MITTIE STEPHENS DISASTER
by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
February 12, 1869,
a fire burned her to the waterline in Caddo Lake
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 travel safe.|
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
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 resulted.
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.
Feb. 8-14, 2004 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
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
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."