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The Indiana Messenger, Indiana PA, November 3, 1869:
STEAMBOAT DISASTER ON THE MISSIPPI
Over Two Hundred Lives Lost
The steamer Stonewall, left the wharf at St. Louis, on Tuesday evening, Oct. 26th. As near as can now be estimated there was aboard of the boat when it left St. Louis, about 275 souls.
The boat caught fire at 6 30 on Wednesday evening, at a point a little below Neely’s landing, one hundred and twenty-five miles below St. Louis, from a candle which the deck passengers had near some hay while playing cards. The steamer was run on a gravel bar, the pilot supposing that the passengers could wade ashore on the bar. Unfortunately, at the end of the bar there was a slough, and there it was that the larger number were drowned.
The boat only run on the bar two fee, and the shallowest water about her was five or six feet. The boat, being loaded with hay, burned very quickly, and all efforts to put out the fire were unavailing. The Belle Memphis came up at 9 30, three hours after the accident, and rendered all the assistance possible. Out of 252 passengers and crew, only 30 are known to be saved. The last seen of Capt. Scott he was floating down stream on a log. The people at Neely’s saw the light and hastened to assist. One man rescued sixteen persons with a skiff, and had it not been for this help all would have been lost.
A gentleman from Paducah, KY., swam ashore with a lady, and, at her entreaty, returned to save her child. In swimming ashore he was grasped by a drowning man, and was compelled to shake him off. One man was taken from the wreck so badly burned that he died on reaching shore. Captain Doudy, of Shreveport, Louisiana, was saved. There were 39 cabin passengers and crew. All the ladies on board were lost but one. Fulkerson, the pilot, and the carpenter were the only ones of the crew saved.
Mr. Phelps, of Shreveport, Texas, makes the following statement:
About half-past six yesterday evening I was sitting in the hallway of the boat – most of the passengers being at supper – reading Pickwick Papers, when I heard the alarm of fire from below. At first I though it arose from some of the deck passengers, who were, perhaps, jolly. A moment after I heard a second louder and wilder cry of fire, and then I ran back to the step leading to the hurricane roof, and going in front of the pilot house I shouted that there was an alarm of fire from below. Someone responded from the pilot house, “Well,” intimating, we know it. Then I went to the texas-the gangway of the texas-and met the Captain, Thom?” Then I ran down the steps, went to my room, No. 21; met the ladies from the cabin going forward. I got my overcoat and satchel and started out at the side door, on the right hand side to the guard, thinking the fire was aft. When I came out I met a dense cloud of smoke at the pantry. I ran along the guard forward, and overheard Mr. W. H. Chick, the second clerk, say to some excited person who was making suggestions, “keep cool, we’ll all be saved.” I then passed to the guard forward on the left hand side, and then first saw at what distance the boat was from the shore. She was the aground, and the outside engine was working. Great confusion and excitement prevailed on the deck below. Then I looked about me for some mean of escape, and discovered a life-preserver lying on the deck near me, which some person had brought out in his excitement and forgotten. I pulled off my coat and boots and put on and fastened the life-preserver, and awaited my opportunity to jump overboard, wishing to avoid the crowd and the animals that were stampeding and jumping overboard. I jumped clear of everything, and struck out for the shore. I reached the shore exhausted, and only for the aid of the people upon shore would have perished. I understand there were two hundred and fifty souls on board, and when we left there were about thirty saved.
Elisha P. Watson, carpenter of the Stonewall, makes the following statement:
The first I knew of the fire was this: The officers, including myself, had just sat down to supper, and we heard on of the negroes call out “fire, fire, the boat’s afire” The mate said, “If that d—d [N-word] doesn’t stop hollering I’ll kill the son of a gun.” The mate was irritated, as a negro had given a false alarm of fire a short time before. A second or two after this here was a cry of fire again, intermingled with a sound of excitement and confusion, and every one at the table was instantly conscious that peril existed. We all jumped up from our chairs and scattered, I ran to the forward steps and descended amid a wild stream of passengers, officers and crew – one madly rushing, struggling, closely jammed mass, impelled by a common desire-to escape from the horrors of a burning Mississippi steamer. I saw the fire-we all could see it-gathering headway rapidly, as some of us had seen it before on other boats and all had read of it. The boat was under way, with the wind from the South, blowing the flames rapidly form room to room and from stanchion to deck. At the wheel was Ed. Fulkerson, who promptly rounded the boat to, and ran her up on a gravel bar as the only resort to save life. This bar or lump is near Tea Table, and just below the place called Neeley’s. The fire was now making dreadful quick headway, the wind blowing through the boat from the stern. The stage plank protruded over the guard about fifteen feet. I tried to get others to help me launch it overboard, but no attention was made to my request.
I couldn’t get’em to hear to anything; they were panic struck, and jumping and tearing and struggling and running over one another; I tumbled over on the deck and was trampled on till I hardly felt and breathe in my body; I got up as soon as possible and threw off the heavy coat I had put on previously, ran along the stage, as I thought this the only chance for my life, and jumped into the river; the water was deep and I couldn’t swim, but I got hold of what seemed to me to be a bundle of clothes; the boat was about two hundred yards from the bank of the river-on the Missouri side-and I was trying to get there as quickly as possible; the water was almost alive with people, mules and were loose previously on deck, and some one I suppose cut the horses loose, and the turmoil drove them overboard. The bundle of cloths I struck didn’t support me well, and I went for a ladder. Grasping the ladder was a negro. He kept turning it round and round, until I thought I would be lost, and I call to him “For God sake don’t keep turning the ladder, and we’ll both get ashore!” He must have been out of his wits, for he kept turning the ladder, fell off and went under. I made a dash for a blae of hay, and got on it. The band durst and the hay bale fell to pieces. I then got a small board under each arm, and by this means and a good deal of kicking up of my heels, got to the bank. I was almost too exhausted to stand, and a kind farmer came along and helped me to his house close by where I received much attention. While I was in the water I saw a woman drown right along side of me, but I could not help her. She was an Irish woman, and had been a passenger on the deck. The shrieks and cries of the people drowning, or about going under, were heart-rendering, and made me almost crazy. One of the most terrible sights I ever saw was a drowning child. It came floating past me, but I saw only the little hands and wrists raised, and I thought her last and smothered words were “mother, mother.” Her lips, head, body, so soon to be cold and lifeless, were floating, sinking beneath the rushing water. When I was struggling towards the shore I overtook Vandervoot one of the “strikers.” He was saved, and I saw him get off the Belle Memphis at Grand Tower. I believe the officers and cabin crew numbered about sixty-five and roustabout and firmen fifty. Charles Williams, deck hand, was saved; another deck hand I know of but for got his name. I heard Captain Fulkerson, the pilot, say the last he saw of Captain Thomas Scott, commander of the boat, and Captain J. C. Doty, of New Orleans, they were together on the boiler deck. Captain Scott had a ladder, the same I saw the negro drowned from.
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