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Death Rides the Waves of the Ohio River

by Jim Reis

Rev. P C Scott boarded the Steamer Redstone about 2:30 pm on April 3, 1852, at Scott's Landing near Carrollton.  He had been visiting his father near Carrollton and was on his way to preach the next day at a church in Warsaw.  The Redstone was a packet operating between Cincinnati and Madison, Indiana.  On the day of this accident it carried between 80 and 100  passengers.

"Two little girls were sitting at the dinner table when the boat landed, but being unable to drink their tea, on account of the shaking of the boat, became frightened and returned to the ladies cabin to read the Bible to drive away their fears," a witness later said.

"Mr. Scott was in the act of waving his hand in adieu to his mother and sisters, who were standing on the bank, when the explosion occurred. The Mirror said the Redstone, "was backing out from the Kentucky shoreline, when her boilers exploded with a tremendous noise, tearing the boat to atoms and causing her to sink in less than three minutes, in 20 feet of water.  Her chimneys were blown halfway across the river. Spectators on the shore saw Rev. Scott and others, with fragments of the boat, actually blow up in the air," a witness was quoted in a contemporary news story.  Rev. Scott's remains were later found in a wooded area, about half a mile away.

Witnesses said torn clothing and other items littered nearby trees.  The Redstone's first clerk, O M Soper, was blown into the middle of the river but was unhurt.  The two girls who had gone to read the Bible were rescued in part because the ladies cabin was the first place rescue workers searched. Estimates placed the dead at 35.

Steamboat travel in the 1800s could be dangerous, even deadly, and the history of the Ohio River is dotted with steamboat explosions.  The following is a look at some of the steamboat accidents along the Northern Kentucky shoreline, as told through the newspapers accounts of the time.

Moselle-between 5 and 6 pm on April 25, 1838, the steamer Moselle with Captain Perin on the bridge, left Cincinnati for St. Louis.  Between 150 and 200 people were aboard.  According to the Cincinnati Daily Evening Post, "the rafts and neighboring shores and streets were covered with people, many of whom were drawn by curiosity, others to take farewell of their departing friends and relatives."

The steamer still was within view when it was rocked by a tremendous blast. "We never before saw such an illustration of the power of steam.  A part of one of the boilers was thrown more than 1000 feet and crushed the pavement where it fell," the reported wrote.  Two weeks later the casualty list showed 62 people dead, 16 seriously injured, 52 missing and more than 90 people uninjured. For a more detailed story see the Steamboat Moselle explosion article.

    Pine Bluff steamer caught fire and sank in the Ohio River near the mouth of the Licking River in December 1866.  Loaded with ore, it sank in the early hours of a Sunday morning.  No one was injured, but damage was set at $20,000. Arson was suspected.

General Lytle sailed from Newport on August 6, 1866.  The steamer exploded on the Ohio River about 18 miles downstream from Madison, Ind.  About 20 people were killed or seriously injured.

On December 4, 1868 the mail line steamer America was headed up the Ohio River toward Newport and the mail steamer United States was headed downriver toward Louisville.  Between 11 pm and midnight they collided about a mile upriver from Warsaw.

A witness later said, "at the moment of collision both steamers took fire on their bows, from the bursting of some barrels of combustible fluid, coal oil and whiskey, which was instantly ignited in some way.  The flame spread rapidly till the conflagration could be seen for many miles around.  In the meantime, both steamers made for the Indiana shore, which was successfully reached by the America, but not by the United States. The latter sunk to the depth of about 10 feet at a distance of about 100 feet from land.  Here both steamers were burned to the water's edge, all the freight being lost.  The river seemed to be on fire for many hundred feet around, the oil thrown upon the water having taken fire, preventing many of the passengers and crew from jumping overboard and making their way to the shore."  The death count was 162.

The Pat Rogers was a mail line steamer that operated between Louisville and Cincinnati.  It caught fire and sank off Boone County in August 1874. A Covington Journal account said the accident happened about 5 am after a fire started in cotton bales.  The fire raced throughout the boat.  An estimated 10 to 12 people died in the accident.  Among those was a young Covington woman who had been visiting friends in Warsaw, and Charles Resinger, the son of Jackson Resinger, who lived at 623 Bakewell St. in Covington.

Struck by ice flow on the Ohio River on January 8, 1881, the steamer General Lytle sank along the Covington shoreline.  No lives were lost.  Several empty barges tied of New York Street in Newport and a sand barge belonging to the Barkes and Spille Co. of Dayton also were torn loose by the ice floe, but they were snagged before they crashed into anything.

A first class passenger boat and cargo carrier, the Golden Rule was built in 1877 for operation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. On April 1, 1892, it began at 4:15 pm when a man ran up to Captain O P Shinkle and reported a fire on the steamer.  The boat was carrying about 80 passengers and 10 crew members.

The alarm was given but not a minute too soon, for with a sudden fury the flames burst out with a roar, enveloping the entire center and rear of the boat.  Flames jumped across to two nearby boats, damaging the Memphis and Fleetwood.  Passengers were told to leap over to the Keystone State, a boat tied nearby.  That avenue of escape was cut off, however, when it pulled away.  One who tried to jump to the Keystone State but missed was Nellie Maloney, a friend of Captain Shinkle's family.  How she died is uncertain but part of her dress was found on the paddle wheel of the Hercules Carrel and it was feared that she was mangled in the wheel and drowned.  Nine bodies were recovered that first day.

A diver was called but his efforts were hampered by overturned boxes and barrels that prevented him from getting into the steamboat's hold where it was believed people were trapped in the wreckage. The Kentucky Post hired a diver and crew and started its own attempt to recover the bodies trapped in the ship.  Two bodies were recovered that day and another the next. The search was called off two weeks later when no more bodies were found.  A dozen people died.

Described at the time as "one of the largest, best known and handsomest packets on the Ohio River" the Longfellow had more than 110 people on board when it left the Cincinnati wharf on March 8, 1895.  It was also carrying 300 reaping and mowing machines "the largest shipment of harvesting machinery ever made at one time out of Cincinnati."

The steamer was already a day behind schedule for New Orleans when company officials ordered its captain to leave despite heavy morning fog.  Secured to the towboat Hercules Carrel, the Longfellow set out but ran into immediate problems.  The steamer turned sideways and the towboat couldn't turn it around.  Sleeping passengers were awakened by a blast of whistles from the Hercules Carrel.  Seconds later, the Longfellow struck the C&O Railroad piers.

"She literally crumbled to pieces immediately following the collision and the bow of the boat sank while the cabin and stern floated away," witnesses later said.  Rescue operations were hampered by scavengers trying to pick up the valuables floating on the river.  The final death count was 11.

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