Mary E. Poe [Steamboat]

The Mary E. Poe was a sternwheel steamboat that caught fire and burned on October 17, 1873, north of Osceola (Mississippi County); at least six passengers and crew members died in the accident.

The Mary E. Poe was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1871. Powered by three boilers, the Poe was 188 feet long and thirty-three feet wide and had a draft of five feet. It was built for Captain Thomas Poe and ran the St. Louis to Red River route for the Carter Line Packet Company.

Poe was in command of the Mary E. Poe, having moved to that vessel after the loss of the Nick Wall in December 1870, an accident in which his wife was fatally injured. About ten months after that accident, he was commanding the Mary E. Poe when it sustained a mechanical failure. A newspaper reported that “the Mary Poe stopped at the wreck of the Nick Wall; Capt. Poe went into it, took out the cylinder, and put it on the Poe in place of that boat’s broken cylinder.”

The Mary E. Poe left St. Louis on October 11, 1873, to steam down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans, carrying sixty-five passengers and crew and at least 800 tons of freight valued at around $75,000. While near the Canadian Reach about ten miles above Osceola, where the steamboat Car of Commerce had been destroyed in 1828, a fire broke out near the Poe’s boilers. It reportedly “spread with wonderful quickness.”

The steamboat’s pilots—Hans Cowan and a man named Baldwin—stayed at their posts despite encroaching flames and ran the Mary E. Poe aground, though Cowan was badly burned. The intense heat of the fire caused many people to jump overboard and swim to shore. Some newspapers reported ship’s clerk John W. Poe as saying that “the chamber maid, one boy, one cabin passenger, two female and one male deck passenger” were missing, while another reported that “a roustabout was knocked overboard by a spar and drowned,” adding that the body of one of the two missing female deck passengers was recovered and buried on shore.

The steamboat City of Helena came across the burning Poe and rescued the survivors, transporting them to Memphis. Two men remained aboard to guard the wreck, but “a swarm of Tennessee natives arrived to plunder, and ran off the mates at gunpoint, and when the T. F. Eckert arrived to salvage the cargo, much had been pilfered.” A Memphis newspaper stated that the Eckert “found the wreck in the hands of pirates…with fully 20 skiffs were carrying off meat, flour, etc.” The salvage vessel captured some of the skiffs and recovered their stolen goods and ultimately rescued hundreds of barrels of flour, meat, lard, and oil from the ill-fated Mary E. Poe. A Cairo, Illinois, newspaper reported twelve days after the fatal fire that “the crew of the Eckert have done good work at the Poe and by the first of next week will have all of the machinery removed and the job of wrecking the boat complete.”

For additional information:
“The Burning of the Mary E. Poe.” Waterton [Wisconsin] News, November 5, 1873, p. 2.

“Disaster.” New Orleans Republican, October 19, 1873, p. 8.

“Disasters.” Chicago Tribune, October 19, 1873, p. 3.

Historical Names and Places on the Lower Mississippi River. Vicksburg, MS: Mississippi River Commission, United States Army Corps of Engineers, 1977.

“Memphis.” New Orleans Times-Democrat, October 19, 1873, p. 1.

“The Mississippi.” Nashville [Tennessee] Union and American, October 19, 1873, p. 1.

“River News.” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, October 14, 1871, p. 3.

“River News.” Cairo Bulletin, October 29, 1873, p. 3.

“River News.” Daily Memphis Avalanche, October 30, 1873, p. 4, col. 6.

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi in Mark Twain Mississippi Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1982.

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

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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