The Mississippi River was a busy place during the early and middle 1800’s. Water travel was perhaps the easiest method of long-distance travel in those days. Steamboats regularly hauled cargo and passengers up and down the huge river.
There were several accidents, both large and small, that took place. Ships ran aground and caught fire, and more than one person drowned. Several towns up and down the Mississippi have tragic stories, and Davenport, Iowa has more than its fair share. Sometimes, those events produce other, stranger tales.
One such tale has to do with the Lansing.
The Lansing was a steamer based out of Davenport, Iowa. It had been built in Wisconsin around 1859, and since that time, it had been running different short hops along the Mississippi River. In 1867, it was running between Davenport, Iowa and Port Byron, Illinois.
Port Byron was a good point to travel to during those days. Not only was there the river, but there was also a branch of the Western Union Railroad there that could take you to further destinations.
The boat was captained by a man named H.M. Hughes, and was piloted by George White, who was from another nearby river town, LeClaire, Iowa. White was only filling the position for a little while. His brother-in-law, Robert Allen, was dealing with a bout of sickness that was working its way through his family.
On the morning of May 13, 1867, the Lansing left Davenport at around eight o’clock in the morning. On board were its crew and several passengers. The boat was in good working condition and the trip up the river was relatively uneventful.
Restocking at Hampton
A few hours later, the steamer docked at a wood yard near Hampton, Illinois. Steamers like the Lansing required a good amount of wood to keep their boiler fires lit, the flames helping to generate the steam that powered the vessel.
While the steamer restocked its supply of wood, some of the passengers disembarked. All morning long, a strong wind out of the northwest had blown against the boat. As all of this was going on, the wind began blowing even harder.
The main crew was at their posts, going about their routines. Everything was as it should have been.
Shortly before noon, the steamer was restocked and ready to complete the short journey to Port Byron. As the crew made ready to depart the shore, they found that the steamer would hardly budge. The powerful winds were helping to hold it in place.
Stuck on the Shore
Captain Hughes and the crew, along with some of the passengers, began trying to spar the steamer from the shore. Sparring was taking long poles, placing them along the river bottom or shore, and pushing the boat into deeper water. Try as they might, the Lansing held fast.
An order was given to reverse the engines, turning the paddlewheel in a direction that would propel it away from the shore. As the wheel turned in reverse, the men continued their sparring efforts, all to no avail.
This was not necessarily an unusual occurrence. The river and the wind are powerful forces, and sometimes they would work against a ship and its crew. Hughes and his men, experienced with the ways of the river and probably having had similar experiences before, doggedly continued to attempt to push the boat into deeper water.
Without warning, the starboard side of the boat, which happened to be the side closest to the shoreline, erupted in a violent storm of steam, water, and flying debris. One of the steamers boilers had just exploded.
Steam and Fury
The forward section of the steamer almost immediately crashed into the water. The smokestacks soon followed, and the cabin and the pilot house collapsed inwards.
Several passengers instinctively jumped into the water. Screams of surprise and pain pierced the air even before the echoes of the explosion had died out. The survivors gathered themselves quickly from the shock of the circumstances, and rushed to help the wounded.
Many had survived either unharmed or with just superficial wounds. Others suffered more severe burns or bruising, and even a few broken bones, but were otherwise unharmed.
One man, John Kreedler, was standing directly over the boiler when the explosion occurred. One moment he was going about his own business, and the next he was sailing through the air like a bird.
He landed four hundred feet away, amongst sticks and jagged remnants of the destroyed boiler. Adrenaline pumping, Kreedler quickly stood up and began checking himself for injuries. After that, he was sure that something had to be dreadfully wrong. To his immense surprise, he was unhurt. No broken bones, no missing limbs.
Kreedler walked to the nearest house that he could see, still in shock. Finding a water barrel or trough, he began to clean the dust and debris from himself. As he did, the shock and adrenaline began to subside.
He quickly realized that he was very battered and bruised. As Kreedler began to wash his right side, he winced. He began to feel around himself again, and discovered that his right arm and ear had been badly scalded by the steam.
Still, Kreedler considered himself very fortunate to be alive. Others had not been so lucky.
William Wasseigher, the ship’s cook, and W.H. Rheib, a passenger, had both been killed. James Tracy, another crew member, had also died, leaving his wife in Rock Island, Illinois, a widow and his two children fatherless.
W.H. Noble, a passenger from Burlington, Iowa, had been found alive. However, his injuries were extensive, and he succumbed a short time later.
Another passenger, a grain dealer named Henry Curtis, was writing a letter in the clerk’s office when the explosion took place. When the survivors were searching for the wounded, they could not locate his body. After some thought, they came to the conclusion that Curtis must have been blown out into the river.
George White, the pilot, had been at the wheel of the steamer during the explosion. He, too, had been thrown through the air away from the boat.
He was dead when the survivors found him. Three spokes of the steamer’s wheel had been driven through both of his broken legs. White had died of a fractured spine.
Analysis of a Disaster
The initial impression of those present was that the explosion had been caused by fouling in the boiler.
During the efforts to get the steamer off the shore, the paddlewheel had been moving in reverse for a long period of time, often digging into dirt and sand underneath the shallow water. This debris had been thrown under the vessel, where it had been sucked into the boiler and helped to clog the water pipes, resulting in the disaster.
A coroner’s inquest was held that same week. Several survivors and crew members testified, giving their version of the events that had led up to the explosion. It was found that no one was to blame for the tragedy, that it was an unfortunate accident.
A little over a week later, on May 27, 1867, Henry Curtis’ body was found by a fisherman downstream. It was lying on a sandbar near Campbell’s Island.
Another coroner’s inquest was held to determine his cause of death, with many of the same people being questioned again. This time, the jury determined that the explosion was caused by a combination of the steamer being in an odd position due to being on the river bank and not enough water being in the boilers. They also said that the engineer had made a mistake when he hung a wrench on the safety valve of the boiler.
The survivors soon went about their lives, left to deal with their memories and experiences of the horrifying events of the day. However, the residents in Hampton, Illinois, and the people on the Iowa side of the river were left to deal with something far more…unusual.
Lights on the Water
Fisherman and others began to see a light moving up and down the Illinois shoreline near Hampton. Some saw it in the middle of the river instead. Still others claimed to hear voices in the night, searching for one another.
The story quickly began to make the rounds of the locals on both sides of the Mississippi River. People began to claim that the light came from the ghostly lantern of George White, searching for a missing crewmate.
Could it be that George White died so quickly that he didn’t’ realize that he was dead? Is he, like the survivors of the explosion, searching for the missing and wounded? Is one of the other voices that people have claimed to hear belong to Henry Curtis, who also died suddenly, and whose body was lost for over a week in the river?
We will probably never know for certain. But what we do know is that all of those who were part of the Lansing Disaster are gone now. Except, perhaps, for two.
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