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
The loss of the two state of the art Mail Line boats left the company without enough boats to carry on their business. On the day following the disaster, T.G. Gaylord, of David Gibson and Company, offered them the use of their boat, the St. Charles. The offer was accepted and the entire crew of the America was placed on the St. Charles, except Napoleon Jenkins. In Jenkins’s place, Captain Charles Dufour returned to his regular job and was placed on the St. Charles as pilot. Several other boats had their itineraries changed to meet the needs of the Mail Line Company.
The Board of Steamboat Inspectors convened at Cincinnati almost immediately after the disaster to investigate the tragic accident. After interviewing many surviving passengers, officers, and crew of the two ill-fated steamers, they published their findings on February 15, 1869, in a ten-page Official Report.
Many accounts of the incident have appeared in print over the years since it happened, but author Dr. Carl Bogardus, of Warsaw, Kentucky, who wrote Glimpses Into The Past On The Ohio River in 1977-1980, considered the Inspectors’ Report to be the most accurate description of the tragedy and its causes up to that time.
In 1868, three documents were required of each steamboat in service on the Ohio River: the Enrollment Document, the Inspectors’ Certificate and the License of a vessel above 20 tons. During the investigation of the accident all three documents were produced by the company for each boat, and they were up to date. These documents had been mandated by the Steamboat Inspection Service that was created by an Act of Congress in July, 1838. The law provided for an “Annual inspection of hulls, boilers, machinery and general equipment of vessels subject to steamboat inspection laws.” Unfortunately, the law did not provide for enforcement, or fines for violations. In any event, the two boats involved in the Rayl’s Landing tragedy appeared to be in compliance with the law, and the accident was not blamed on faulty equipment.
At least some of the litigation arising from the accident was conducted at Vevay, Indiana, the county seat of Switzerland County, on whose shore the wrecked vessels came to rest. At the time of this writing the originals of the three required documents for both the United States and the America are on display at the “Life on the Ohio” River History Museum in Vevay, Indiana. The documents may have been inadvertently left at Vevay after the lawsuits were concluded.
Most newspaper accounts of the collision placed all the blame on Pilot Jenkins’s head and none on Remlein, but the report of Steamboat Inspectors H.H. Devenny and C.W. Fisher stated otherwise. “Mr. Remlein, pilot of the United States, violated the requirement of Rule One in that he signaled before hearing that of the ascending boat, which we consider the prime cause of the collision.”
Among the principal findings of the Report were: “After a careful review of the testimony it is the opinion of the Board that the pilots on both boats were at fault. The pilot of the America, when he first signaled, blew two sounds of the whistle, and while sounding the first blast, that of the United States was evidently also blown, one sound simultaneously, and ceasing with the first sound of the America’s whistle, which entirely prevented the pilot of the United States from hearing it. Hearing only the second sound blown at that time by the America, he came ahead.”
The Report went on to state, “Mr. Jenkins, pilot of the America, admits hearing but one whistle in answer to the whistles blown by him . . . he also continued to come ahead after the whistles were exchanged (and before he ordered engines reversed) . . . at which time the two boats were but 400 yards apart. This was a clear violation of Rule Two, which states that if the signals are not received and understood by the time the boats are 800 yards apart, both pilots must stop until the whistles are understood before proceeding. Jenkins then should have stopped the engines and checked his headway until the proper signals were given and understood.”
The law did empower the inspectors to suspend licenses of pilots in cases where they were found negligent. The Inspectors, H.H. Devenny and C.W. Fisher, concluded their report by stating, “Both pilots were experienced and were also skilled in their profession, but in this case the collision could have been avoided . . . and because of their failure to abide by the rules . . . we hereby revoke the licenses of Jacob Remlein and Napoleon B. Jenkins to act as pilots of steamboats from the date hereof.”
The U.S. Mail Line Company made an effort to reimburse passengers and crew members for their losses, compensated those “Good Samaritans” who aided the victims, paid medical and burial bills, and covered the costs for Coroners’ Inquests. Many lawsuits were filed against the company, but only in Indiana courts. The cases dragged on for many years, and just when matters seemed settled by offers from the company, the question arose as to where the accident actually occurred, Indiana or Kentucky. Earlier rulings had supported Kentucky’s claim that its territory extended to the shoreline on the Indiana side of the river. This caused the whole affair to be thrown out of the courts.
There were also loud complaints from the participants in the litigation that H.H. Devenny, one of the two inspectors in the case, had never served in any operational role on a steamboat, and was thus unqualified to rule in the case.