the regular-duty pilots of the two steamers had a long-standing, unfailing routine for passing each other when they met near Rayl’s Landing. Always the upbound boat kept to the Kentucky side of the channel, and the downbound steamer hugged the Indiana shore. What Jake Remlein, pilot of the United States, did not know was that the America’s regular pilot was not on duty this night. Neb Jenkins decided to pass the downbound boat in his own way, which was actually his prerogative, according to Rule One.

Pilot Remlein had expected the ascending boat to signal for sides by blowing her whistle, but he grew impatient when the signal from the America did not come as early as he thought necessary. This observation was possibly due to the poor visibility on this “gray night.” Consequently, Remlein signaled first, giving his customary one sound of his whistle, indicating he would take the Indiana side.

Unfortunately, at the instant Remlein sounded his one whistle, it evidently coincided perfectly with the first of two whistles from the America. Thus, hearing only the second sound blown by the America, and supposing he had received one whistle in answer, he came ahead. But when he saw the America steer toward the Indiana side, he immediately rang his engineer to stop and back his engines. By the time the wheels of the United States had made only three or four revolutions in backing, Remlein saw it was too late.

Jenkins said later that he had the America going up the channel about where he wanted her to be, and the United States was coming down in the position he expected. Then he said, “The signal I heard from the United States was one whistle, which meant she wanted to take the same side I was taking. But the United States was to the right of me and less than a mile up the river.” Jenkins blew two whistles again, and rang the bells to stop the engines and back them strong. By then the boats were too close together, and the consequences were unavoidable.

Captain Whitten went to the front of the America’s pilot house, opened the window and shouted at the United States, though he could not be heard at that distance, “Where are you going! Stop that boat!” No reply was heard from the United States. Less than two minutes later the boats collided.