Ole Bull and a steamboat disaster

Posted on September 3rd, 2012 by

On December 4th 1868, a terrible riverboat accident took place on the Ohio River, resulting in the deaths of 162 passengers from the two paddle steamers, the ‘United States’ (pride of the US Mail service) and the ‘United States’. Ole Bull was involved in the accident-like any traveller in the 19th Century, he took accidents in carriages, steam trains and boats in his stride. His letters and biography are full of coachman falling under the wheels of their carriages, escaped horses, and overturned vehicles. However this catastrophe, which is memorialised by a plaque by the side of the Ohio River to this day was very much ‘of its time’-made worse by burning oil. He later told the story to his second wife, Sarah, who memorialised in her 1883 ‘Ole Bull, A Memoir’. It’s interesting to see her account alongside the account given by Harpers Weekly.

Arkansas-the-way-it-wouldnt-doArkansas-the-way-it-would-doPeter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Workshop Recording-August 2012)

She writes:

‘It is probable that the artist was never in his life so acceptable to the American people as during his concert tour of 1868–1869. But no kindliness of fortune could prevent the constantly recurring incidents and accidents of this extremely interesting life. In the autumn of 1868 Ole Bull was a passenger down the Ohio River, when a collision between two steamboats occasioned a terrible accident, which involved the loss of many lives. /“On that evening,” as he narrated afterwards, “without having any reason for what I did, I put on my coat and overcoat and went up on deck with my violin–case in hand. It was then past midnight.” Soon afterward the shock occurred. One boat had a quantity of petroleum, which, igniting, poured out upon the river and surrounded both vessels with a circle of fire. He was obliged to spring overboard, but reached the shore with violin and person alike intact, and after a tough struggle up the precipitous and clayey bank of the stream found a firm footing at the top.

Bull’s Gaspar de Salo, from an article in Harpers

He was obliged to walk till daylight before he found a shelter./There was enough music, fortunately, in the violin–case for immediate use; and although the company had lost all their luggage, only one concert was given up. The second night after the accident Ole Bull performed in Cincinnati as announced, but was obliged to appear in his traveling dress.’

The paddlesteamer America, burnt to the waterline

Here is the ‘Harpers’ account:

“On December 4, 1868, the majestic packet steamer, the United States, the pride of the U.S. Mail Line, cast off from a wharf at the foot of Vine Street in Cincinnati, Ohio./Captain Richard Wade, one of the skilled navigators of the two rivers, was her master, J. Reemelin was at the wheel.Dinner had been served. The great cabin was bathed in the rosy glow in the beams of the crystal chandeliers with crimson shades, which swung from the paneled and frescoed ceiling./Two hours out it began to rain. It froze on the decks as fast as it fell. The upper works were covered in a mantle of ice that aptly gave the United States the appearance of a ghost ship. Pilot Reemelin was having a bit of trouble with her because of the prankish wind, which had increased in violence. She had a tendency to yaw and get out of the channel. Capt. Wade went up into the pilot house to stand watch with him and John Hamilton, the other pilot, was also standing by as a matter of precaution. It was a bad night on the river, but the passengers were unconscious of that fact./“Two miles this side of Warsaw, Kentucky is situated Rayl’s Landing. It juts some distance out into the stream. The channel follows it closely. This bend was the barrier from seeing each other’s lights. The America followed maritime law when her pilot twice sounded the whistle, which was a warning to any other boat that might be rounding the bend. Reemlin, in the pilothouse of the United States, failed to hear the warning whistle above the din of the rising wind. Hence no answering whistle from her. Again, Jenkins blew the whistle. This time, the United States responded, but the boats by this time were dreadfully close to each other. As the United States roared around the bend it was seen by the watchers on board both boats that a collision was inevitable./“In the circumstances, both pilots acted promptly. The engines were stopped and the America’s wheels were set to backing. but the momentum of the boats carried them on to swift and certain destruction. The prow of the America rammed the United States on the starboard side, just forward of the steps./“The boats were virtually locked together for a brief time, but the America backed away, but not in time to prevent the leaping flames, spurred into ferocity by the high wind, from communicating to her upper works./“To add to the terror of the situation, the surface of the river was covered with burning oil, and both shores were illuminated and teeming with fantastic silhouettes. The villagers of Warsaw heard the sound of the crash and saw the ruddy reflection in the sky. The church bells were rung. Carriages and wagons were commandeered and rescuers were on the way within minutes after the collision./“Both boats started for the Indiana shore, in the hope of landing and discharging passengers before the fire had complete control, but the perverse wind balked that attempt./Driven from refuge to refuge by the heat, the billowing smoke, and the searing flames, the passengers on the United States finally turned to the river as their only hope of sanctuary, but this hope was in vain, as the burning oil on the water, swept along buy the current, overwhelmed those who dared to leap into the river. The old river never presented a more dreadful spectacle of death than it staged at that midnight hour. It was all over quickly./There the America burned to the water’s edge. The survivors were taken to neighboring farm houses, where they were given primitive first aid for injuries. Very few of them escaped without being hurt more or less severely. The farm wives ripped up their pillow cases and sheets to be utilized as bandages. Couriers on horseback were sent in every direction to summon doctors. In one farmhouse alone there were twelve injured persons, lying side by side on the parlor floor. The true extent of this disaster never was revealed. The bodies of some of those who perished by drowning never were recovered. The nearest estimate to the number of dead was eighty, largely on the United States. Others say 170 perished. The America escaped with three fatalities. The news of this catastrophe did not reach Cincinnati until two days later, and then only when a rescuing steamer put in, having aboard the dead, the injured and numerous survivors who had not been harmed.”

The available list of dead shows these names: “Mrs. R.A. Jones and daughter, Pensacola, Fla.; Miss Mary Johnson, Louisville; Mrs. C. M. Hayes, Nashville; H.H. Burkholder, banker, Louisville; the Rev. Robert Parvin, Philadelphia; a Mr. Elfers; the Rev. F.S. Rising, New York; a Mr. Hammers; Mrs. Clarke, Lexington, Ind.; Messrs. Ferris and Briggs; Mrs. Commodore Thompson and woman friend; Harry Brunswick, Cincinnati; Mr. Garvin, Louisville; Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Crawford, Dayton, O.; O.B. Sappington, Madison, Ind.; Lew Vance, Madison, Ind.” (list is longer and there are significantly conflicting reports of the number of people who died)

“The America was built about a year before she was destroyed and the United States three years before.”

“The trial trip of the America took place on April 27, 1867, with the start from the foot of Vine Street. Two hundred persons were the guests of the Mail Line Company and the occasion was embellished with a superb feast spread in the commodious cabin. She had a gallery cabin over the main cabin and was equipped with 144 staterooms. She was 313 feet long, with a beam of forty-one feet, seven-foot hold, and had thirty-eight-foot wheels. She could make thirty miles an hour downstream and twenty miles an hour against the current. So could the United States.”(Harpers Weekly 1868)