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AT BLACK Hawk Point in southern Concordia Parish in 1854, the steamer John L. Avery hit a snag and quickly came apart, claiming 85 lives. Almost two decades earlier, the steamboat Ben Sherrod sank at the same location following a boiler explosion, claiming 150 lives. In both cases, the two steamers were racing other vessels. Note: This map is not to scale and the Washita River denoted on the map is actually the Black River. (Credit:Panorama of the Mississippi Valley, F.W. Bowell, 1863, Library of Congress)  

Almost two decades after theBen Sherrod sank at Black Hawk Point along the Mississippi in southern Concordia Parish, another steamboat disaster claimed dozens of souls at the same location.  

In 1854, theJohn L. Avery hit a snag and quickly filled with water. In a short period, an estimated 85 passengers and crew members were dead.  

The disaster quickly became a national story. One crewman was remembered for his acts of heroism, while more than three-dozen undocumented immigrants – all Irish – were among the victims.  

While boiler explosions and fires cost many lives on steamboats, these vessels, like the flatboats during the frontier days, faced an ever present obstacle hidden beneath the surface: Submerged trees that snagged the passing vessel.  

When such a collision tore a hole in the hull of a steamer, the hole, if small enough, could be immediately plugged.  

According to Louis C. Hunter (Steamboats on the Western Rivers), if the “hull filled slowly the shore or a sandbar might be reached, but when, as frequently was the case, the boat went down too quickly for this, fatalities depended upon the depth of the water. If the accident occurred in mid-channel with the water at an ample stage or in a deep pool, the entire boat, save perhaps the hurricane deck, was usually submerged, and only those able to reach the upper deck would be safe. The number of serious disasters of this kind was limited by the general shallowness of the rivers, the frequent proximity of a shoal on which a snagged boat might be run aground, and the slight danger from snags when the river was at a stage sufficiently high to submerge the damaged boat.”  

Hunter wrote that there were 10 major steamboat disasters caused by snags before the Civil War and “all but one occurring in the lower Mississippi. Most of these accidents took place at night and on upstream trips. In nearly every instance the damaged boat went down within two to five minutes of the time of striking the snag and in water so deep that only the hurricane deck, if even that, remained above water.”  

The four worst disasters, according to Hunter, involved theTennessee near Natchez in 1823, the Shepherdess in 1844, the John Adams in 1851 and theJohn L. Avery in 1854 at Black Hawk Point, which was also the site of the 1837 sinking of the Ben Sherrod following a boiler explosion.  

Both theJohn L. Avery and the Ben Sherrod were racing at the time of their accidents.  

 

‘PERILOUS SITUATION’  

 

Commanded by J.L. Robertson, theJohn L. Avery, was a new steamer, which, according to Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory (1856, James T. Lloyd Company, Cincinnati, Ohio), had been “built in the most substantial manner, and furnished with every necessary equipment for a first class passenger boat, being designed as a regular packet between New Orleans and Natchez.  

“She left New Orleans, on her customary trip up the river, on March 7th, 1854. She stopped at Point Coupee and took in a large quantity of sugar and molasses; and on the 9th of the same month she passed the steamer Sultana, off Black Hawk point, forty miles {by river, 30 miles as the crow flies} below Natchez; and having left the Sultana, (with which she appears to have been racing,) about a mile astern, she struck what was supposed to be a tree washed from the shore by a recent freshet. A very large leak in the bottom of the boat was the consequence of this accident, and although the pilot immediately steered for the shore, the steamer sunk before she could get near enough to land the passengers.  

“Mr. J. V. Guthrie, an engineer, and the carpenter, were standing just forward of the boilers when they heard the crash—the boat at the same time making a sudden surge to one side. The carpenter immediately lifted the scuttle-hatch and leaped into the hold, but finding the water pouring in too fast to admit of any attempt at repairing the damage, he made haste to get out again, at the same time giving notice to the engineer that the boat had snagged. Mr. Guthrie, perceiving that the boat was going down, hastened to the engine, but before he got there, he was up to his knees in water. The cabin passengers were hurried up to the hurricane-deck. Soon after, the boat righted, and the hull separated from the cabin and sunk in sixty feet of water.”  

 “As the hull parted from the upper works, the surging of the waters caused the cabin floor to rise up against the hurricane roof, and six persons who remained in the cabin were dragged out through the skylights by Capt. Robertson and his two clerks. Mrs. Parmin, one of the six passengers rescued from that perilous situation, had her eldest child in her arms at the time, and was with difficulty prevented from plunging in again, as her babe was left asleep on the bed.  

“But the situation of the deck passengers was the most calamitous; there was a large number of them crowded in their allotted place, where they were walled in by hogsheads of sugar, which would have prevented their escape, if escape had been otherwise possible. These unfortunate people were nearly all drowned.  

“There were many Irish emigrants on board, whose names were unregistered, and there is a great deal of uncertainty respecting the number of those who perished. Eyewitnesses testify that a large number of men, women and children could be seen drowning at one time. Of the twenty firemen on board, twelve were drowned.  

“The second mate and another person launched the life-boat, but it was almost immediately upset, probably by the eager and ill-directed efforts of the drowning people to get into it. The steamer Sultana, with which the Avery had been racing, promptly came to the rescue of the drowning crew and passengers, and was the means of saving some of them; but the number lost is believed to be at least eighty or ninety.”  

 

MRS. SEYMOUR’S ACCOUNT  

 

Mrs. Seymour, one of the cabin passengers who escaped, later recalled the horrific incident.  

Based on her account,Lloyd’s reported that while “passengers were at dinner, it was remarked that the atmosphere of the cabin was overheated, a circumstance which one of the party accounted for by stating that some unusual means had been used to get up extra steam, as the officers of the Avery were resolved to outrun the rival steamer, Sultana. Mrs. Seymour had retired to her stateroom for an afternoon nap, from which she was aroused by the concussion when the boat struck; and soon after, she found herself in the water.  

“She was drawn up into the floating cabin by one of the waiters, named John Anderson, who, as Mrs. Seymour testifies, was instrumental in saving the lives of several other passengers. She states that her pocket-book, containing nine hundred dollars, which had been placed under her pillow, was lost. She also lost a manuscript which she was preparing for the press, and which she valued still more highly than her pocket-book.  

Mrs. Seymour recounted:  

“I cast my eyes upon the water, which was covered with fragments of the cabin. To these frail supports human hands were clinging, while many human voices were crying, "’Save me! Oh, save me!’  

“The water at first was dotted with human heads, sinking and rising, and then sinking to rise no more. A sudden splash drew my attention to the side of the boat, and I saw that a young lady, who had been drawn from the inundated cabin through the sky-light and placed in safety on the floating deck, in the delirium of the moment had plunged again into the water, from which she never again emerged. Several others followed her example, but appearing again on the surface, they were rescued by the waiter Anderson and two or three others of the boat's crew, who never slackened in their efforts to save human life.  

“Two or three gentlemen leaped into the water and swam to land. A fine Texan pony, belonging to Mrs. Emerson, escaped from the deck, and endeavored to save himself by swimming. He reached the shore, but not being able to climb the bank, he fell back into the water and was drowned. In a faint but earnest tone, I heard a female voice say, ‘Oh, William, do save her!’  

“On directing my gaze to the place from whence the voice came, I saw a woman sinking in the river. At the same time a child's voice exclaimed, ‘Oh, mother, he cannot save me!’  

“I saw her fair hair, all wet, fall back from her young face as her little arms loosened their grasp on the neck of her brother, and the mother and her two children sank together.”

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