Fulton won the technological race to find a way to utilize steam power
for transportation when he successfully sailed the Clermont on the
Hudson River 1807. He did not solve another problem: how to make such
When we remember steamboat accidents, most of us think about boiler
explosions, which resulted from excessive pressure or faulty equipment,
or both. But the boiler was working well on the side-wheeler "Mittie
Stephens" on February 12, 1869, and did not explode: instead, a fire
burned her to the waterline in Caddo
Lake near the Texas-Louisiana border.
Steamboats became pervasive on America's inland waters during the
first half of the nineteenth century. Moving passengers and cargo
over water was also slower. But with only animal powered wagons, and
after 1837 the "iron horse" railroads as competitors, steamboats proliferated
and their owners prospered. Still, there was danger on the water.
"Mittie Stephens" came out of a shipyard in Madison, Indiana,
in 1863, in time to be a part of the effort to preserve the Union.
She served as a naval packet for a year, but after the failure of
the Red River Campaign in 1864 she was sold. Civilian owners used
her on the Missouri River and then stationed her in New Orleans. In
1866, "Mittie Stephens" began regular roundtrips between New Orleans
and Jefferson, Texas,
via the Mississippi and Red rivers and Cypress Bayou. Her last voyage
began on February 5, 1869. Seven nights later, "Mittie Stephens" steamed
on Caddo Lake near her destination
with 107 passengers and crew, plus cargo, which included hay stacked
on deck. Sparks from a torch basket located on the bow to illuminate
the ship blew in the wind to the dry hay, ignited, and a conflagration
The helmsman steered for shore but the ship "grounded." That meant
that passengers might have saved themselves by jumping overboard and
wading to shore. But the side-mounded paddlewheel kept turning in
an effort to force the ship on to shore, and many who leapt overboard
were sucked into the wheel. Sixty-one people perished.
"Mittie Stephens" burned to the water line, though parts of her, including
the bell, and some machinery, were salvaged. Her remains reminded
those who visit the lake of the danger that await those who move upon
the waters well into the twentieth century.
Things Historical Feb.
8-14, 2004 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
All Things Historical is provided as a public service by the East
Texas Historical Associaton. Archie McDonald is executive director
of the Association and author of 20 books on Texas.
Wreck of the Acadia
by Murray Montgomery
"On her first voyage, during the Civil War, the ship ran aground
near Galveston. Abandoned by her crew, the boat was discovered at
sunrise by a Union warship and destroyed. My great fishing spot is
the gravesite of the Confederate blockade-runner, Acadia."