IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Argus Roundup Rock Island, Illinois, May 6, 1961
Steamer Grey Eagle Is Wrecked
Rock Island, May 9, 1861
One of the most shocking marine accidents took place about 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon when the sidewheel steamer Grey Eagle, Capt. D. Smith Harris commanding on her down trip in passing the bridge struck the pier of the Illinois side of the draw. It stuck forward of her wheel house, stove the boat and sank her to her brass almost instantly.
The river was filled with pieces of the floating wreck and bodies of human beings struggling for life. Their cries could be heard a great distance.
The steam ferry boat went immediately to their assistance and large numbers of skiffs put out from either shore. Many persons were rescued from a watery grave by the skiffs and hurried to shore. Many persons were in an exhausted state and taken care of by the people.
The wreck grounded near the foot of the island, swung around, headed upstream and was fast. The portion of it above water was covered with human beings who were taken off by ferryboat.
The fright of the passengers was so great that many jumped overboard at once, pluging into the terrible boiling current where it was almost certain death and not a man nor woman aboard is known to have used one of the life preservers, though every room had a full supply.
The shores of Rock Island and Davenport were lined with thousands of spectators and every possible effort was made to save the unfortunate passengers. The excitement among the people and the indignation against the bridge was intense, and only needed a leader to demolish the bridge at once.
Valued at $65,000
The Grey Eagle was one of the Northern Line boats and was owned by the Galena, Dunleith and Minnesota Packet Co. It was valued at $65,000 and it is reported she was not insured but it seems hardly credible.
Capt. Harris, one of the oldest and most competent river pilots and captains, was at the wheel as was his invariable custom when passing the bridge. We visited the wreck and clambering over the broken portion above the fearful current, found Capt. Harris trying to save what property he could from the texas (small upper) deck. We were unable at the time to get his manifest and list of passengers.
The numerous incidents, hairbreadth escapes and heroic actions would fill a column but we have not time for them now.
Captain Quits River After Crash
It was his only accident in 32 years of river piloting but it was his last.
Capt. D. Smith Harris was only 53 at the time his beloved Grey Eagle stuck the Rock Island Railroad Bridge May 9, 1861 but he retired to Galena where he lived until he was 85 in 1983. Never again did he set foot aboard another steamboat.
His one and only accident, apparently resulting from his first serious mistake in navigation judgment, was too much for him.
He was in a dazed condition when he was found picking up odds and ends on the wreck. One of these, a chicken cock (wooden eagle) carved out of a single piece of oak, was saved and now rests in the Davenport Public Museum. The bird had traveled with Capt. Harris’ War Eagle in 1845 and later, until the wreck, on the Grey Eagle.
Rivermen a century ago undoubtedly were amazed that such a superior pilot as Capt. Harris should have such a terrible wreck. This high opinion of the captain resulted even though the 15 miles between Le Claire and Davenport, known as the Rock Island rapids, were the most dangerous on the entire Mississippi.
Steamboats almost always stopped to take on special pilots who knew every inch of the narrow channel, which was always changing. And neither the regular nor the rapids pilots usually attempted to take steamers through the Rock Island bridge. Almost invariably the captain would hire a bridge pilot who specialized in daily crosscurrents around the piers.
But Capt. Harris scorned to hire either a rapids pilot or a bridge pilot. By May 1861 he had had five years experience in negotiating his Grey Eagle precisely as he had on the trip before, since the stage of water had not changed and there was little wind. The current seemed to be materially different. This was the navigation mistake.
The wreck of the Grey Eagle gradually was disintegrated by currents and salvaging operations. (Continued on Page Two)
Collected and Transcribed by
Strictly unconfirmed is a re-
port by Roy A. Wykoff Jr.,
Davenport, that he was told by
a 100 year-old man in 1936 that
Capt. D. Smith Harris delib-
erately smashed the Grey
Eagle into the bridge to keep
seven men from commandeer-
ing the boat to run guns to the
The men, as the story goes,
were William Clark Quantrill,
Frank James, Bob, Jim and
Cole Younger, Capt. Bill Ander-
son and a Capt. Tutt.
Davenport Democrat (Unknown date)
“Crossing of the River by Bridge Here Work of Three Long Years”
Additional account of sinking of the Grey Eagle
In pumping the first cofferdam and succeeding cofferdams, an Archimedes screw was used, the water running up hill. While piers in the bridge were being erected, rafts used to run against them, to the great annoyance of the workmen. Once, at high water, the draw pier had been placed but not permanently loaded or fastened. The middle pier of the draw, of stone, was about feet above the surface of the water and the lower end of the draw pier about the same. Men, derricks, tools blocks of stone, were on the middle pier, and a steamboat was tied to the lower end of it.
Down the river came a large log raft, straight for this pier. Just before the raft struck, a raftsman with an axe cut the forward binding poles. The raft opened, the pier entered the opening; and finally the nosing was torn loose and carried on over the pier. The wreckage swept men derricks, and tools off the middle stone pier, carried away the lower end of it, the steamboat cut loose, and all went floating down the river together.
The Grey eagle went up on a swollen river. Her chimneys were very tall, and carried away the telegraph wires at the draw opening. When she returned down the river something happened and as she struck the stone pier on the east side of the draw opening. When she reached the lower end of the draw pier, the water was already on her boiler deck. As she released herself from the stone pier and rolled toward the draw pier, one male passenger jumped upon the latter, leaving his lady on the boat. At the same time a portion of the crew launched the heavy landing stages and boarded them, and sailed down the river yelling for help. One passenger, later found to be a sea captain, placed two sticks of wood under each arm and went overboard and downstream, and when boats came to the rescue told them to pick up the people who were hallooing, as they were frightened.
The steamer gradually approached the rocks on the island just above the present government bridge site, listing badly to the south. A number of men climbed down on the fenders on the high or north side. Suddenly the hull broke loose from the upper works, shot up and over the men, and settled back onto the water with a great splash.
A negro had launched the yawl, and sculled it back to where the ladies were near the stern of the boat. Men tried to jump in, but the negro would throw the bow of the boat out and they would fall into the water. Then the top of the cabin assumed an almost horizontal plane, the ladies grouped near the center of it.
Explosions of the confined air burst up on the roof, and they would slide down to the level deck. Finally the wreck grounded on the bar. The ferry approached, and when it was close every man jumped for it. Leaving the women standing alone in a group on the hurricane deck of the Grey Eagle.
On the Davenport shore, men rushed to the river, pushing out skiffs, and jumped into them. But they found themselves afloat without oars. Two merchants cut loose a full-sized steamboat barge, pushed out with poles and were soon beyond reach of bottom. They drifted majestically downstream shouting for help to get ashore. The excitement on the river front was intense. Several citizens were shouting for a mob to assemble to go and burn or destroy the bridge at once.
The second engineer came ashore with two game cocks under his arms, and in answer to inquiry as to how he saved them said that the rats all went ashore hen the boat backed out at Hampton; so he went up to the hurricane deck, took them from the coop, tied their legs together, and laid them by his engine on the boiler deck so as to have them when the boat sank.
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