The Miami was a 175-ton sternwheel packet built in 1863 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The vessel initially operated between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River but was sent to Memphis, Tennessee, in August 1865 to make runs between that town and Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Captain E. A. Levy was in command when the steamboat left Memphis at 9:00 p.m. on January 27, 1866, with a full load of cargo and as many as 300 passengers, including Gen. Ashley’s Band, an African-American musical group from Little Rock, and ninety-five men of Company E of the Third U.S. Cavalry Regiment, two of whom had been tied to the guide chains attached to the ship’s smokestacks for “disorderly and unruly conduct.”
After stopping at Napoleon (Desha County), the Miami had proceeded about seven miles up the Arkansas River when around 7:00 p.m. on January 28 one of the vessel’s boilers exploded, “tearing up the forward cabin and hurricane roof, and immediately took fire.” The two bound soldiers survived the explosion but died in the flames. As the mid-section of the Miami was consumed by fire, passengers rushed toward the bow and stern, with many leaping into the frigid Arkansas River, clinging to floating debris.
As the stricken vessel drifted to the north bank of the river, Captain Leavy pushed a plank to shore from the bow so his men could secure the vessel, but passengers rushed the plank, “nearly all of them falling into the angry stream.” A second attempt had the same result, but, as the Arkansas Gazette reported, “the few remaining on deck having become quieted, he at last succeeded in getting a plank ashore, and a line was carried out and the boat made fast.” Other passengers were clinging to the stern paddle to escape the roaring flames before the ship’s carpenter waded into the river and helped them ashore with the aid of a long pole.
The final toll of the Miami disaster is unknown, in part because the ship’s passenger manifest was lost to the flames. Leavy estimated that no more than 150 lives were lost, while others thought as many as 200 may have perished in the flames or by drowning. Survivors were taken to various destinations aboard different rescue vessels. Fifty of the dead were buried on shore, and others may have died of their injuries later, while others reported dead were found to be alive. Twenty-five of the troopers of Company E were reported dead when the survivors eventually reported for duty in Fort Smith (Sebastian County).
While the number of dead of the Miami did not approach the toll suffered in the explosion of the Sultana on the Mississippi River less than a year earlier (killing as many as 1,800), the disaster underscored the dangers of steamboat travel in the mid-nineteenth century.
For additional information:
Post, William Lauren, Jr. “Explosion of Steamboat Miami on the Arkansas River.” Grand Prairie Historical Bulletin 62 (April 2019): 28–31.
“The Miami Disaster.” Arkansas Gazette, February 9, 1866, p. 1.
“News Item.” Arkansas Gazette, March 16, 1866, p. 2.
Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory 1848–1983. Athens, OH: Ohio University, 1983.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
Last Updated: 12/11/2020