Hell at Sea: Iowa’s Connection to One of the Worst Maritime Disasters Before Titanic

                Davenport, Iowa has a lot of iconic landmarks, both historic and otherwise. There are many in the downtown area, where the city has, for several years, been making a tremendous effort in beautifying the area. Largely, they have been successful. The area is now home to several upscale restaurants, businesses, art venues, and museums.

                Nestled among them is a beautiful stone fountain. It stands across the street from the Figge Art Museum, and a very short walk away from the Davenport Skybridge. Its official name is the Dillon Fountain, named after a prominent Davenport citizen from yesteryear by the name of John Forrest Dillon. Dillon had always loved Davenport, and when he died, he left around $21,000 to the city. Some of those funds were used to construct the fountain in his memory.

                Thousands of people pass by the fountain every year, some of them knowing the story and some of them not. But what many people don’t know is that Dillon constructed another monument in Davenport, one that was much more personal to him. To understand that story, you have to know the story of the man himself.

Frontier Lawyer to District Judge

John Dillon

                John Dillon was born in New York at the end of 1831. A few years later they decided to make the move to Davenport, Iowa in 1838. At that time, Davenport was still a small town, and Iowa was still very much on the frontier of the country. The atmosphere that young John grew up in was more akin to a pioneer town rather than the venerable city that Davenport would one day become.

                When he was in his late teens, John decided to study the practice of medicine. He started training under the watchful eye of E.S. Barrows, one of the earliest and most accomplished doctors in the region. John also began to attend medical school. By the time he was twenty-one, he had reached his goal of becoming a doctor. The only problem was is that John hated practicing medicine.

                So, he decided to shift careers from practicing medicine to practicing law. He began studying to become a lawyer, and by 1852, he had become a licensed practitioner of the law. From there, his star began to rise very quickly.

                First, John became the prosecuting attorney for Scott County, Iowa. By the late 1850’s, he was elected a Judge of the Seventh Judicial District of Iowa, which covered four counties in the eastern portion of the state. By 1863, he had been elected to the Iowa Supreme Court. John continued to rise through the ranks of his profession, being made the Circuit Judge for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of the United States, which put seven states under his watchful eye.

                Starting during his time as a district judge in Iowa, Dillon had begun writing books on the law. Eventually, royalties from these would make him a small fortune, especially a best-seller that he wrote in 1872. That same year, he also helped to establish a law journal they named the “Central Law Journal.” Dillon, to help get the journal off the ground, would fill it with a lot of material that he wrote.


                Eventually, he tired of being a federal judge. He retired to New York City, where he became the general consul for the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Western Union Company.

                But as successful as he became, he was always faithful and proud of his family. He had married Anna Price, a daughter of prominent Davenport politician Hirum Price, in 1853. Together, they would have a son, and two daughters named Susie and Anna.

                John and his family, though they lived in New York City, still loved Davenport, and returned here several times over the years to visit friends and relatives. Anna also loved to visit Europe, and had taken three tours of the continent. But still she could not get enough of it. In 1898, Anna planned her fourth trip and persuaded her mother to come with her.

                They booked passage on French steamer ship named the La Burygogne. When the time came, they excitedly boarded the ship in New York City and set off for the cities of Europe.  It would be the last voyage that they would ever take.

An Ill Wind Blows


                On July 4, the LaBurgogne was travelling in the waters off of Nova Scotia, Canada in heavy, thick fog. At around 5 o’clock in the morning, while moving at a fast speed, the steamer collided with the Cromartyshire, a British ship. The LaBurgogne hit the iron vessel with enough force to tear off her bow. While it was not enough to sink the vessel, the crew of the Cromartyshire immediately went to work on clearing wreckage and repairing damage from the collision.

                The LaBurgogne, however, fared much, much worse. The Cromartyshire had torn a nearly ten foot gash in the starboard side of the steamer. Being such an early hour, most of the passengers were below decks at the time of the crash. Some continued sleeping. Others, awoken by the crash, rushed to the main deck.

                One woman, a Mrs. LaCasse, was roughly awakened by her panicked husband, who had been on the deck at the time of the collision. The woman, half-asleep, began to move toward the main deck, half pulled by Mr. LaCasse. He was already aware of what she was not – the ship was sinking fast. As quickly as they could, they raced to the main deck and straight into a scene directly from a nightmare.

