The recent historic past always seems interesting and mysterious to me. How those people lived, in the sepia and black and white world that I see them in, draws my wonder. Of course they wandered through life-- living, loving, writing, dying as we do. Subjected to many of the same influences as we, they must have looked upon the past as being as quaint and uninformed, as I do theirs. But life was hard then, and then, and then, back through the ages even for those in the higher class or caste.
This photo was taken looking downstream on the Mississippi from the Eads bridge in St. Louis somewhere between 1880 and 1918, a large segment of time I know but they kept giving these boats the same names after they sank, or burned, or exploded, and it is hard to research one specific boat (the bridge was completed in 1874 and is still in use; and the last Spread Eagle was crushed by ice near New Haven on the Missouri river in 1918 -- near where we live). It was captained by William Massey who carried a bullet that was shot when Wild Bill Hickock was killed in Deadwood, South Dakota during the gold rush. A similar camera angle from the bridge today would show the stainless steel Arch (Gateway to the West) there in St .Louis, without the smoke.
In the 1800's , in the US, these steamboats were very prevalent. One source states that 700 existed in 1838 and, double that, 1400 in 1851. But it was treacherous going on the rivers: If the exploding boilers did not destroy a boat, snags in the shallow waters or ice in the freezing waters might. Of the approximate 7,000 deaths on the boats by 1852, half were caused by explosions of the boilers and two thirds of those occurred as the boat was leaving the landing. (The water was drained from the boiler while boat was at landing but the fires beneath kept the metal hot. Upon leaving, sometimes to create a fast exit for the townspeople to be amazed by, water was flooded to the boilers causing extreme steam for the power exit. Too extreme in many cases as the townspeople were treated to a spectacular explosion.)
Samuel Clements' (Mark Twain) 20 year old brother Henry was scalded and later died as a boiler exploded on the boat he was on near Memphis.
Fortunately the (evil) government stepped in in1852 and regulated the private industry of the steamboat and the railroad by imposing standards for boiler construction and periodic testing. In 1914 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) established up to date codes and standards for boiler and pressure vessel construction which are requiredfor nuclear reactor vessels and coal power plants today.
But life was good if the disasters did not interfere:
|J. M. White (Packet, 1878-1886)|
|Description:||BOAT DESCRIPTION: Sidewheel|
BOAT TYPE: Packet
BUILT: 1878 at Jeffersonville, Indiana; hull built at Howard Ship Yard
FINAL DISPOSITION: Burned at Blue Store Landing, St. Maurice plantation, Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana on December 13, 1886
OWNERS: Greenville and New Orleans Packet Company
OFFICERS & CREW: Captain John W. Tobin (master, 1886); Charles Smith (engineer, 1886); G. Wash Floyd (clerk, 1886)
RIVERS: Mississippi River; Ohio River
OTHER INFORMATION: Ways - 2867; She was a cotton packet. Original price, $103,500. Home port or owner's residence circa 1878, New Orleans. She was named for Captain J.M. White of Cloverport, Kentucky. The J.M. White was the 276th boat built by Howard Ship Yard and the fourth boat that they built for Captain Tobin. Careful selection was made in choosing the timber used in her construction: oak from West Virginia, pine from Pennsylvania and the heavy cylinder timbers, wheelhouse chocks, etc. were from Indiana. She was supposed to be able to carry 10,000 bales of cotton. The cabin was built from August, 1877 to June, 1878 employing ten to forty men. The style of architecture of the cabin was an original idea of Mr. Thomas Bell who planned the cabins for many other boats. Some of the attractive features of the cabin included: stained glass, skylights with busts and statuary in the center of each light, veneered sunk panels laid in rosewood and walnut burl, doors veneered with French burl walnut inlaid with root ash and ebony with panels engraved in gold, an enormous mirror in the ladies' cabin with Gothic frame, gold carvings with panels of ebony relief, bridal chambers paneled in mahogany and satinwood and the other in rosewood and satinwood along with engraving in gold and colors. The main cabin contained seven gold-gilt chandeliers designed exclusively for the White. Dining tables were set with monogrammed silverware and Haviland china. On her maiden trip south, the White towed the partially completed Edward J. Gay. The White never carried her cotton capacity due to poor times and yellow fever. In 1878 she carried her largest load of cotton: 5,067 bales. She ran New Orleans-Vicksburg teamed up with the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez. The cause of the fire which ended her career was gunpowder which was stowed in the boat's magazine in the hold. Several lives were lost but many more were saved due to the efforts of the clerk, G. Wash Floyd. His own life was lost in helping others
Some accounts claim 60 lives lost. I think I would still take my chances on one of these boats back then.