Rob Roy [Steamboat]

The Rob Roy was a steamboat plying the route between Louisville, Kentucky, and New Orleans, Louisiana, when it suffered a fatal boiler explosion near Columbia (Chicot County) in 1836.

This was not the first deadly accident involving the Rob Roy’s boilers. On July 19, 1835, the steamboat was approaching the shore to drop off a passenger about fifteen miles above New Madrid, Missouri, when it hit an underwater snag. The collision raised the Rob Roy’s bow several feet above the surface of the Mississippi River, causing a connecting pipe to break in two places and the boilers’ contents to spill out, scalding several deck passengers. At least four people died from the scalding, and three who jumped overboard to escape the steam and boiling water drowned.

Nearly a year later, the Rob Roy, under Captain F. Finden, was ascending the Mississippi when, at 9:00 p.m. on June 9, 1836, about four miles above Columbia, its boilers were briefly shut down so that a pump could be oiled. Though it was only two minutes before steam was restored, the flues on one boiler collapsed. Ship’s clerk B. W. Martin wrote that “the steam and water rushing out, carried everything before it, fore and aft. To give a description of the suffering and destruction would be impossible.”

The crew quickly ran the Rob Roy ashore, which likely prevented additional deaths by drowning. At least seventeen passengers and crew members died from being scalded, however, and Martin wrote that “how many more might die we cannot say.”

The steamboat North America arrived around 3:00 a.m. and towed the Rob Roy to Columbia, where the clerk wrote “the sufferers are all as comfortable as circumstances can render—in good homes, five doctors in attendance.” He added that the Rob Roy would likely continue heading north under reduced speed.

The Rob Roy disaster was widely reported, with Martin’s letter reprinted in newspapers in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, and Maine.

While the Rob Roy accident was an early example of the dangers of steamboat travel, the rivers around Arkansas would witness many more calamities, such the destruction of the J. Wilson in 1853, the Sultana in 1865, and the Miami in 1866.

For additional information:
“Fatal Steam Boat Disaster.” United States Gazette, June 29, 1836, p. 2.

Lloyd, James T. Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, and Disasters on Western Waters. Cincinnati, OH: T. J. Lloyd & Co., 1856.

Rodney Telegraph [Mississippi], June 24, 1836, p. 2.

“Shocking Accident.” Hartford Courant, August 10, 1835, p. 2.

“Steamboat Accident.” Tennessean, August 1, 1835, p. 3.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System

Last Updated: 06/25/2021