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Story Archives: Mississippi steamboat disasters from Natchez to Black Hawk Point
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|Mississippi steamboat disasters from Natchez to Black Hawk Point|
Often forgotten in the lore of the Mississippi is the great loss of life on the steamboats. Scores of steamers sank -- some due to obstacles hidden beneath the surface of the water and others due to overly taxed boilers fired extra hot to win a race.
Below are accounts of just four deadly disasters that occurred over three decades along 42 miles of river from Natchez south to Black Hawk Point.
SOUTH OF NATCHEZ
SURVIVORS 140, DEAD 60
The 140 survivors remembered this night as being exceptionally dark and cold. As the Tennessee pushed upriver just south of Natchez in a heavy snowstorm, many passengers were in bed when the steamer shook violently at 10 p.m. after crashing into a snag. She immediately began filling with water.
Confusion was immediate. Some thought the boat had simply made a hard landing to ride out the storm, but Capt. Campbell knew better and immediately issued orders to stop the leak. Yet the crew soon discovered a hole as large as a door torn in the hulk. There was no question, the steamer was going down.
As word spread, passengers leapt into the frigid Mighty Mississippi. Women, men and children screamed and survivors recall the icy wind howling in the darkness as panic reigned. A yawl (four to six oars) and longboat (eight to 10 oars) were lowered while passengers physically competed for a seat. In the confusion, only one oar could be found on the longboat delaying its arrival onshore and eliminating the possibility of it returning for more passengers.
Many remaining on the Tennessee jumped into the black water. Lucky ones pulled cabin doors from their hinges for floatation devices. Others fell into a raft of firewood, some sinking below and never surfacing again. One man rode a carpenter's bench, another was said to have survived with the strap of a small bag containing $3,000 in gold secured between his teeth. Some never left the Tennessee, which floated a short distance downriver before wedging into a cluster of willows near the bank.
MOUTH OF ST. CATHERINE
SURVIVORS 35, DEAD 35
On a cool spring evening of May 4, the steamer Teche departed Natchez in route downstream with a heavy load of cotton and 70 passengers onboard. About 10 miles downriver on a night remembered as "excessively dark and hazy," the captain found conditions so unsafe he anchored.
A few hours later, at 2 a.m. on May 5, the crew on captain's orders raised the steam and quietly launched as passengers slept. Nearing the old mouth of St. Catherine's Creek 16 miles below Natchez, an explosion shook the steamer, according to Gould's History of River Navigation, and "seemed sufficient to separate every plank and timber in the vessel, accompanied by a report which sounded like a discharge of a whole broadside of the heaviest artillery. Every light on board was immediately extinguished, either by the escape of steam or the concussion of air."
In the predawn darkness, passengers frantically scrambled on deck only to learn that the boiler explosion had set the steamer aflame, news that caused an "insanity of terror" in the "dense and ominous gloom," according to Gould's. Most who died drowned while some were killed instantly in the explosion.
BLACK HAWK: EXPLOSION
BLACK HAWK POINT
SURVIVORS 50, DEAD 50
Black Hawk in southern Concordia Parish got its name from this steamboat accident which occurred two days after Christmas 172 years ago. At a location known up and down the river following the accident as Black Hawk Point some 42 miles below Natchez and nine miles north of Fort Adams, more than 50 lives were lost.
The steamer Black Hawk was descending the Mississippi from Natchez in route to the mouth of the Red, fully loaded with an estimated 100 passengers, about half women and children. Also onboard was a heavy load of freight, a number of U.S. Army officers and a government payroll amounting to $90,000. The destination was Natchitoches on the Red.
When the boiler suddenly exploded, the pilot and engineer were killed instantly, while many of the passengers, and the government money, were thrown into the Mississippi. As a fire raged, the current carried the steamer downstream while taking on water.
Among the dead, according to Lloyd's Steamboat Disasters, was a Mr. Delisle of Natchez, a Mrs. Delancey and her three children of Boston, a black engineer named George Johnson and several "valuable horses which had been shipped at Natchez." Eyewitnesses said many of the passengers and crew died immediately as a result of the explosion. Many drowned. Some were severely scalded.
In the aftermath, the hulk of the Black Hawk floated downsteam for 15 miles before sinking. Along the way, some passengers were saved from the inferno by the crew of a flatboat.
JOHN L. AVERY: SNAGGED
NORTH OF BLACK HAWK POINT
SURVIVORS: 90+(Est.) DEAD 85
Mrs. Seymour, a writer and survivor of the sinking of the John L. Avery, recalled passengers in the dining hall remarked at noon that the temperature inside seemed especially hot that spring day. She also remembered someone saying the crew was firing up extra steam to outrun the Sultana, another steamer, in one of the many dangerous yet popular races steamboat captains waged at the peril of passengers and crew.
Retiring afterward to her cabin for a nap, Mrs. Seymour placed her pocketbook containing $900 under her pillow and set aside her press-ready manuscript, which she considered much more valuable than the cash. At Black Hawk Point, the site of a deadly boiler explosion 17 years earlier, the Avery passed the Sultana. A short distance northward, the Avery plowed into a tree recently washed from the bank during a spring storm, which had pushed much debris into the rapid current.
A brand new first class passenger and freight steamer, the Avery was built to handle a regular packet route between New Orleans and Natchez. The steamer had stopped at Point Coupee and loaded a sizable quantity of sugar and molasses to a location onboard that later blocked the escape of a number of passengers when the steamer began sinking.
Just after the Avery struck the tree, the pilot turned the boat for shore. Surging to one side, water began to pour into the hull and the vessel starting breaking apart as passengers were herded to the upper deck. Death came in every way imaginable. Among the dead was a large number of Irish immigrants. The steamer Sultana traveling in the wake of the Avery rescued a number of passengers and crew.
Mrs. Seymour, who lost her money and her manuscript in the disaster, survived with her life but was left with haunting images and sounds: human hands reaching for objects to cling to, voices screaming for help, survivors wailing for lost loved ones, a pony swimming to shore but unable to scale the high bank and falling exhausted into the Mighty Miss., disappearing.
The worst was the sight of a mother losing her battle against the river and instructing her young son to save his little sister. She heard the little girl reply, "Oh, mother, he cannot save me!" Recalled a shaken Mrs. Seymour: "I saw her fair hair, all wet, fall back from her young face as her little arms loosened their grasp on the neck of her brother, and the mother and her two children sank together."
|Frank Morris Murder Series|