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.”
Fatal Steamboat Disasters in Arkansas
(an * denotes an oil-burning ferryboat disaster)
|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|
|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
|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||Arkansas||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||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|
|November 25, 1863||Telegraph No. 3||Mississippi||Explosion||3|
|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|
|January 28, 1866||Miami||Arkansas||Boiler Explosion, Burned||200|
|September 7, 1866||Linnie Drown||Mississippi||Snagged||4|
|December 6, 1867||Brilliant||Arkansas||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|
|December 9, 1939||Uncle Steve||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
Last Updated: 05/13/2022