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.

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

Angels of Mercy

Lee Cohn, of Cincinnati, a passenger on the United States, said, “I came out of my stateroom and found flames all around me. I threw my coat onto the America as she drifted past us, then realized to save my life I would have to swim. I slid down a post to the lower deck, and there took off my boots and threw them in the river. I waited until a floating mass of burning wood passed me and then saw that the river was filled with people. I could see their heads and didn’t want to jump on them, so I waited until the left side of my face was licked by the flames. I could remain no longer, so I jumped in the river and swam to shore. I saw no one escape from the boat after I left.

“On shore I saw by the light of the fire a farmhouse in the distance. I finally reached this house barefooted and coatless and found the owners giving clothing and assistance to the large number of people who had found their way there.” This farmhouse was the residence of Elias Rayl and his family.

Among the first to arrive at the top of the riverbank at Rayl’s Landing after the collision were Elias Rayl and his wife and daughter, who had been awakened by the crash. Their home was closer to the landing than any other residence, a short distance back from the top of the riverbank. The Rayls were stunned for a moment until they saw people coming up the riverbank carrying the injured.

Mrs. Rayl and her daughter took charge, and with Eli’s assistance they led the slow procession to their house. The Rayls filled their beds with sufferers, then emptied their closets of quilts and blankets to make pallets on the floor. Mrs. Rayl tore up sheets and pillow cases for bandages. When her supplies were exhausted, she sent men on horseback scouring the neighborhood to borrow more. She assisted doctors when they arrived, bathed wounds, and applied soothing liniments and bandages. The Rayl home soon became a hospital, and many lives were saved, but as the night wore on, the house became for some a chamber of death.

The Rayls gladly stripped their house of anything that would be conducive to the comfort of those who made their escape from the burning wrecks. Other families within reach of the sufferers deprived themselves in the same manner.

When the Rayl house could hold no more, groups of men carried more victims to neighboring houses farther from the landing. John Fothergill searched among the survivors and found a dozen half-drowned men, many of them elderly, and helped revive them until they were able to follow him on foot to his home. There he warmed them before his fireplace, helped them remove their wet clothing, dressed them from his not-too-plentiful supply of clothes, and gave them food and coffee.

Captain Nichols was among Fothergill’s guests, and he later described his host as one of the kindest and least selfish men he had ever met. The Cincinnati Gazette, on December 7th stated, “Charles Nichols, of Covington, a pilot on the Minnie, had taken sick at Louisville and was returning home on the America. He was in the pilot house talking with Neb Jenkins, and when the steamer was near the wreck of the Thomas Scott along the Kentucky shore, just above Warsaw, he understood from the exchange of whistles that a collision was inevitable. He rushed to his room, got his overcoat, and was on the main deck when the crash came. He got safely to shore, and when he reached the Rayl’s farmhouse he could hear the bells ringing in Warsaw. Later he was interviewed and said, ‘The Rayl family treated me and the others mighty kindly. I was taken to the Fothergills’ farmhouse later, where with ten other men I spent the rest of the night. This family furnished all of us with clothing and wouldn’t charge a cent. Other survivors were given shelter at houses above Fothergills.'”

On December 9th, a map of the area of the collision was published in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette. It was drawn by Ashton Craig of Warsaw who was clerk on the C. T. Dumont, one of the rescue boats. It shows the locations of other nearby Indiana families near Rayl’s Landing with the names Fothergill, Snyder, Hickman, Woods, Campbell, and Harris.

When daylight came up slowly on Saturday morning, December 5th, the America did not arrive on time at the Mail Line wharfboat at Cincinnati. The morning wore on and still the big steamer did not appear.

At 9:30 AM a telegraph dispatch was received from the company president, Christopher G. Pearce, from Warsaw, Kentucky, stating the bare facts of the disaster, and that 100 lives were believed to have been lost.

The message included orders that the Mail Line steamer C. T. Dumont be sent from Cincinnati to the scene of the accident. The Dumont departed at once for Rayl’s Landing.

Little additional information followed for an agonizing period of time. There were no telephones, except along the railroad lines, which were at a great distance from the accident scene, and telegraph offices were very few. Existing roads were too narrow for anything much larger than riders on horseback, and they were rough and uneven in summer and quagmires in winter. River boats themselves were the fastest means of communication at that time.

In Cincinnati the bulletin board of the Cincinnati Gazette was surrounded all day by relatives and friends of passengers who had left Friday night or were expected Saturday morning. Saturday, Sunday and Monday were gloomy days in Cincinnati.

On Sunday, December 6th, the steamer S.B. Graham came up from Madison to pick up the injured from the Rayls’ and other homes, and the bodies of those identified as Madison residents.

Later on Monday it was announced that the steamer C.T. Dumont was due back in Cincinnati at 8 PM with survivors and some of the dead. Long before the appointed hour, a large crowd had gathered at the wharf in the raw and chilly weather. Then news came that the Dumont would be delayed until 11 PM. The crowd thinned, and many of the people went up the hill, but most had returned before 11 PM.

It was a solemn group of people, and even the sparse conversation was conducted in low tones. A young man who had applied for a clerk’s job on the United States on her last departure, and had almost been accepted, whispered to a friend how grateful he was to have been turned down. One lady on the wharf rushed to the river to board the United States as a passenger and had arrived too late. She got there just in time to see the boat rounding to, disappearing into the darkness on her last voyage. The lady was angry then, but tonight she was in a mood of quiet thanksgiving as she waited on the wharf.

It was almost midnight when from the darkness down the river came the long low whistle of the C.T. Dumont. Then the dim lights of her kerosene lamps became visible. The wharfboat doors opened, admitting the piercing wind, while in the hearts of those waiting hope was mixed with dread.

