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
Captain Whitten hurried down on the roof from the pilothouse of the America just before the two boats crashed. When they collided, the only damage done to the America was that her jackstaff was knocked down. Captain Whitten ran behind one of the chimneys to avoid being hit as it fell. He came out from behind the chimney and directed Jenkins to run the America in to the Indiana shore, which he did.
When the America struck the front of the United States she climbed up three or four feet on her forecastle. The razor-sharp ironclad prow of the America had struck the United States on her port side a few feet from her bow and cut into her wooden forecastle deck and the cross timbers that supported it. The United States was nearly cut in two on a diagonal of some thirty-six feet, forcing some of the planking off her starboard side. The America’s prow crashed through the baggage room, which on steamboats was always under the main stairway near the bow, and finally came to rest there. Elijah Forte was killed instantly as he slept in his chair. The America then backed out and settled back in the water at her sister’s bow. She vibrated from stem to stern, then continued backing toward the Indiana shore.
With her engines in reverse and backing strong, the America left a ragged triangular opening from the forecastle deck down to the bottom of the United States. The two tiers of wooden barrels of coal oil and whiskey in the path of the America’s prow burst and splintered, their contents pouring down over the deck and under the bulkhead and coal box toward the fireboxes.
The sweating firemen had been feeding the fireboxes. Parts of the furnaces glowed cherry red, as if they had just come out of a forge. The bulkhead behind the men hid the approaching America from their view, and when the collision came, they staggered and fell. They had no time to save themselves before the oil and whiskey reached the furnace and engulfed them in flames.
The fumes from the hot volatile liquids rushed ahead, and a raging fire rose up on the forward deck. The cargo of both steamers included other flammable materials such as cotton, hay, brooms and bacon. In seconds the entire forward cabin of the United States was an inferno, the flames leaping as high as the tops of her chimneys. An excited person opened the front door of the cabin. The flames rushed in with a roar and went hissing on down through the cabin. Some passengers were trampled and cremated on the spot, while others were fortunate enough to get outside on the guards and gain a little time.
Guards on a steamboat were extensions of the main deck out from the hull. They were originally adopted for sidewheel steamers to protect the paddle wheels and to provide a mounting point for the outer ends of the paddle wheel axles. The main deck planking extended out over the guards, and when a steamboat was fully loaded, riding deep in the water, it often appeared that the edges of the guards marked the line of the hull. For example, the large steamer Jacob Strader, built in 1853 for the Mail Line, and a predecessor of the United States and the America, had a hull only 27.5 feet wide, but when measured over the guards her main deck was 69 feet across! The Strader was an extreme case, but it was common for guards to make the main deck 50 to 75 per cent wider than the hull. Guards also gave extra storage space for freight and fuel and provided a place for passengers to promenade.
Guards could make the steamboat dangerously unstable, and with the type of boilers in use on western boats at the time, a list of even ten or twelve inches to one side could cause the boilers to malfunction, which, if prolonged, could result in an explosion. This made it dangerous, for example, when passengers would crowd to one side of a boat to observe an attraction.
Even at that, of those passengers who escaped to the guards of the United States many had not time to jump into the river. Some people wandered about in a daze, as others rushed headlong into the flames! One passenger on the United States said the progress of the fire from the bow of the boat to her stern was about as fast as a man could walk.
As the America backed away from the blazing United States, the latter boat was also trying to get in to the Indiana shore, but the America was blocking her. This caused the United States to drift downstream broadside to the current and the two boats came together a second time and lay side by side, both headed upstream, as the United States sank in shallow water. Passengers and crew of the United States began jumping down to the lower deck of the America, a distance of at least fifteen feet, but the fire had now spread to the river side of the forward cabin of the America, as well. The America’s crew fought valiantly to put out the fire, but the force of the wind soon had the fire raging all over the upper works.
On the America, Captain David Whitten, standing on the hurricane deck (the roof of the Texas), observed the plight of the passengers and crew of the stricken United States. He disregarded danger to his own boat, passengers, and crew, and told Pilot Jenkins to steer her again to the side of her sister boat, where he attempted to hold her. Flames leapt over to her from the United States, but Whitten’s heroic action saved many lives, even though it caused the total loss of the America.
The America’s engines had backed for over a minute prior to the collision and they continued backing for some time afterward. The great wheels of both steamers had wildly thrashed the water in reverse, but they collided before the momentum of either boat could be overcome. When the collision occurred, the sister boats were about 100 yards below Rayl’s Landing. The America’s engines continued working until the boat was made fast to the Indiana shore.
But for the presence of the many barrels of flammable liquid at the very point of impact, fire would not have resulted and there would likely have been few fatalities. Captain Charles Wade of the United States later said that were it not for the fire, he could have run his boat ashore and saved almost everything. About the time the fire spread to the forecastle of the America, the burning liquids ran off the deck of the United States. Soon the surface of the river was covered with a sheet of flame.
Pilot Napoleon Jenkins, the engineer James Holmes, and the clerk W. T. Taylor, all of the America, distinguished themselves in the minutes after the collision. Many passengers on the America owed their lives to one or more of this heroic trio. Taylor saved the actual passenger list, not just the list of people who bought tickets, which later allowed an accounting that revealed only four persons had perished on the America. He then went through the cabin breaking open doors of the staterooms and helping passengers escape. Jenkins stood at his wheel while the hissing, crackling flames closed around him. James Holmes, too, stayed at his post until the very last when Jenkins rang him off (released him from duty). Only when the America was secure against the Indiana shore did Jenkins and Holmes leave their posts to avoid suffocation and make their way to safety.
Another brave spirit was the Third Clerk of the United States, James Johns, 23, of Louisville. In the Cincinnati Enquirer of December 6th, it was reported that until the last moment before he was driven by the flames to abandon his work, he provided several ladies and children of the doomed vessel with life preservers. Just before he leapt into the river he was heard to say that he could not swim, but by that time there was no helping hand left to save the young hero.
Sadly, an account in the Cincinnati Gazette dated December 9th stated, “The body of James W. Johns, receiving clerk on the United States, was recovered. It is said he was the last man to leave the boat. He kept with the ladies, placing life preservers around them until the vessel was ready to sink. After working to the last moment to save the lives of others, he found it too late to save himself. He perished in the flames of the burning oil on the surface of the water. Mr. Johns died a hero.” He was rightly honored for his work saving others, but his passenger register was destroyed in the fire.