G. A. Thompson [Steamboat]

The G. A. Thomson was a sternwheel paddleboat that struck a snag and burned on the Arkansas River near Irwin’s Landing some fifty miles above Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in the early hours of April 9, 1869; seventeen people died in the accident.

The 366-ton steamboat G. A. Thomson was built at Eureka, Wisconsin, and finished at St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1865 for Captain James Alexander Fraser of Cincinnati, Ohio, and James H. Kelly of Racine, Wisconsin. The vessel normally ran between St. Louis and New Orleans.

Kelly had apparently sold his interest in the G. A. Thomson to Captain Ben F. Davidson by mid-March 1869 when the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Davidson had accepted an offer from parties in Omaha to purchase the vessel. The same article noted that Davidson had purchased a one-third interest in the steamboat Lady Grace, and that Fraser would likely command the vessel. Another newspaper reported on April 1, 1869, the sale of the G. A. Thomson for $10,000 to Oliver Dotson of Omaha, noting that “she goes on the wood trade on the Missouri River.” The next day, though, the paper reported that Dotson had backed out of the deal and purchased the Lady Grace instead.

Seven days later, the G. A. Thomson was heading west on the Arkansas River. The steamboat was not in the main channel but was about 130 yards from shore when it hit a snag near Irwin’s Landing at 2:00 a.m. on April 9, 1869. Fraser initially thought the vessel was in no danger from the collision, but after the steamboat’s carpenter showed him that a fire had broken out, he ordered two small boats launched. Fraser, his wife, servant, and dog, as well as a few passengers, climbed into one boat and pushed off, with the captain promising to return for more women and children. The second boat capsized as deck hands rushed to climb aboard, and several of them drowned.

The Thomson was soon reportedly “enveloped in flames” as the carpenter launched a skiff to take the remaining women and children away from the vessel. One newspaper reported that Dan Dinsmore, the steamboat’s pilot, “stood at the wheel until the hair was singed from his person and then, with pistol in hand, went to the lower deck, where he kept the crowd at bay until the lady passengers were removed from the flaming wreck” before he jumped overboard and swam to shore.

Passenger David Allen reported that “the only chance for safety left to those on board the burning steamer was to jump overboard” and the river was soon dotted with people clinging to doors, planks, and other floating debris. Others were trapped on the burning vessel or drowned in the waters of the Arkansas. Seventeen passengers and crew members died in the wreck of the G. A. Thomson.

Allen claimed “there was no attempt by the Captain to save anybody” and that Fraser’s wife, who was in the same small boat with Allen’s wife, told the latter “that they were expecting the boat would be sunk.” The only luggage saved from the boat belonged to Fraser’s wife. Considering the failed sale of the G. A. Thomson seven days before the accident and that the steamboat was fully insured, these facts seem suspicious.

There apparently was no investigation into the fatal accident, and insurance underwriters sold “a large lot of damaged property consisting of flour, bacon, dry goods, boots and shoes, etc.” salvaged from the G. A. Thomson on May 5.

For additional information:
“Horrible Steamboat Disaster-Burning of the G.A. Thomson.” Arkansas Gazette, April 11, 1869, p. 3.

“Port Items.” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 16, 1869, p. 7.

“River Intelligence.” Tennessean, April 17, 1869, p. 3, col. 3.

“River News.” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, April 1, 1869, p. 3.

“River News.” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, April 2, 1869, p. 3.

“Underwriters Sale of Damaged Properties Saved from the Wreck of the Steamer G.A. Thomson” [Advertisement]. Arkansas Gazette, May 5, 1869, p. 2.

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

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System

Last Updated: 01/07/2022