Arkansas Traveler [Steamboat]

The Arkansas Traveler was a steamboat that sank after hitting a snag in the Arkansas River below Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on March 21, 1860, killing a passenger.

The Arkansas Traveler was a 170-ton sternwheel paddleboat built in 1856 in New Albany, Indiana. Owned by Captain Albert Thomas, who ran the vessel, and Captain James Timms (or Timmons), the steamboat regularly carried passengers and cargo between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Fort Smith (Sebastian County).

The steamboat was heading up the Arkansas River on the night of March 21, 1860, carrying a cargo “said to be the largest ever taken from New Orleans into Arkansas river,” including 200 barrels of sugar and 800 sacks of salt, when it struck a snag at Marshall’s cut-off about sixteen miles below Pine Bluff. The collision “tore a large hole in her bottom, reaching from her bow nearly to her stern,” and knocked the cabin loose from the hull.

One newspaper reported that passengers dressed in their nightclothes emerged in the dark night as Thomas steered the Arkansas Traveler toward the shore, where “lines [were] run out and fastened to trees, and every precaution taken.” Another said that when the Arkansas Traveler had sunk to five feet the “cabin floated off,” but not before most of the passengers had made it safely to the riverbank. While most of the passengers reached dry ground, William Pursely of Dardanelle (Yell County) “was seen to jump overboard and…undoubtedly met a watery grave.”

The Arkansas Traveler “sunk in a very short time, and the cabin floated off” as the hull went down with five feet of water over its main deck. While the salt and sugar were a total loss, along with the steamboat, a newspaper reported that “the remainder of the freight will be saved in a damaged condition”; the surviving “dry goods, hardware, hat, & c” were sold at auction in New Orleans on April 20, 1860. Pursely was the only casualty in the loss of the Arkansas Traveler.

The Arkansas Traveler accident provides another illustration of the dangers of steamboat travel in Arkansas waters in the nineteenth century, where encounters with snags also caused casualties on the Belle Zane in 1845, the John Adams and Clermont No. 2 in 1851, the Defender in 1860, the Cambridge in 1862, the B. M. Runyan in 1864, the Mercury in 1867, the G. A. Thompson in 1869, and the Nick Wall in 1870.

For additional information:
[New Orleans] Times-Picayune, April 20, 1860. p. 4.

“River and Steamboat Matters.” Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal, March 29, 1860, p. 3.

“Sinking of the Arkansas Traveler.” Nashville, Tennessee, Republican Banner, March 29, 1860, p. 3.

Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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