Chaos on the High Seas

                Men, women, and children rushed to get into lifeboats. Several men rushed forward, brandishing knives, which they used to attack anyone who got in their way. Women and children alike were thrown aside as they desperately tried to get into the lifeboats. Some of the boats had been cut free by the second officer. His actions were some of the only noble ones of the day.

                A lifeboat filled to capacity by nearly forty women was never cut loose, and those on board went beneath the icy waves of the Atlantic with the LaBurgogne as it gave a last, hissing sigh and passed to the depths below. Almost all of the officers, including the captain and brave second officer, perished with her. While their struggle was over, it was far from done for those who were still struggling to survive on the surface.

Hell in the Deep Water

                In the water, people tried to survive any way they could. Some swam, while others clung to makeshift rafts. Some had managed to board lifeboats. There were many who tried to climb into the boats from the frigid water, desperate to survive. To their shock, the ruthless and callous people who were already in the boats threw them back into the water to die.

                One man survived by clinging onto the lifeline of one of the boats. As he held on for his very life, he was forced to watch as his mother, a short distance away, was pushed under the waves with oars by the lifeboat passengers as she tried to climb into their boat. This was far from an isolated incident.

               Men and women alike were assailed with oars and boathooks. Some were bludgeoned to death by iron bars or oars, while others were pushed under the water to drown.

               One man, Charles LIebra, had put his two sons on board a lifeboat before the ship sank.  Liebra himself went into the water with the LaBurgogne, and when he surfaced he could not find his sons. Desperately, he tried to climb into a passing lifeboat, only to be beaten black and blue by those on board. Back into the water he went, staying afloat any way possible for nearly eight hours before he was rescued.

               The Cromartyshire was still busy repairing the damage done to her by the collision. The fog had lifted a bit, and they were able to make out two lifeboats coming toward them. Discovering what had happened, the iron vessel quickly went to where the steamer had sank and began rescuing as many people as they could. To take on even more survivors, the British ship threw a large portion of their cargo into the sea.

                The LaBurgogne had sunk in a little over ten minutes. Out of approximately 725 souls on board the LaBurgogne, only about 163 survived. Mrs. Lacasse was the only woman survivor, rescued by her quick-thinking husband. Many of the atrocities witnessed that day, both on the ship and in the water, were committed by the crew of the LaBurgogne itself. The LaBurgogne would become one of the largest maritime disasters in American history.

A Great Man Mourns

                 But back in New York, very little of this mattered to John Dillon. He just wanted to know about his wife and daughter. He wanted to hold them and know that they were safe. And so he waited. Soon enough, he discovered the awful truth, and knew that he had lost them forever. John was devastated. What was even worse is that their bodies were never recovered, claimed forever by the jealous Atlantic.

                John Dillon never forgot his beloved wife and daughter. He commissioned a forty foot tall granite obelisk to be carved, bearing their names. The monument was erected on the family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.

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                John Dillon passed away in New York City in 1914. His body was shipped back by train to Davenport, his boyhood home, and interred with the rest of his family, just behind the granite monument. John made sure that their memory and the disaster that claimed their lives would be forever etched in stone. And even though he could not be buried near their earthly remains, he made sure that his memory and theirs would be close to each other for the rest of time.


Downer, Harry E. A History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa. Volume II. Chicago; S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910.

Asheville Citizen-Times. 7/6/1898

The Morning Astorian. 7/7/1898

The Observer. 9/25/1898

New York Times. 9/7/1898

Davenport Daily Times. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/6/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 9/3/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/3/1914




3 thoughts on “Hell at Sea: Iowa’s Connection to One of the Worst Maritime Disasters Before Titanic”

  1. Wow! I’d never even heard of the LaBurgogne before, and I guess I can kind of see why…there was certainly nothing noble going on there! You told a gripping story though…I knew it was going to be good when I saw the title of your post was was “Hell at Sea!”

  2. Ummm….what about the Sultana? ….of course it was the Mississippi River….not the sea so there might be some technicality….It is regarded as the worst maritime disaster in the United States history. 1192 souls lost April 27th. 1865.

    1. Daniel – first off, thank you for reading! Secondly, you’re quite right about the Sultana. I think that the original news articles said that because they were sensationalizing things to sell more papers. I have also wondered if they were making a distinction – like you pointed out – that maybe they held a difference between the Mississippi River and the open ocean. After a another kind reader pointed out, the coast guard apparently does not make such a distinction, and list the Sultana disaster as the worst maritime disaster. I’m going to make a correction in the title in just a bit. Thank you for the feedback and the correction, Daniel!

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