Steamboat History: Accidents Of The 19Th Century

Although travel by steamboats is today viewed as a romantic excursion, in its history such travel was also extremely dangerous due to the frequency of deadly accidents.

Imagine yourself as a passenger aboard a Mississippi steamboat 150 years ago. The onboard saloon is filled with gamblers plying their trade, whiskey is being served at the bar, and music from the piano fills the room. Step outside onto the deck and you can see the scenic willows along the riverbank going by. And every town you pass has colorful crowds standing along the riverbank or on the docks enthusiastically waving to you. It is indeed a romantic scene of a bygone era.

However, what is today largely forgotten is that steamboats were extremely dangerous. In just the first 40 years following the introduction of the steamboat by Robert Fulton in 1807, it is estimated that approximately 500 steamboats were lost to accidents with a death toll of nearly 4,000 people. So frequent were the steamboat accidents and sinkings that the average lifespan of a steamboat was only four to five years.

One of the causes of these steamboat accidents was racing. Much money was bet on such steamboat races and the captains overlooked safety precautions in favor of winning. Underwater obstacles such as sunken logs or boulders were frequently the cause of sinking the racing steamboats because the high speed made them hard to observe until it was too late. Also if the racing steamboats were parallel to each other, the narrowing of the river channel would make them come close enough to collide. And finally, the overheated boilers necessary to power such high-speed races would frequently explode. Because the steamboats were made mostly of wood, this meant that fires from the exploding boilers would quickly spread. In 1852, the government cracked down on these hazards by imposing regulations on the construction and maintenance of steamboat boilers.

Despite these regulations, steamboat accidents still continued. One of the worst of these accidents, causing the death of hundreds of passengers, occurred aboard the steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858 that suffered a boiler explosion. Among the injured passengers aboard the Pennsylvania was Henry Clemens whose skin had been badly scalded. His brother, Sam, came to visit Henry in an improvised hospital. This is how Sam described the long painful death of his brother: "For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother"¦and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair"¦."

Sam was never the same after the death of his brother Henry. What made this especially poignant was that Sam Clemens was also a steamboat captain at that time. Perhaps you know him better by the name he used later in life---Mark Twain.

During the Civil War, steamboat travel yielded to the necessity of using riverboats for the conflict. After the Civil War, steamboat travel was never to reach the level that it had before the war, in part due to the growth of the railroad. Yet the very worst steamboat accident occurred at the very end of the Civil War in April 1865, when the steamboat Sultana, carrying a an excess capacity load of returning Union prisoners recently freed from Confederate prison camps, blew up, causing in excess of 1700 deaths.

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