Heyday Of The Floating Palace

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From the earliest days, steamboat operation was plagued by boiler explosions. The tenth boat to be built, Shreve’s Washington, exploded on her maiden voyage in June, 1816, the first of a long series of such disasters which, next to racing, became the most notable feature of the steamboat legend. By 1850 some 185 boats had blown up with a loss of life exceeding 1,400. One of the most spectacular of these occurred in 1849 when the Louisiana exploded at the levee in New Orleans. Two boats lying next to her were leveled to the water and the force of the explosion carried a heavy piece of metal five city blocks. The Louisiana sank within ten minutes and some 86 persons lost their lives.

Of all the explosions on the river, the worst took place in April, 1865, when the steamer Sultana [see AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1955] picked up 2,400 returning Union prisoners of war at Vicksburg and crowded them with 180 civilian passengers and crew onto a boat designed to hold one-sixth of that number. In the middle of the night, a few miles above Memphis, a boiler exploded and the Sultana caught fire. It was a rainy night; the Mississippi was at flood stage and three miles wide. Many were killed by burning and drowning. The official count of the dead and missing in this disaster was 1,547—more than were lost on the Titanic.

Other accidents took their toll. Snaggings—running into heavy sticks of timber implanted in the bottom of the river—caused many a sinking. Collisions—the result of careless or negligent operations, especially at night—were not uncommon. Next to explosions, fire was the most dreaded hazard. The boats were made of wood and there was a constant danger of flying sparks from furnaces and chimneys. In 1837 the Ben Sherrod was on a trip from New Orleans to Louisville. Trying to overtake a rival, the captain of the Sherrod ordered the fireman to pile on fuel. The boilers became overheated and set fire to sixty cords of pine wood stacked too close for safety, and in a matter of minutes the boat was a flaming torch. The fire set off a barrel of whisky, the boilers exploded, and finally some forty barrels of gunpowder let go. Of the 200 passengers aboard the Sherrod, 72 perished. Other steamboats were nearby, and some picked up survivors; but one, the Alton, steaming to the rescue, only succeeded in plowing through the hapless victims in the water.

A man named Cook, a passenger from the Sherrod, managed with some other survivors to grasp a floating object. As they were being carried downstream, they saw a man standing on shore, hailed him, and implored his help; soon he came out into the river in a small boat looking for baggage and boxes in the debris of the wreck. When he came close, the man asked with the utmost sang-froid , “How much will you give me?” When he was not satisfied by what was offered, he paddled off, saying, “Oh, you’re well off there; keep cool and you’ll come out comfortable.”

But there were lighter sides to steamboating, too. Nearly every boat was sooner or later given a nickname by the cheerful, carefree roustabouts who carried the freight on board and off on their shoulder bones. Quick to seize on some characteristic of the boat, the Negroes came up with some fantastic titles. For instance they called the Ouachita—“Oyster Loaf,” Danube—“you be dam,” Paul Tulane—“Two days and a half,” Richmond—“Rebel Home,” G.W. Sentell—“Broken Back,” Mabel Comeaux—“Vuss Maker,” and Wheelock, probably because of the scant quantity of food served them—“Starvation.”

The boats themselves were often given intriguing names, like Silver Heels, Swan, Starlight, Dew Drop, Fawn, Lotus, Swamp Fox, Grand Turk. Captain E. Parker, master of the packet Piota, called his boat by that name because the letters stood for “Parker is obliged to all.”

The men who ran them were as distinctive a breed as the boats. The most picturesque character aboard was generally the mate. He had one of the most demanding jobs—down on the main deck with the freight, the deck passengers, and the rousters. His temper and vocabulary were legendary; he had to be tough and he had to know how to handle Negroes, for roustabouts respected and would work well for a mate who understood them, even though he might be stern and take a stick of wood to them on occasion.

The engineer had the hot and sweaty job of keeping the engines going, often for days at a time without the opportunity to make repairs. The engineer was almost certain to pay with his life if he made a serious error in judgment with his boilers and his engine. Generally, the engineer was taken for granted; nobody thought much about him except during races or in case of disaster when he was the first to be blamed—that is, if he was still around. The striker was his assistant.