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

Passengers’ Peril

Ole Bull, on the America, had retired to his stateroom when the crash came. With the others he hurried out, but then remembered his precious violin he’d left behind. He threw off friendly hands which tried to prevent him from returning to his room, groped through the suffocating smoke, retrieved the beloved instrument that meant more than life to the old maestro and staggered out onto the guard. Nearly blind from the smoke, he stumbled over a coil of rope on the deck and fell into the river clutching his violin. Somehow he landed on his feet where the water was little more than waist deep and free of fire. Holding the instrument above his head, he was dragged by one of the America’s crew to the muddy bank, his violin remaining almost completely dry. His violin had been saved, but Maestro Bull lost his concert clothes, money, and valuables, including a golden laurel wreath the Masons in New York had given him.

The others in Bull’s troupe survived as well, including his soloist, Miss Barton, whose room had to be broken into and its occupant rescued by force. Not until she was safe on dry land did she realize the gravity of the situation.

Meanwhile, on the United States, Oliver Noble, the Mate, was awakened in his room in the Texas where he slept with his little son, Lon. From the signals exchanged between the boats, it seemed to him there was soon to be trouble. The bell cords from the pilot house to the engine room ran along just under the ceiling in Oliver Noble’s room, and the rapid jerking of the cords slapping against the ceiling alarmed him. He jumped into his clothes and ran down to the forecastle. In an instant he saw that to remain where he was would mean certain death, and that one or both boats would be sunk. He rushed back up to the Texas to awaken and save his boy.

He took his little boy downstairs, and was preparing to jump overboard with him from the stern of the United States when a lady rushed up begging him to save her. He told her to jump in the river ahead of him and he would do his best to get her to shore. She was afraid to jump so Oliver took her in his strong arms and threw her overboard. He then grabbed Lon and followed with the boy in his arms. Oliver was a powerful man and an expert swimmer. He got hold of the lady and made it to shore with both her and the boy.

A Mr. W.W. Hanley, a passenger on the United States from Cincinnati, remembered seeing the barrels of coal oil stowed on the forecastle, so he went downstairs to the lower deck near the stern and jumped in the river. He was singed by the flames on the water, which made swimming in the cold muddy river a terrible ordeal. He saw several people who were burned much worse than he carried away by the current into the darkness.

A large yawl (lifeboat) overloaded with passengers passed Mr. Hanley, going downstream. They turned and started in toward shore, but the America came backing down and they were caught under her wheel buckets, crushing the boat and its occupants.

He saw another yawl hanging from the boom at the stern of the United States. After helping others till the last minute, the deckhands started crawling out on the boom one by one and lowering themselves into the yawl, which was swinging back and forth. Too many men tried to get into the boat, and, as they lowered it into the water, one of the supporting ropes snapped, plunging the men into the water where, it was later learned, sixteen of the twenty drowned. The painter (rope) on the bow end of the yawl did not break, and the lifeboat was left swinging in a vertical position, empty.

On the United States, among those who lingered in the ballroom when the captain stopped the celebration were Eva Jones and her mother, who were enjoying a conversation with Eva’s new friend, Mary Johnson. Joe McCammant went to his stateroom.

Marcus Toney decided to take some air at the stern rail before retiring. He watched as the United States dropped down around the sharp bend past the mouth of Sugar Creek, then crossed over from the Kentucky side and lined up in the straight stretch of channel that ran down the Indiana side to Rayl’s Landing.

For Marcus Toney that night the name of his boat, the United States, and her sister, the America, represented an irony for the Confederate veteran from Nashville, Tennessee. He was also a former inmate at the draconian Union Army prison at Elmira, New York. The fact that Mr. Toney now worked for the New York Central Railroad continued his unlikely association with the Empire State, and doubled the irony. He also found that as a Confederate veteran he couldn’t vote or buy government land under the Homestead Act, but all the while he had to pay taxes.

Mr. Toney escaped death again on this night, as he had done countless times during the war. After the collision and the resulting inferno, he scrambled through the smoke and confusion, returning to his room to claim his watch and money. He then crawled some two-hundred feet along the deck beneath the smothering smoke toward the stern. He said later, “Mothers were shrieking for husbands and children, husbands calling for wives. In all my privations in life, I have never witnessed such a heart-rending scene, but it was all I could do to save myself.” He tried to jump onto the America before she pulled away in the confusion, but he was prevented by the flames. His battle instincts proved worthy, for when the America finally came near a second time, Toney leaped from the flaming boat, plummeting more than a dozen feet to the deck of the America. He was severely injured, and might have died had a man not carried him on his back to shore. He heard someone say later that 130 passengers on the United States went down – what would have been a good week’s work for the Reaper at Elmira Prison.

