Steamboat Disasters

Steamboats were the primary vehicles for moving goods and passengers long distances in the nineteenth century, prior to the widespread availability of railroads. They continued to be used well into the twentieth century, but they were often involved in accidents that resulted in multiple casualties. 

Paul F. Paskoff, in Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821–1860, analyzed data on steamboat wrecks between 1821 and 1860, with the exception of the Civil War years, and determined that 3,165 steamboats were lost in American waterways during that period, with snags being the cause of 593 wrecks, burning causing 582, collisions causing 199, and boiler explosions responsible for 113. Steamboats fell victim to all of those dangers in Arkansas waters. 

Bruce D. Berman, in his Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks, documented 190 wrecks, primarily steamboats, in Arkansas between the 1820s and the 1960s. Of those, the most common cause was snags (96), followed by burning (40), “foundered” (18), and stranding and collisions (10 each). Forty-eight involved at least one fatality. 

The earliest steamboat disaster in Arkansas waters may have been the Car of Commerce, which suffered a boiler explosion north of Osceola (Mississippi County) on the Mississippi River in 1828, killing twenty-one people, while the deadliest was the loss of the Sultana near Marion (Crittenden County) on April 27, 1865, in which as many as 1,800 were killed, many who were former Union prisoners of war heading for home. Other mass casualty accidents included the John Adams, which hit a snag and sank off of Chicot County in 1851, killing 130, and the Miami, which caught fire on the Arkansas River, killing as many as 200.  

Snags were by far the deadliest menace in Arkansas waters facing steamboats, which could have their hulls torn open or upper decks ripped from the rest of the vessel. Louis C. Hunter, in Steamboats on the Western Rivers, noted that snags, “together with other isolated obstructions were responsible for nearly three-fifths of all steamboat accidents up to 1849.” Snags were caused when trees dropped into the river as the shifting streams eroded the banks, eventually becoming waterlogged and, as Walter Johnson wrote in River of Dark Dreams, “lodged in the riverbed like gigantic halberds waiting to puncture the hulls of a passing steamboat.” While the rate of losses to snags would decrease as the federal government increased spending on river improvements, the obstructions would continue to be a deadly menace on Arkansas waters. 

Fire was the second-most-dangerous peril faced by steamboats, with, as Hunter notes, “the construction of the western steamboat above the main deck…about as slight and flimsy as the exigencies of supporting and enclosing the upper works would permit.” That construction—coupled with often highly combustible cargo such as cotton, hay, and oil—could cause fires to spread rapidly, with disastrous results. 

Perhaps the most feared cause of steamboat disasters was boiler explosions, in which deadly steam, boiling water, and shrapnel could inflict horrible injuries on passengers and crew. This danger was even higher on western rivers where, in the twenty years between 1830 and 1850, Hunter noted “twice as many steamboat explosions occurred on the western rivers as in the remainder of the country, with a loss of three times as many lives, although western steamboats during this period comprised less than half of the steamboat tonnage of the entire country.” While improved engine design and high scrutiny under the federal Steamboat Act of 1852 helped in some areas of the country, “there was an even greater concentration upon western rivers of losses from steamboat explosions.”

Steamboat safety improved greatly after federal regulations were strengthened in 1871; these extended the examining of officers from engineers and pilots to include captains and chief mates, created a supervising inspector of steamboats who would answer directly to the Secretary of the Treasury, and expanded protective measures from just passengers to include members of the crew. The number of fatal accidents decreased substantially following these reforms.

  Fatal Steamboat Disasters in Arkansas
(an * denotes an oil-burning ferryboat disaster)

Date  Name  River  Type  Fatalities 
May 14, 1828  Car of Commerce  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  21 
April 9, 1832  Brandywine  Mississippi  Burned  69 
June 9, 1836  Rob Roy  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  17 
February 11, 1837  Neosho Arkansas  Snagged  1 
November 18, 1839  Wilmington  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  11 
November 7, 1840  Persian  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  30 
December 11, 1840  Cherokee  Arkansas  Boiler Explosion  20 
March 29, 1844  Arkansas Arkansas Snagged 1 
September 8, 1844  Gulnare Mississippi  Collision  3 
December 18–19, 1845  Belle Zane  Mississippi  Snagged  50 
February 14, 1846  Congress  Mississippi  Collision  30 
May 6, 1847  New Hampshire  Arkansas  Exploded  15 
August 20, 1847  Cote Joyeuse  Mississippi  Collision  2 
May 27, 1848  Clarksville  Mississippi  Burned  22 
January 12, 1850  St. Joseph  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  11 to 20 
January 27, 1851  John Adams  Mississippi  Snagged  130 
December 9, 1851  Clermont No. 2
White  Snagged 20 
May 2, 1851  Webster  Mississippi  Burned  40 
January 14, 1852  Martha Washington  Mississippi  Burned  9 
March 14, 1852  Pocahontas  Arkansas  Boiler Explosion  8 
April 16, 1852  Pocahontas  Mississippi  Burned  9 or 10 
January 6, 1853  J. Wilson  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  40 
January 9, 1854  General Bem  Mississippi Snagged  15 
March 5, 1854  Caroline  White  Burned  45 
March 25, 1857  Forest Rose  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  10 
June 13, 1858  Pennsylvania  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  160 
April 24, 1859  St. Nicholas  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion  60 
March 2, 1860  Hickman  Arkansas  Burned  2 
March 21, 1860  Arkansas Traveler  Arkansas  Snagged  1 
April 13, 1860  Defender  Mississippi  Snagged  3 
February 23, 1862  Cambridge  White  Snagged  37 to 47 
April 25, 1863 Arkadelphia City Ouachita Boiler Explosion
January 28, 1866  Miami  Arkansas  Boiler Explosion, Burned  200 
November 25, 1863  Telegraph No. 3 Mississippi  Boiler Explosion, Snag
April 27, 1865  Sultana  Mississippi  Boiler Explosion, Burned  1,800 
July 23, 1864  B.M. Runyan  Mississippi  Snagged  70 to 150 
October 20, 1865  Niagara  Mississippi  Collision  75 
September 7, 1866  Linnie Drown  Mississippi  Snagged  4 
December 6, 1867  J. S. McCune White Burned  1 
March 13, 1867  Mercury  White  Snagged  25 
March 8, 1867  Clermont  Mississippi  Snagged  1 
April 9, 1869  G. A. Thomson  Arkansas  Snagged, Burned  17 
December 18, 1870  Nick Wall  Mississippi  Snagged  39 
October 17, 1873  Mary E. Poe  Mississippi  Burned  6 
April 29, 1908  Miriam  Mississippi  Capsized by Tornado  14 
October 3, 1908  Emerson  Mississippi  Collision  1 
September 3, 1922  Bart Tully Mississippi  Foundered  1 
September 12, 1925  Eclipse Mississippi  Stranded  2 
December 3, 1929  Nancy F * Mississippi  Burned  1 

For additional information:
Berman, Bruce D. Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks. Boston: Mariners Press, Inc., 1972. 

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on Western Waters: An Economic and Technological History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949. 

Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 

Paskoff, Paul F. Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. 

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System 


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