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Story Archives: 1837 Mississippi River race of the Ben Sherrod/Prairie ends in 150 deaths
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|1837 Mississippi River race of the Ben Sherrod/Prairie ends in 150 deaths|
Few steamboat tragedies during the 19th century received as much attention from the nation as the disaster about 42 miles south of Natchez near Black Hawk Point.
Around 1 a.m. on the morning of Monday, May 8, 1837, the Ben Sherrod, a 400-ton steamer that ran a passenger/freight route between its home base in St. Louis and New Orleans, caught fire and sank, resulting in the loss of 150 lives.
What so outraged the public was the fact that the Ben Sherrod was racing another boat, the Prairie, while a drunk crew overfed the boilers with fuel sparking a horrendous fire. There were also allegations the captain failed to alert his sleeping passengers when the fire was first discovered, and he unaccountably didn't immediately steer the boat to shore.
A passenger aboard one of the rescue boats recalled for The New Orleans True American that the "screams of the men, women and children pierced the air for miles round" while "the bright light" cast over the Mississippi by the flaming vessel illuminated a horrible scene. "Poor wretches," said the witness, "clung convulsively to the burning sides of the boat" and "struck the deepest anguish into the hearts of the spectators."
A few days after the tragedy a committee of 12 was formed in Natchez, held a hearing, took statements and suggested legislation to regulate steamboat travel. In the meantime, newspapers across the country wrote about the disaster, bringing to light the dangers of boiler explosions and fires on steamboats.
In early May 1837, the steamers Ben Sherrod and Prairie departed New Orleans at about the same time in route to St. Louis. That the two were racing was without question. Passengers on both steamers were well aware of it almost from the beginning. The lead had changed two or three times when the Prairie opened a lead of about two miles in the general vicinity of Black Hawk Point, which was on the Louisiana bank and about 12 miles north of Fort Adams on the Mississippi bank.
When the horrendous fire broke out on the Ben Sherrod, the crew was drunk, having freely indulged for hours from an open barrel of whiskey placed near the boiler deck. No doubt the captain knew about this, records showed, and the crew knew it was being rewarded for working extra hard to boost the vessel's speed and win the race.
As the crew stoked the furnace with highly flammable pine knots and resin, sparks apparently ignited 60 cords of wood onboard. According to the Natchez committee's report, as the fire spread the captain failed to alert the passengers and steer for shore. When the order was finally given to land the boat, it was too late -- the wheel tiller ropes were burned, effectively negating the pilot's ability to steer the boat, which continued to surge forward against the current at full speed in the middle of the river.
Awakened by the commotion, the smell of smoke and the fire itself, passengers had seconds to escape their quarters and little choice but to jump into the river. Several explosions were heard during the chaos as the fire reached stores of flammable liquid, including barrels of brandy, and a shipment of gunpowder. When the boilers exploded, the vessel began to collapse onto itself.
The steamer Columbus, traveling downstream, came upon the nightmare, rounded and began plucking passengers from the water. The Ben Sherrod, its wrecked boilers now quiet, begin floating downstream with the current as the fire raged and many passengers clung to the floating vessel.
When the Alton, under the command of Captain Dougherty, appeared on the scene, the captain of the Columbus shouted that there were victims in the river floating downstream as was the Ben Sherrod with passengers still onboard. Instead of assisting, however, the Natchez committee reported that "to the eternal disgrace and mortification of humanity, this monster (Dougherty) in the human shape, surrounded on all sides by human beings, begging and imploring for assistance and assailed from every quarter by the piteous shrieks and cries of the dying, passes immediately on his way, amidst the distressing scene, running his boat over many, and drowning others by the waves created on his passage." This man, said the committee, "ought to be publicly prosecuted to the utmost extent of the law."
Captain Castleman of the Sherrod was also condemned by the committee, while captains Jones of the Columbus and Hard of the Statesman, and their crews, were praised for heroism in saving many lives.
The haunting scenes left in the minds of the survivors and the crews who came to the rescue were many: ten women going overboard together without a scream, only two surviving, one the captain's wife; an Alabama man clinging to a barrel and hanging onto a woman until the Alton plowed through the waters drowning her; a Mr. Randall floating 10 miles down river and being saved by the crew of a flatboat near the mouth of Buffalo River; and innocents consumed by flames in their sleeping berths onboard.
And there was the heart-wrenching story of Mary Ann Walker, who, alerted to the alarm of fire, rushed in search of her husband while holding her baby to her chest. She found him just as he was consumed by the flames and when her dress caught afire, she tore it off and leapt with her child into the water. When within 40 yards of the Columbus, the crew threw her a rope which she immediately seized before losing her strength and quietly sinking with her baby beneath the water's surface.
Lawmakers had long known that boilers were the source of explosions and caused the deadly fires. In 1838, a year after the Sherrod went down in flames, Congress passed its first steamboat act which dealt primarily with boiler explosions, but due to the Sherrod disaster, dealt also with the issue of fire. By 1852, the law was revised and stricter regulations governing both boiler use and fire prevention passed Congress.
But remember the Prairie, the boat racing the Sherrod? The captain of that boat, two miles to the north when the fire started on the Sherrod, didn't stop to help. Instead, the captain continued northward to Natchez where he reported the fire.
Three years later fate came calling on the Prairie when docked under-the-hill. On a muggy May day the Great Natchez Tornado of 1840 struck. The Prairie was broke apart and sank. Four women were seen on board just before the twister hit but they and the other passengers, the total number unknown, were presumed drowned.
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