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 Oct 22 

  On the return trip we had a moderate amount of freight and a few passengers.  The water had praised a few inches by the time we reached the rapids on the return trip but not enough to help us much as the freight was all put on the barges and hauled up the shore by horses and we crept over with the boat as best we could.  We ended the trip at le Claire where the Alhambra was put on the ways for the winter.  I went directly home from Le Claire and prepared to spend the winter there.

  Meantime my wife had returned from Galena and on November 5th, soon after my arrival home, a fine baby boy came to our house to our great delight.  During the winter an additional room was built on the D. C. Hanks home and we went there to live with father Bennett, having been boarding with the family of W. G. Newitt previously.  It was not a pleasant winter for any of us.  My wife did not get along well after the birth of the boy and there was much sickness in our large household, at one time five of the children being ill.  David lost his oldest child, a girl some four years of age and our own little one was taken from us after we had him about four months.  The others recovered and we were all glad to see spring again.

  My work in 1858 began about the middle of March, the first trip being to Le Claire from where I took the Itasca to Galena.  My first trip north was on the Grey Eagle with Capt. Smith Harris but we went only to Read’s Landing as the ice was not out of Lake Pepin.  On our return to Galena I was transferred to the Galena for the regular seasons work. Our crew was much the same as the year before except that we had George Blish for clerk.

  This season we felt the effect of the panicky times that were in much of the country the year before and the general unrest that was in the country preceding the War of the Rebellion Money was getting scarce and hard to get passengers travel gradually fell off but our freight business kept up reasonably well.  The settlers were beginning to have a surplus of crops to dispose of and the increase in our down stream shipment helped to off set the decrease in those going up stream.  Wheat, oats, ginseng and Petri continued to come to us and to these were added other farm produce, but the commercial depression was slowly making itself felt and was visible in the general unsettling of values, decreased wages, produce values getting lower and the country flooded with so called wild cat money that might be worth from par down to nothing.

  I have now no recollection of any event of special interest occurring during the early part of the season.  We were making a round trip every five days and the line was running smoothly.  On June 30th we were on our way up river and I had the watch ending at midnight.  As soon as relieved I went to bed but had hardly fallen asleep when the cru of “Fire” came.  During my watch we had an up stream wind which laded the sparks from the smoke stacks directly on the boat.  It was supposed that some sparks fell on some mattresses that were piled up on the forward part of the boat.  Just below Red Wing is a steep and very high bluff coming very close to the river.  As we passed this bluff and came to the open valley between the two ranges of bluffs there the wind come down the valley and fuelled the smoldering fire into a blaze which spread so fast there was no chance to stop it, so a general alarm of fire was given and orders were to land the boat as quickly as possible and fortunately the regular landing at Red Wing was made.  My first information was from the engineer who came running up to the texas and called to us to get out for our lives as the boat was on fire and sure to go. I hurriedly attempted to dress but did not get much on except my trousers and one boot and one shoe.  Then I gathered up an arm full of clothing and made my way down stairs and off the boat and found then that the clothing I had belonged to the other pilot, so my own clothing, including my wedding sty was lost.

  The officers and crew on watch endeavored to clear the cabin of passengers, of whom we had about a hundred.  In some cases the state room doors were smashed to save time in getting the people out and ashore. Few got away with enough clothes to dress themselves, many having a single garment only, a number of women and a newly married couple being in this predicament.  We had landed right in front of the hotel facing the levee and it at once threw open its doors and took every one in; stores were opened and many were able to buy clothing, others got goods and made temporary outfits.  Much of the baggage went into the river and the next day the banks were lined with clothing for miles below, some being recovered but most was lost or picked up by fishers and others who were not interested in finding the owners.

  There were five lives known to have been lost, one being an old lady who was traveling with a niece or daughter.  The old lady was dazed and the younger women had much difficulty in getting her from the room but when she had succeeded and hurried on shore, presuming the old lady would follow, she discovered that the old lady did not follow her.  A gentleman passenger said he noticed her just aft of the wheel on the shore side just as he was about to jump into the river, apparently hesitating and undecided as to what she had better do.  He at once decided to throw her into the river but before he could reach her to carry out his purpose she turned and ran back into he room, right into thee fire and he saw no more of her and mumped for his life.  I retain a more personal recollection of him than of most of the other passengers as he afterward sued the company for loss of his baggage. 

  Another was a child lost in the confusion and probably burned as no trace was found of it.  It belonged to a family that was emigrating  and they had a lot of stock on board.  There were some thirty head of cattle and a lot of pigs.  The most of the cattle were cut loose and driven overboard and many were afterward picked up.

  I do not wish to sell unduly on the heart rendering scenes of this disaster.  Many such have occurred on this great highway and this is but one of the series that have followed steamboating from the beginning and a mild one at that for many have resulted in death in one of its dreadful forms to hundreds and leaving others in a condition often worse than death.  This was no such disaster as it might have been but it was sufficient to leave an indelible impression on me that I never wanted repeated.

  It was evident that all had been done that could be done and those of us who were not driven to hunt for covering for nearly naked bodies or looking after the welfare of friends soon became thoroughly fascinated by the scene which now made a most magnificent as well as terrifyi8ng spectacle.  The boat as were most of the packets the, was a side wheeler, each wheel being propelled by a separate engine.  In the hurry landing the steam to the engine o the outside of the boat had not been shut off and the engine continued to run and the wheel to revolve as the fire destroyed the wheel house, making a scintillating mixture of fire and water.  The wheel house was all burned away and until the great heat of the fire had softened the copper steam pipe so that it burst with the pressure that was still on from the boilers and the deafening roar of escaping steam was added to the already distracting din.


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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