IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Wreck of the D. A. McDonald
According to Jerome E. Short
“When Rafters Ruled”
Written by Fred A. Bill
In June 1872 the D. A. McDonald, going up stream, blew up near the pontoon at North McGregor and 18 lives were lost, including that of the captain, French Martin. In July the James Malbon, also enroute upstream blew up a little above the McDonald wreck with a loss of 15 lives, including that of Capt. James Malbon, for whom the boat was named and who was part owner. Whether on account of superstition or for other reasons, it soon became the practice for boats to go up the Prairie du Chien channel rather than up past these wrecks. Engineers reported that in many cases their boilers would foam when nearing the channel on the Iowa side and would not cool off until they got past the ill-fated places. This made other engineers and pilots suspicious and so we all used the Prairie du Chien side. There was a report out that a fortune teller in La Cross had said that the Chancy Lamb would be the next to go up, which certainly was a cheerful outlook! Dick Dixon was our chief engineer and one trip up I told him we were going up the Iowa side channel. He said: “Oh, Lome, don’t do it!” I said we would go that way just to see what would happen. When a little below McGregor he told me, through the speaking tube, that the boilers were foaming! I said to let them foam, that it did not matter for if we were doomed we would go ahead full speed and soon have it over with! Meantime I was at the wheel and could not help wondering as to what kind of a place I would find to light if we did go up! The crew was all back on the guards and the engineer outside the engine room door. We got past the McDonald disaster and nothing happened and were equally fortunate as to that of the Malbon and we heard no more about foaming boilers. There was a suspicion that something in the yellow river water caused the boilers to foam but as it was always reported soon after passing the mouth of the Wisconsin, if it was anything as to water, the trouble might be in the Wisconsin at certain times. One of our men had an explanation, so far as we were concerned, which was that we were “sanctified” and that nothing could interfere with us! I told him that Mr. Chancy Lamb considered us all hopeless and not entitled to any sanctification either here or hereafter!
E. H. Thomas
Life on the Mississippi
Another account of the explosion of the D. A. McDonald
The D. A. McDonald, a stern wheel boat, with good power and fast, met with a similar accident, except that she was under way at the time. This accident occurred just above the town of McGregor, Iowa. She was a new boat and had two 22 foot steel boilers. She was used as a raft boat and was on her upstream run, with the raft crew aboard. Twenty-seven of these raftsmen were killed and drowned. An investigation was made by the steamboat inspectors, but the cause of this disaster was not shown by the evidence. The engineer was one of the best on the river, and he stated under oath that he had two gauges of water at the time of the accident, and his testimony was corroborated by another. It was customary in those days for pilots and engineers to pass each other up and down the river, and they would frequently visit each other. Mark Twain refers to this class of men as “visiting pilots.” On board of the ill fated D. A. McDonald was W. N. Pierce of Rock Island a well known river engineer, and he was the guest of the engineer of the McDonald. Pierce was blown high in the air, but lived to tell the story of the disaster, and this is the way he handed it out to us: “Boys, do you want to know hot it felt to be blown up? If so, I can tell you, for I went up ahead of the boilers of the D. A. McDonald. I was lying down in her cabin reading a book. I heard the noise, felt the force, of the concussion and knew what had happened. I passed into a swoon, altho I knew what was going on. Someone, or something appeared to be gently lifting me up toward the blue
Sky, and all around me I could see the wreckage of the boat. It all occurred in a few moments, yet it appeared a long time to me. Up and up I went, and I thought I would never stop. But soon I was descending, going toward the river. I was traveling faster than the boards and timber around me, and going head foremost. Soon after starting downward one of my legs struck a timber and I turned a somersault. The timber cut a great gash in my leg, but I was now going feet foremost, and being a good swimmer concluded that I was all right. I took in a long breath and was ready for the plunge into the river-and I was soon there, for through the force of gravity, I was going some when I hit the water. Down, down I went toward the bed of the river. As when in the air, I thought I would never stop, but I did without hitting the bottom. Then I came to the surface. Seeing some of the wreckage near me, I seized it. I was weak and exhausted, but with the assistance of the raft of wreckage, I soon reached the Iowa shore. For a time, I was working one wheel. My injured leg was numb, and I could not use it. It was a close shave and, as I frequently tell the boys, I think I did a wonderful thing. Made a round trip in the air, up and back, one in the water, turned a somersault and swam ashore, and all this in a few moments. But say, boys, I don’t want any more of it.” The pilot was killed, and the engineer was found in the woods on the Iowa shore with one leg and several ribs broken, but he was taken to the hospital and recovered. One of the raftsmen was found upon an island in such a crazed condition that he could not remember his name or tell how he came to be there.