Stanley Nelson

DURING THE predawn hours of May 5, 1825, the steamer S.B. Teche sank 10 miles south of Natchez near the old mouth of St. Catherines Creek north of Ellis Cliffs. The boat had anchored on the Concordia shore at A.C. Henderson Point in Concordia Parish due to fog before taking off again at 2 a.m. when the vessel’s boilers exploded causing a fire onboard. An estimated 25 passengers and crewmen were killed. Many survivors clung to floating cotton bales before reaching shore or being rescued. (Credit: Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, James T. Lloyd & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, 1856)

Almost 200 years ago, word spread up and down the Mississippi of a horrible disaster.

Downriver from Natchez -- in the dark before dawn in May 1825 – a steamer went down with 70 passengers on board. Most were strangers to one another.

Only hours earlier, the travelers had no thoughts of disaster as the S.B. Teche departed Natchez “heavily laden” with cotton.

Captain Campbell directed the steamer downriver when, according to a report in Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, “the night became so excessively dark and hazy” that for the cause of safety the captain was compelled to anchor 10 miles south of Natchez on the Louisiana shore.

This location of anchor can be pinpointed by referring to an early 19th century book (The Navigator) by Zadok Cramer. He reported that the mouth of St. Catherine’s Creek was 10 miles below Natchez and a mile north of Ellis Cliffs, placing the Teche’s position on the Concordia shore in the Deer Park vicinity.

A packet boat, the Teche carried cotton and produce up and down the Mississippi, stopping at big towns and at plantation landings. She also carried passengers. Those who could afford it slept in the first class deck in relative luxury while those who couldn’t were regulated to cramped conditions in the lower decks where they roomed with cotton bales, freight and livestock.

This was the beginning of the period when “the Ohio and Mississippi became literally covered with steamboat fleets,” according to Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, “and they were also soon found on every deep tributary of these streams.”

Rowland wrote that by 1834, there were 230 steamboats on western waters and by 1844, the number grew to 450: “Their average burden was 200 tons each … In 1840-42 the best boats could make the voyage” from New Orleans to Natchez, “a distance of 285 {river} miles, in 22 hours, at a speed of more than 12 miles per hour against the current of the Mississippi. The same boats would run from New Orleans to St. Louis in four days and half, against the impetuous current, above Natchez; or at the rate of 9 miles per hour the whole distance of nearly 1,200 {river} miles.”

 

‘AN INPENETRABLE DARKNESS’

 

By 2 a.m. on the morning of May 5, a few hours after the Teche had left Natchez, the fog lifted and Captain Campbell decided it was safe to continue the downstream journey.

“The steam having previously been raised,” reported Lloyd’s, “the boat had just begun to pursue her voyage, when the passengers, many of whom had been sleeping in their berths, were startled by a shock which seemed sufficient to separate every plank and timber in the vessel, accompanied by a report which sounded like the discharge of a whole broadside of the heaviest artillery.”

Many on board knew what had happened. The vessel’s boilers had exploded.

“Every light on board was immediately extinguished, either by the escape of steam or the concussion of the air,” according to Lloyd’s. “As the day had not yet dawned, an impenetrable darkness now hung over the scene of the disaster, the extent of which could only be imagined by the affrighted and horrified crowd collected on the deck; but at that moment of appalling danger, and still more dreadful uncertainty, was heard a cry that the boat was on fire!”

In his book (Steamboats on the Western Rivers), Louis C. Hunter wrote that the “causes of steamboat fires were in general plain enough, although the origin of particular fires was often obscure. The construction of the western steamboat above the main deck was about as slight and flimsy as the exigencies of supporting and enclosing the upper works would permit. Thin floors and partitions, light framing and siding, soft and resinous woods, the whole dried out by the wind and impregnated with oil and turpentine from the paint, made the superstructure of the steamboat little more than an orderly pile of kindling wood.

“A combustible cargo – cotton loosely compressed in bales, covered with burlap and bound with rope; hay sometimes in bales and sometimes in bulk; straw used as packing for a variety of goods; oil and spirits in barrels that were not always tight; even gunpowder in kegs – such freight added to the hazard.

“Lack of space in the deck room or hold and convenience in handling often led to the stowing of articles of this kind, along with other cargo, on the guards or on the unsheltered hurricane deck. Finally, the wood used for fuel was placed near the bow, beside and often touching the furnace.”

 

THE ALARM OF FIRE

 

The alarm of fire instantly created chaos aboard the S.B. Teche.

“Then,” reported Lloyd’s, “followed a scene of indescribable confusion; the passengers, in the very insanity of terror, were rushing hither and thither, through the dense and ominous gloom, and many anticipated their doom in their erring endeavor to avoid it.

“Mr. Miller, of Kentucky, one of the surviving passengers, who afterwards published in a New Orleans paper a narrative of the events of this fearful night, states that when the alarm of fire was given, he attempted to go towards the bow, from whence the cry proceeded, but before he had advanced ten paces, he was precipitated down the hatchway, (the hatches had been blown off by the explosion,) and after falling, fortunately on his feet, to the bottom of the hold, he found himself knee-deep in scalding water, which had been discharged from the fractured boiler.

“He would soon have perished in the suffocating vapor which filled the place, had not his cries for assistance been heard by some humane person on deck, who threw him the end of a rope, and thus enabled him to escape from his agonizing and perilous situation.

“By this time the flames began to ascend, illuminating the deck with a lurid glare, which enabled the passengers to discern the means of escape which offered, though these means were made less available by the terror and confusion which prevailed. The yawl made several trips to the nearest shore, carrying off a load of passengers at each trip; but as the flames began to extend rapidly over the deck, it was evident that all the people on board could not be saved in this way.

“In these circumstances, the Captain gave orders that bales of cotton should be thrown overboard, and on these many passengers were kept afloat until the boats finally took them off.”

 

‘INEXORABLE FATE’

 

As the flames revealed the horror on the waters of the Mississippi, prayers for rescue seem answered just as all hope was lost for the remaining survivors – a dozen – still clinging to hope aboard the steamer.

“But the last incident of this tragic narrative is one of the most distressing,” reported Lloyd’s. “About three o'clock, A. M., the steamboat Washington, while passing up the river, was hailed by the survivors on board of the burning vessel. The Washington promptly sent a boat to their assistance, and waited to receive them. 

“All who remained on the Teche (about twelve in number), embarked in the Washington's boat; and now, assuring themselves of safety, they had reached the side of the steamer, when, by some unlucky accident, the small boat was upset, and every person on board, man, woman, and child, was drowned. It would seem that their inexorable fate had doomed them to destruction.

“The number of lives lost by this accident could never be ascertained. Several persons were instantly killed by the explosion, and others were so badly injured, by scalding, or otherwise, that they died soon afterwards. It is thought that not less than twenty or thirty were drowned.”

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