Steam and Fury: The Lansing Steamboat Disaster of 1867

 

The Mississippi River, despite its nickname the “Big Muddy,” is surrounded by natural beauty. Bluffs over look the water as it meanders its way through the landscape, making its way ever southward toward the Gulf of Mexico. As picturesque as it is, there is a very practical side to the river as well.

The river is the basis for a multi-billion-dollar economy that includes, agriculture, recreational activities, hydroelectric power, and, of course, transportation. For several months out of the year, its common to see huge barges loaded with various goods make their way up and down the river, generally only stopping traffic when the river is too frozen to go through.

The Native Americans were the first ones to take advantage of the river, using it for travelling, fishing, and clean drinking water. When the Europeans began to settle the United States, trappers and traders used it to travel between Native American settlements and larger river cities such as St. Louis.

The river played a large role in the development of early commercial agriculture. Farmers in the region surrounding the Mississippi would haul their harvested crops to the closest river town and then use flatboats to take their goods to St. Louis. This quickly became an annual event, and the transport of crops to larger markets dominated traffic on the river.

The old flatboats had long since been replaced by steam-powered boats. These newer, more powerful vessels had wooden structures powered by steam boilers, allowing them to travel faster and with a heavier load.

For decades, steamboat travel had become the norm on the Mississippi River. The image of the multi-deck ships billowing smoke from twin smokestacks became synonymous with America’s idea of life on the Mississippi River. Even after the railroads were built across the nation, steamboats regularly hauled cargo and passengers up and down the river.

One of these boats was the Lansing.

The Lansing was a steamer based out of Davenport, Iowa. Built in Wisconsin around 1859, it had been running different short hops along the Mississippi River ever since. In 1867, it was running between Davenport, Iowa and Port Byron, Illinois.

Both of them were old river towns. Davenport was a thriving transportation hub for both the railroad lines and steamer traffic along the Mississippi. Although not as big, Port Byron was a convenient travel stop for passengers. Not only was there easy access to the river, there was also a branch of the Western Union Railroad there that could take travelers further over land.

The Lansing was captained by a man named H.M. Hughes, and was piloted by George White, who was from another nearby river town, LeClaire. White was only serving a short time, filling in for the regular pilot, Robert Allen. Allen, who was sick at the time, had asked White, who was his brother-in-law, to take the job as a favor to him. White could hardly say no.

At eight o’clock in the morning on May 13, 1867, the Lansing left Davenport to make its regularly scheduled route to Port Byron and back. The crew went about their normal business as the passengers took in the stunning river views, talked, or took care of business of their own. Most of them might have noticed the wind that day. It was strong enough to take notice of, but not really anything to worry about. Soon, it was just another noise that faded into the background.

A few hours later, the steamer docked at a wood yard near Hampton, Illinois. The steam boilers on many steamboats were powered by burning wood. Just like stopping for gas in the modern era, steamers would have to make the occasional stop to reload their wood stores so they could finish their trip.

Being about half-way between Davenport and Port Byron, surrounded by thick woods, Hampton made an ideal place to stop.

While the steamer restocked its wood supply, some of the passengers took advantage and got off the boat for a while. It must have been good to get back on dry land again, stretching your legs before making the rest of the trip to Port Byron. As they did, the wind, already strong, began blowing even harder.

Finally, a little before noon, the Lansing was ready to depart. Everyone was on board, the crew was present and accounted for, and soon the steamer was ready to complete the rest of their journey. As the captain gave the order to move out from the shore, however, everyone was very surprised to discover that the steamer would not move.

After a few more fruitless attempts, the crew determined that the powerful winds buffeting the Lansing were helping to hold it in place. They were going to need a little assistance.

While always a little surprising, being hung up on the shore or one reason or another wasn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence. The crew was experienced, and had been in this kind of situation before. They knew how to handle things.

Taking some extra-long poles, Captain Hughes, members of the crew, and even some of the passengers took the long poles and started to try and push the Lansing back out into deeper water. Some put their poles against the bank, while others against the river bottom. Anything was fine as long as it was solid.

The men struggled and strained, but no matter how hard they tried, the Lansing held fast.

Captain Hughes ordered the crew to reverse the engines, turning the paddlewheel backwards in an effort propel the steamer away from the shore. As the wheel turned in reverse, the men continued to push.