The people crowded to the edge of the wharfboat guards, heedless of danger. The rousters tried unsuccessfully to hold them back. The timbers of the wharfboat creaked as swells from the wheels rushed under the wharf.

Someone on the boiler deck of the boat called, “Oh, Jim, Jim!” as the Dumont approached, and Jim on the wharf gave one great shout, but could say no more, for he was weeping like a child. The crew could hardly make the boat fast for the crowd surging on board and up the forward stairway.

What a scene! Joyous reunion with survivors, heartbreak for those who found their dead from the tiers of those who had drowned or whose remains were charred by the fire, and the despair of those whose loved ones were not there.

The town of Warsaw also witnessed the suffering, heartbreak, and hope of many. Quoting from the Madison Courier of December 8th, “The scene at Warsaw beggars description: relatives searching for each other, the injured screaming with pain, ladies having perforce to go to bed while their linen was being dried. Clothing was brought by the open-handed and warm-hearted citizens of Warsaw, and everything was done to make them as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, including medical care by Dr. Baxter, of Warsaw.” People here in the Border Country along the Ohio, often divided by loyalties to opposing sides in the Civil War, now worked shoulder to shoulder with their neighbors in serving the needs of these helpless victims of the disaster.

Ole Bull, having arrived safely at Warsaw, conceived the idea of playing his violin to raise the morale of the still dazed and grief-stricken survivors. He and his troupe, all having survived the wreck, arranged to give a concert. The lobby of the Lindell Hotel was packed with an attentive crowd, and it was said that never before or since has such beautiful music been heard in Warsaw. Maestro Bull was a world renowned musician. A former child prodigy, he was admitted to the Bergen, Norway, orchestra as first violin at the age of eight.

Colonel J.S. Golladay, a Kentucky Congressman, reported, “I was a passenger on the America, and was asleep when the collision occurred. Awakened by the impact and sounds of running footsteps, I looked out the window to see fire spreading across the water. I dressed hurriedly, but calmly, secured my watch, my pocketbook, and shawl and went out the door onto the guard to find the United States sunk and the cabin a solid wall of flames. The America was also on fire at one end and on the side next to the river. I found a throng of people running to and fro, screaming and praying. Now and then one or two of them jumped into the river as the boat was receding from the shore. Unable to swim, I hesitated to take to the water, but went to the edge to jump. Encouraged by a Negro on the shore, I took the dreaded leap and was assisted to the shore by the same Negro. The Lady Grace appeared at the scene soon after, and I was taken aboard for the trip over to Warsaw, where I found some of my wife’s people, Mr. Brown and family, who treated me very kindly. The next night I took the Lytle up to Cincinnati.”

The towboat Reindeer had come up the river from Warsaw a few minutes after the collision and rendered considerable help in rescuing passengers from the burning steamers. The Cincinnati and Madison packet Lady Grace, which was downbound, arrived at the scene about an hour after the accident. She took on board Golladay and other survivors who had taken shelter at the Rayl residence and their neighbors’ houses, and conveyed most of them to Warsaw in two trips, and took some on to Madison.

On December 8th the Cincinnati Commercial quoted Captain R.H. Woolfolk, of Louisville. “The people of Warsaw gave themselves up wholly to the alleviation of the distressed. Every man, woman, and child in the town exerted themselves unceasingly as long as there was one poor unfortunate in need of succor.

After the boats had sunk and burned, some of their officers spent the entire night around the scene. It must have been a heavy-hearted group that stood on the river bank when daylight finally came. At noon the next day, Charles Marshall, the engineer on watch on the United States, was still down by the river in his wet clothing. In the morning, nothing of the wreck was visible but a few charred timbers sticking up out of the water, and corpses being laid in rows along the shore.

A dispatch dated December 6th was sent from Madison to the Cincinnati Gazette. “The steamer J.L. Graham will leave at two today for the wreck, taking seven skiffs, 20 men, two days’ rations, with drags and nets to search for bodies. A six-pounder cannon goes along with the party, which will be fired on the bank in the hope of raising bodies.”

The Commercial of December 16th had this macabre news comment: “The bodies recovered from the sunken United States for identification were ranged alongside each other on the river bank and were in a remarkable state of preservation because of the cold weather. Parties were arriving hourly to identify their friends and loved ones, but many went away with sinking hearts, for the charred corpses bore little resemblance to those they knew.”

There were doubtless several coroners’ inquests over the bodies of the victims as they were discovered at various locations downriver from the accident. The inquest at the end of this article, conducted at Rayl’s Landing, may have been the largest.

On December 8th the salvage vessel, Champion, was sent from Louisville to the scene of the wrecks, but she failed to raise the sunken United States. Then on December 12th the Underwriter arrived on the scene from Cairo. The Cincinnati Commercial said of the Underwriter: “The impression prevails that owing to her extensive rigging, pumps and wrecking facilities she will succeed in raising the United States.” Then on the 18th the same newspaper said, “The hull of the ill-fated United States has been raised by the submarine (as salvage vessels were then called) Underwriter. The charred hull with her wheelhouse standing will be towed here for repairs. Her bow was almost completely cut off. The hull will have to be towed here stern foremost.” Another news item said, “The wreck of the United States arrived here in tow of the towboat Coal Hill and the submarine Underwriter.”

Captain Eckert of the Underwriter completed the raising of the remains of the United States using the equipment she had on board, as well as the floating equipment. The wreck was supported by barges alongside to hold her up, and was towed back to Cincinnati. Some of the freight on the United States was salvaged, and an auction was conducted by Walter Ezekiel where the boat was moored at the foot of Vine Street. The United States was then towed up to Cincinnati Marine Ways where she was eventually rebuilt and put back in service, with Charles Dufour as captain. The wreck of the America still lies in the mud on the river bottom near Rayl’s Landing.