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People & Events: Steamboat Disasters

Steamboat travel in the 19th century was perilous. Exact figures for the number of steamboats destroyed on the western rivers varies according to the source.

"DeBow's Review," published in 1848, claimed there had already been 233 accidents in steamboats on the western rivers. The authors broke down the incidents as follows:

  • Bursting boilers 101
  • Collapsing flues 71
  • Bursting steam pipes 9
  • Bursting steam chests 1
  • Bolt and boiler forced out 1
  • Struck by lightning 1
  • Boiler head blown out 4
  • Breaking cylinder head 1
  • Breaking flange of steam pipe 2
  • Bridge wall exploded 1
  • Unknown 3
  • Not stated 38

The accidents were terrifying, and devastating in terms of loss of life and property. A major disaster befell St. Louis in 1849 when the "White Cloud" went up in flames at the docks, setting off 23 other steamers. As the result of a boiler explosion on the "Sultana," in 1864, an estimated 1,647 people were killed.

Descriptions from the times are chilling:

"This distressing accident, by which sixteen persons were instantly killed, and several others were badly scalded, took place on the Mississippi, while the boat was on her voyage from St. Louis to Galena. The locality of the dreadful event was off Muscatine Bar, eight miles below Bloomington. The "Dubuque" was running under a moderate pressure of steam at the time, when the flue of the larboard boiler, probably on account of some defect in the material or workmanship, collapsed, throwing a torrent of scalding water over the deck. The pilot immediately steered for the shore and effected a landing.

When the consternation and dismay occasioned by the explosion had in some measure subsided, Captain Smoker, the commander of the "Dubuque," and such of his crew as were not disabled by this accident, made their way with considerable difficulty through the ruins to the afterpart of the boiler-deck, when it was found that the whole of the freight and every other article which had been there deposited, was cleared off and wafted far away into the water. The unfortunate deck passengers, together with the cooks and several of the crew, were severely scalded either by the hot water or the escaped steam. Many of these wretched people in their agony fled to the shore uttering the most appalling shrieks, and tearing off their clothes, which in some cases brought away the skin and even the flesh with them. Humanity shudders at the recollection of the scene. It was several hours before any of them died; nor could medical relief be obtained until a boat, which had been dispatched from Bloomington, returned with several physicians who resided at that place. At 10 o'clock p.m., eight hours after the explosion, the steamboat "Adventure," Captain Van Houten, came up with the wreck and took it in tow as far as Bloomington."

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