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. The forward section of the Lansing almost immediately collapsed, crashing into the water. The tall, black smokestacks soon followed, as both the cabin and pilot house collapsed inwards.

The ship’s boiler had exploded.

Almost instinctively, several of the passengers jumped into the water. Screams of surprise and pain pierced the air even before the echoes of the destruction had died out. Gathering themselves quickly from the shock of this sudden chaos, some of the survivors rushed to help the wounded.

Many of the passengers on the Lansing were either completely unharmed or were left with just a few superficial cuts and scrapes. Others weren’t as lucky, suffering more severe burns, bruising, and even a few broken bones.

One man, John Kreedler, was standing directly over the boiler when the explosion had occurred. One moment he was waiting patiently for the boat to be freed, and the next he found himself completely weightless, sailing through the air.

He landed nearly four hundred feet away, amongst sticks and jagged remnants of the destroyed boiler. Shocked and probably half-terrified, Kreedler quickly stood up and began checking himself for injuries. He’d been standing right in the middle of that explosion There was no way there wasn’t something wrong. To his immense relief, he was unhurt. No broken bones, no missing limbs.

Adrenaline still surging, Kreedler walked to the nearest house that he could see. Nearby was a full water barrel, and he began to shakily clean the dust and debris from himself. As he did, his shock began to subside.

Kreedler quickly realized that he was very battered and bruised. As Kreedler began to wash his right side, he winced. Now that he had calmed down, he decided to reexamine himself for any kind of injury. This time, he discovered that his right arm and ear had been badly scalded by the steam.

Kreedler considered himself very fortunate to be alive. He would soon discover that 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 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 couldn’t 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. His spine had been fractured by the blast, and three spokes of the steamer’s wheel had been driven through both of his broken legs.

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, eventually clogging the pipes and causing the explosion.

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, and that it was an unfortunate accident.

A little over a week later, on May 27, 1867, Henry Curtis’ body was found lying on a sandbar further downstream.

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.

Whatever the reason, the survivors were forced to deal with what had happened, coping with the memoires and experiences of what had happened the best they knew how. The victims were buried, the family mourned. Even the shattered hull of the steamer itself was eventually removed.

Life moved on, and things returned to normal. At least, for the most part.

Some people along the river where the disaster had taken place started talking about seeing something unusual out on the water. They said they saw a light, moving slowly up and down the shoreline near Hampton. To everyone’s knowledge, no one had been out there at that time of night.

Things gradually escalated. Others began seeing the light moving in the same area, but in the middle of the river. Still others said that they had heard voices calling to one another through the still of the night, looking for one another.

The story quickly began to make its way around the area. While no one really knew what was going on, it certainly wasn’t going to stop them from speculating. Not finding any logical or scientific reason, they began to seek an explanation from different avenues.

People began to claim that the light came from a ghostly lantern carried by George White, searching for any survivors from the explosion that had claimed his own life. He called out to them as he went, oblivious to the fact that he was dead.

While the story persists in some circles, the sightings of the light have apparently become increasingly scarce over the years.

If it was the spirit of George White, torn suddenly and violently from its body in one terrible moment, perhaps it has found peace.

The steamboats are mostly a thing of the past now, used now mainly for tourism and riverboat gambling. Like the flatboats before them, they’ve been replaced by the long barges lumbering along their way.

The river is still beautiful, and driving along the concrete ribbons of road down either side of the Mississippi is still a popular pastime. Motorists make their way through the old river towns, still haunted themselves by a bygone age where steamboats ruled the Mississippi.

Perhaps, if their timing is right, they’ll look over and see a lonely light, shining against the blackness of the shoreline. If they do, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll be seeing a more literal part of the river’s past still haunting it’s present.

 

I am an author and historian who writes about long-forgotten and out of the way events and places. I love the bizarre, the unusual, and the downright weird. I write a regular blog at my website, www.johnbrassardjrcom.wordpress.com, and also manage a facebook page about things of historical interest called The Kitchen Table Historian.

2 thoughts on “Steam and Fury: The Lansing Steamboat Disaster of 1867

  1. Another good story about the area’s history. I enjoy your articles, John, & I think you enjoy doing all that research.

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