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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

THE MITTIE STEPHENS
DISASTER

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD

On February 12, 1869,
a fire burned her to the waterline in Caddo Lake

Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Robert 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 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 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.


All 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.

Related Stories:
The 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."

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