The Clarksville was a “first rate and most comfortable” 484-ton sidewheel paddleboat built at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1845. It ran primarily between Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana, though it was heading to Nashville, Tennessee, on May 27, 1848. As the steamboat neared Island No. 75 about four miles below Napoleon (Desha County) at around 5:00 p.m., the deck around the boilers, which had become “unusually heated” during the boat’s rapid ascent of the river, burst into flames. The vessel’s fire hose was “out of order,” and by the time buckets of water were gathered, the flames were out of control.
Many of the passengers rushed to the forecastle to escape the flames, and when the Clarksville’s pilot ran the steamboat aground onto Island No. 75, those passengers were able to step off the vessel onto the shore. The Clarksville was not firmly embedded, however, and slipped back into the current, out of control because the tiller ropes had burned through.
Other passengers jumped overboard, some helped by the Clarksville’s captain, B. F. Holmes, who was among the victims of the catastrophe and “perished in the stern and courageous discharge of a high sense of duty.” Former Mississippi governor George Poindexter made it to shore and pulled his wife from the water; though “insensible from strangulation,” she was revived.
The situation became worse when the Clarksville’s boilers and several barrels of gunpowder in the cargo hold exploded “with tremendous effect.” The steamboat burned to the waterline and, with its cargo, was a total loss.
A total of twenty-two people drowned or were burned to death in the destruction of the Clarksville, including fourteen enslaved servants of passengers of the steamboat.
The Clarksville catastrophe provides another example of the dangers of steamboat travel in Arkansas waters in the nineteenth century, where fires aboard the wooden vessels also caused mass casualties on the Brandywine in 1832, the Webster in 1851, the Caroline in 1854, and the Mary E. Poe in 1873.
For additional information:
“Burning of the Clarksville.” Natchez Weekly Courier, June 7, 1848, p. 1.
“Daily Journal.” Evansville [Indiana] Daily Journal, June 5, 1848, p. 3.
“Dreadful Steamboat Disaster.” Poughkeepsie [New York] Journal, June 17, 1848, p. 2.
“More about the Burned Steamer.” Mississippi Free Trader, June 1, 1848, p. 2.
“Steamboat Clarksville Burnt—Loss of Lives.” New Orleans Weekly Delta, June 5, 1848, p. 2.
“Steamboat Disaster.” St. Joseph [Missouri] Gazette, June 16, 1848, p. 2.
Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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