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On the River


Daily Gazette Davenport, Iowa

Pg. 1

Nov.29, 1881




Coroner Morris called his jury together again yesterday morning for the purpose of examining the broken machinery of the Jennie Gilcrest, and to proceed with the inquest.  They went down in a body to the boat yard, but in hauling the wreck ashore the machinery had been all broken up and beat out of shape, so that it was impossible to view it with safe satisfactory results.  It was abandoned, therefore, and the jury taken to “Squire Hawks” Office, and preceded to the examination of a few more expert witnesses. The first called was Capt. W. H. Pearce, of the viola.  His testimony was as follows:  “My license as Master and Pilot extends from Lyons to Muscatine, the rapids included, and I have over thirty ears experience on the river in different capacities.  On Thursday, October 27th, I was at Rock Island with the Viola, and left at 4 o’clock p.m. and saw the Jennie Gilcrest.  The weather was rough and the current very strong.


On my return trip in the morning I saw a lot of empty barrels floating in the river along shore, and as I approached Rock Island I saw the Gilcrest lying on the sand bar opposite the Peoria round house.  I was engaged by Messrs. Nevans & Lowery to go down and try to save what I could from the barge and from the river banks.  I brought up the body of Wm. Wendt on the 29th of October.  I do not think Thursday night the 27th of October, was any more dangerous to navigate, especially to a vessel used to navigate the rapids.  Had the cam rod broken a mile above the bridge no one would ever have heard of it, as they would have had plenty of time to have run the vessel ashore.


Do not think there was time enough to have disconnected the starboard engine or to have done anything with the port engine.  Don’t think the changes needed to have saved the boat could have been made in less than ten minutes.


My custom has been to have an anchor ready at the time when navigating the rapids.  Don’t think a 200 pound anchor would have held the Gilcrest unless it accidentally dropped into a hole and held, and the hawerer properly handled; then it might and might not held; cannot tell.


Think from what I have seen of Mr. Maines (the engineer) that he is a sober and competent engineer.  Don’t know much about either Capt. Dorrance or Mr. Hire.  Think it would have been difficult to have saved the vessel under the circumstances, even in day light.  The captain could have called some to the pilot house by blowing four short whistles; that is generally used as a danger signal.


Capt. Van Sant was next called.  He stated that his occupation was that of a steamboat builder, and had also been master on the river, having had nine years experience on the river.  He thought the trip through the bridge on the night of the 27th of October was safe, as one barge was to have been left above Davenport and he thought the boat could have passed safely through the Moline chain with one barge.  He thought the current was running over 4 or 5 miles on the night of the accident.  He regarded Hire as a sober man.  The vessel was built at Le Claire in 1877, by a firm of which witness was a partner.  He had seen her since that time, and regarded her as one of the best little steamers on the rapids.  The captain could have asked one of the passengers from the pilot house to warn the passengers.


After the examination of Capt. Van Sant a discussion took place as to the advisability of examining more witnesses; but as the only witness who could be had were the bridge guards, and as their testimony would not present any further facts, it was decided that no more evidence would be necessary, and the jury was advised to consider their verdict.


After deliberating about two hours, the final result was given, at about 3:30 p.m. in the following



State of Illinois




Rock Island County


In the matter of the inquisition on the body of W. Wendt, deceased, held at the city of Rock Island:

     We, the undersigned jurors, on oath do find that he came to his death by drowning in the Mississippi river, caused by the wrecking of the steamer Jennie Gilcrest, at the Rock Island bridge, on Thursday, at 10: p.m., Oct. 27, 1881.


We find from the evidence that the said Jennie Gilcrest, in violation of the law, was carrying passengers at night when one had a license to run as a daylight passenger steamer only.


The accident was caused by the breaking of the fall-stroke cam-rod of the starboard engine, when a short distance above the Rock Island Bridge, the vessel drifting under the bridge, wrecking her and causing the death of the deceased.


While we find that the boat was properly equipped, and that the engineer, P. M. Maines, did his whole duty, yet from the evidence we find that the master and pilot, Dana Dorrance, was incompetent and derelict; in duty, in not having an anchor ready and ordering it cut when the engine broke down.  Also that no look out was on duty, as provided by law, and further in not sending word to the passengers of the danger, and having the helpless women placed on the barge.


As to the mate, James Hire, we think he acted the part of a coward, in not making any effort to save the passengers and crew, as having nothing else to do.


And it is the sense of the jury that the duties of a master and pilot should not be vested in one person on any steamer authorized to carry passengers upon the Mississippi river. 


John Barge   David Hawes  J. M. Reticker  Robert Coyne  Albert Warren   John Aster                                                            


*Including the crew there were 28 persons on board when the Jennie Gilcrest was going homeward.  Eleven persons perished:  Wm. Wendt of Cordova; Mrs. Mary J. Camp, widow of Ethrel Camp of Davenport; J. T. Temple, the boats cook, and his niece Miss Sadie Temple of Rapids City; Mrs. Fanny Trevors of Rapids City; John McCabe of Le Claire, Hy. Thomas of Hampton; Chas. F. Johnson of Moline; James Sanford a fireman, and George Sidney a deck hand, and one unknown.


Dan Dorrance, as Captain, and J. A. Hire as pilot lost their licenses as did Pat M. Maines as first engineer.  


Collected and transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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