The Miriam, working a six-month contract with the Wright Carnival Company, left Helena (Phillips County) under its owner, Captain W. A. Jones of Newport (Jackson County), at about 1:30 p.m. on April 26, 1908, heading north on the Mississippi. When the boat was about five miles north of the mouth of the St. Francis River, Jones spotted a tornado approaching and turned the Miriam toward the Arkansas shore at full speed to seek shelter.
The tornado struck while the steamboat was still in the middle of the river and tore the deck and cabin from the hull. Passengers and crew members jumped from the wreckage of the upper works and swam to the hull, which was being battered by fifteen-foot waves as it drifted down the Mississippi. One woman drowned then, and, a passenger recounted, “we drifted more than eight miles, the hull gradually settling and survivors being washed off by the waves. It was during the time we were drifting downstream that the rest were washed away by the waves and drowned.”
The hull of the Miriam eventually became stuck on a sandbar, and the survivors clung to the wreckage for hours. Around nightfall, the gasoline-powered launch Home Run under Captain C. E. Schaeffer reached the wreckage and took the survivors to the shore, first the women and children and then the men. “It was a long stretch of water and a dangerous undertaking,” the Arkansas Democrat reported, “but the little boat plied faithfully to and from the wreck until all the weak and injured were taken off.”
Schaeffer then took Joyce to Helena, where he got the steamboat Zerah Jr. to head up the river to pick up the survivors, who arrived in Helena thirty-two hours after the tornado with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
A few days after the disaster, nineteen of the passengers signed a statement claiming that Joyce had ignored warnings from people on the Mississippi side of the river that the storm was approaching, and thus “upon his shoulders rests the blame for the death of 11 [sic] people.” Others alleged that the captain was drunk when the tornado hit. A pair of government inspectors investigated the allegations and exonerated Joyce, and the Batesville Daily Guard reported, “None of the charges were proven but on the other hand it was proven that Captain Joyce was aware of the danger and did all in his power to steer the vessel to shore.”
For additional information:
“Boat Capsizes; 12 Are Drowned.” Arkansas Gazette, April 28, 1908, pp. 1, 10.
“Joyce Is Exonerated.” Batesville Daily Guard, May 22, 1908, p. 1.
“Miriam Survivors Draw up Statement.” Arkansas Gazette, April 30, 1908, p. 1, 2.
“To Adjust Loss on Steamer Miriam.” Arkansas Gazette, May 2, 1908, p. 1.
“Were on the Wrecked Miriam.” Arkansas Gazette, May 5, 1908, p. 8.
“Wreck Victims Reach Helena.” Arkansas Democrat, April 28, 1908, p. 10.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
Last Updated: 03/11/2022