After being rescued and receiving the best care from his brothers in the Masonic Lodge at Warsaw, Toney was taken to Louisville on the General Lytle. Although suffering acutely, he was able to leave for home on the cars of the L & N, one of the earliest and most successful railroads in the region, chartered in 1850.

Among the many stories of heroism in the course of the disaster, there were a few tales of the dark side of human nature. The Madison Courier of December 8th contained this account: “A gentleman and his sister, a lovely young lady, were passengers on the United States. At the first shock he was thrown from his bed. He dressed and rushed to the stateroom of his sister, burst open the door, seized her in his arms and carried her down to the main deck. There he procured a door shutter and threw it overboard and leaped after it with his sister still in his arms. He placed her securely on the shutter and was pushing it with its precious burden toward the shore when to his horror a large able-bodied man swam up and pushed the sister off the board and climbed on it himself. The girl sank with a scream, and if she came to the surface it was so dark that her brother could not find her. The brother, maddened by the dastardly act, made after the man, and seizing him by the throat, engaged him in a fight to the death. The brother survived to tell the tragic story, but the sister was lost.”

As for Miss Mary Johnson of Madison, it was announced in the Louisville Courier Journal that the day following the disaster at the Madison shipyards the body of a young woman, with a life-preserver attached, was found floating in the river. In her belt was found a paper with the name Eva Jones on it, and it was first assumed it was she. The body was afterward recognized as that of Mary Johnson. It was possible to identify her because she had drowned and not burned. She had thus come back to the father who so anxiously awaited her return from her extended trip. But, instead of a welcoming celebration there was a funeral.

A surviving passenger on the United States said that Mary’s cousin Lewis, after vainly trying to find Mary after the collision, leaped from the flaming boat when at too great a distance to make the shore, and was lost.

The Reverend Lucien Rule, of Goshen, Kentucky, in a letter to the Courier Journal of September 1, 1929, told the following story:

“During the earlier celebration in honor of the two wedding parties on board the United States, the lovely young ladies, Mary Johnson and Eva Jones, had been introduced to each other by Mr. J. N. Price. He gave to each of these charming girls the address of the other, which they stuck in their belts. The merry laughter and song had just subsided when the crash came. In the ensuing panic, Miss Jones rushed to Mr. Price, asking him to save her, but with sorrow he replied that he must give his attention first to his wife and children.

“When Joe McCammant rushed from his stateroom and found Nellie Jones and her daughter Eva after the collision, both were hysterical. They clung to their escort screaming. With difficulty he freed himself and got them out on the guard. He finally calmed Eva enough to get a life preserver on her and hand her a shutter. She then moved away from him so that he could try and save her mother. He got Nellie as far as the railing, and tried to get her to jump in the river so that he could follow and try to get her ashore. He had her part of the way up on the railing when she suddenly became hysterical again and jumped to the floor. She tore loose from him and ran back toward the flames. He followed and caught her, picked her up in his arms and carried her back. He lifted her almost to the top of the rail, ready to heave her over, but she fought him like a trapped wild animal. While they struggled, his clothing caught fire and spread rapidly. This became so painful he could not bear it. He sprang over the railing and into the river just barely in time to save his own life.

“The water put out the fire on his clothing, but the pain from his burns was excruciating. He tried to swim but both his legs cramped until they were useless to keep him afloat. He was starting to go down when a familiar voice near him called, “Is that you, Joe?” It was Captain Richard Wade. He caught his friend and kept him from going down. The captain had two planks, and he helped Joe onto one of them and started paddling him to shore. But other people jumping into the river from the guards above separated the two men.

“McCammant paddled weakly on downstream, trying desperately not to lose consciousness. Somewhere farther down river he reached shore, and by a miracle got his face and one arm out on the muddy shore before he passed out. Some men watching from the riverbank above ran down to the water’s edge, pulled him out, and carried him to a nearby farmhouse.

“Meanwhile, Eva Jones had run out onto the guard. Just a short time before she had been surrounded by young men seeking to dance with her, but now when the boat was sinking in flames she sought some man to help save her life.

“Just at that time a young man and his wife came hurrying out upon the guard. He was the son of a retired minister. When they left home, the boy’s father came to the river with them to see them off. As they parted, the father asked them to promise him that in case they were in any danger, they would pause and pray and ask for Divine guidance before they made any move. They promised to do so.

“This night, as other passengers ran screaming from their rooms, this young couple knelt for a moment beside their stateroom bed and said a prayer, then rose and began to seek safety. As they came out on the guard, Eva Jones ran to them begging them to help her. She pleaded, ‘Save me! Save me! I know I’m a little rebel, but I need help.'” Earlier, she must have made no secret of her Southern sympathies. “She put her hand on the young man’s arm and her eyes were full of tears. Her voice was choking and it seemed that she was almost addressing a prayer to him. A look of pain came into the boy’s eyes. He paused to look at her, then at his wife. She pulled at her husband and gave him a look as if she thought he was endangering their own lives and wasting time. The young man hesitated just a brief moment looking at Eva, then pulled his arm free. He told her to watch for an opportunity, then jump in the river.” And so, for the third time in those desperate moments, a man turned to save others and left Eva Jones alone.

