J. Wilson [Steamboat]

The J. Wilson was a steamboat that was destroyed when two of its boilers exploded as it left Columbia (Chicot County) on January 6, 1853, resulting in dozens of deaths.

Captain John Rotan and J. M. Craig had the J. Wilson built in 1852 with plans to use the vessel to transport freight and cotton along the Mississippi River. Rotan served as the vessel’s captain.

The steamboat had just taken a load of freight owned by A. H. Davis and Johnson Capman aboard at the landing at Columbia on January 6, 1853, when two of its boilers exploded, completely destroying the vessel’s forecastle and a third of its hurricane deck roof. A report in the Washington Telegraph stated that “all of the stanchions of the ill-fated vessel, forward of the cook-house, were carried off, which caused the social hall and the forward part of the gentlemen’s cabin to give way, precipitating all that were in that part of the boat into the fire and steam below.”

One of the burst boilers was thrown fifty yards into town, crashing into the upper story of the Phoenix Exchange Coffee House. That part of the building served as a gambling den in the rough-and-tumble town, and a group of gamblers had just departed when the structure was destroyed.

The J. Wilson drifted down the Mississippi River for about twelve miles before sinking in six fathoms of water across from the James B. Miles plantation. Casualties from the disaster were estimated at forty dead, including two of the ship’s engineers, though the Telegraph reported that “some of the survivors think the number much higher.” The only victim named in the article was a Mr. Whitewall of Chicot County, who had just come aboard as a passenger and whose “remains were brought ashore in a shockingly mangled condition.”

Captain Rotan survived the accident, though he was badly injured. Some passengers alleged that he had been drinking all morning and was drunk when the boilers exploded. Although the newspaper article said the accident would “undergo a legal investigation,” there apparently were no proceedings published.

The owners of the J. Wilson had insured the $18,000 vessel for $9,000 with the Marine Fire Insurance Company of Louisville, Kentucky. The freight carried for Davis and Capman was a total loss.

For additional information:
“Another Steamboat Disaster.” Washington Telegraph, February 2, 1853, p. 2.

“Dreadful Explosion.” Weekly Arkansas Gazette (published as Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat), January 28, 1853, p. 2.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System

Last Updated: 06/24/2021