“The young couple hurried on down the guard aft of the port side wheel. Eva looked after them briefly, then prepared to take the young man’s advice. As she started to jump, had a protective friend been there, her life might have been saved, but there was no watchful person to warn her that she was jumping into the path of the America’s approaching starboard wheel.

“The America came alongside and banged into the United States. The young man and his wife climbed up on the railing and jumped the fifteen feet down to the guard of the America. Neither was seriously injured. The America backed down along the Indiana shore, and when she managed to land, the young couple was waiting on the guard next to the bank, the side of the boat mostly free of fire at that moment. When the boat touched they jumped ashore. They climbed to the top of the bank and walked upstream above the America and could see both boats burning. The flames lit up the surface of the river, its water filled with screaming passengers and crew struggling to keep afloat. Many cries of agony went up from those whose oil-soaked clothing was burning the life from them.

“If the young couple had let Eva walk down the guard with them she might now be standing beside them on the riverbank, but they never learned her fate.” No one said a prayer for Eva, and there had been no brave and strong Oliver Noble at her side.

Reverend Rule’s letter continued: “When the U. S. Mail Line’s steamer C. T. Dumont arrived at the scene from Cincinnati under orders of the company president, Mr. Pearce, all the Cincinnati victims who were able to be moved were put aboard and taken home. Captain Richard Wade had Joe McCammant put on board, and went with him to supervise his care.

“Captain John Scott and his wife placed Joe McCammant, who was badly burned about the back, face, and neck, in their own home under the care of nurses until he recovered. He was inconsolable over his failure to save the Jones ladies from the inferno on the United States. Then Mr. Scott and his wife made the trip down the river seeking information as to the fate of Nellie and Eva Jones. At the scene, someone gave the Scotts a ring they believed to be Nellie’s. They heard the story of Eva being crushed by the America’s wheel.”

In those days there were two steamboat landings in Vevay, Indiana, the Lower Grade and the Upper Grade. The wharfboat used by steamers lay at the Lower Grade. A large float for mooring and unloading coal barges was located at the Upper Grade at the foot of Washington Street. The Upper Grade was a favorite spot for retired river men to gather on summer evenings and swap yarns. Fishermen kept their boats there, and they brought their nets there to dry.

More than four months after the great disaster, on a warm and balmy day, a group of old timers sat on a bench at the top of the riverbank. The collision was still the most popular topic of conversation, but it was the general opinion that all the bodies that would ever appear had already been found.

Some boys ran up to where the old men were sitting and shouted that a woman’s body had just floated in to shore. Townspeople gathered, but the coroner was out of town. John Clendening was Justice of the Peace, and he was the designated alternate coroner. John called on Constable Vincent Bright to subpoena six jurors to hold an inquest over the body of the woman. They later signed the report, which identified the woman as Eva Jones, 20 to 25 years old. The detailed description of her fine clothing revealed her name embroidered on the band of her underwear. The jury declared that she died by drowning and was one of the victims of the collision at Rayl’s Landing on December 4, 1868.

The Vevay Reveille-Enterprise on May 20, 1869, reported, “The body of a young lady was found in the river near Vevay by Orlando Rouse. She was identified as Miss Eva Jones, of Florida, a victim of the United States and America disaster.” The report concluded with the words, “The remains were sent to friends.” To some, the friendship of these two lovely girls and their tragic deaths was the saddest incident of the whole tragedy.

Also in the summer of 1869, a report was published in the Vevay Democrat of bills paid to T. D. Wright and sons for inquests appearing in the paper. Of the 34 inquests listed, six of them, including Eva Jones, were directly attributed to the steamboat collision. This list, plus the 54 compiled by Mr. Tait at Rayl’s Landing in the days following the collision (see list at the end of this article), puts the total number of known victims at 60, but this is undoubtedly far short of the actual number of fatalities. For example, President Pearce of the Mail Line appointed Frank Carter, a company director and manager of the company office and wharf at Louisville, to come up to the wreck site and take charge of salvage operations and the search for bodies. Frank and his assistant, Andrew Harrington, the freight clerk from the United States, made their headquarters at Warsaw. Later, the Cincinnati Commercial published the following notice: “Thirty-three bodies recovered from the wrecks and from the water. Frank Carter, in charge of salvage.” It is not known if this list overlapped the one provided by coroner Tait following the disaster. For some time following the collision, bodies like those of Mary Johnson and Eva Jones were discovered at various locations downriver from the wreck, and the number of bodies lost in the river will forever be unknown. Statements of the number of fatalities from the disaster ranged from 40 to 170, the most likely estimate being 74.