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Lucy Walker Steamboat Explosion, 1844

Lucy Walker Steamboat Explosion, 1844
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The Lucy Walker steamboat disaster was caused by the 1844 explosion of the boilers of the steamboat Lucy Walker near New Albany, Indiana, on the Ohio River.

It was one of a number of similar accidents of early-19th-century riverine transportation that led to important federal legislation and safety regulations.

The vessel’s owner was a Native American, her crew were African-American slaves, and her passengers represented a cross-section of frontier travelers.

The explosion occurred on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 23, 1844, when the steamer’s three boilers exploded. The vessel caught fire and sank in the Ohio River near New Albany, Indiana. The demise of the Lucy Walker was not the worst steamboat disaster in American history, but it was among the most deadly. It is possible that more than 100 persons died that day.

The Lucy Walker was an average vessel of her time: 144 feet long with a beam of 24 feet 6 inches and a draft of 5 feet 6 inches. She displaced 183 tons.

She was built at Cincinnati, Ohio in 1843. The official government certificate issued for the Lucy Walker contains a statement under oath in which Joseph Vann swore that he was a U.S. citizen from Arkansas; this statement was false; he was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation from Indian Territory (once part of Arkansas). Vann was famous for the great wealth inherited from his father, James Vann, including a famous mansion (Chief Vann House) and was known as "Rich Joe" Vann (to distinguish himself from a cousin also named Joseph ("Tenulte") Vann, who was the Assistant Principal Chief of the Western Cherokees) [McFadden].

"Rich Joe" Vann was the proud owner of a prize-winning race horse named "Lucy Walker", which he probably purchased in 1839 from an advertisement in the (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette for sale at Memphis, Tennessee: "Lucy Walker, 3 years old, by Bertrand, dam Jane Little, now in training" The filly was not only a frequent winner in quarter mile races, but also produced many colts that Vann sold for as much as 00 each. When he purchased a steamboat at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1843, Vann named his new vessel after his equine pride and joy. It is unknown if the filly was one of the unacknowledged passengers that fateful day.

By 1842, "Rich Joe" Vann owned several hundred slaves at Webber’s Falls, who worked on his plantation, took care of his horses, operated his steam ferryboat, or served as crew for his steamboat Lucy Walker. On November 15 of that year, some twenty-five slaves belonging to Vann, Lewis Ross (brother of Principal Chief John Ross), and other wealthy Cherokees at Webber’s Falls locked their owners in their homes, and began a futile flight for freedom, heading for Mexico. The fugitives were joined by slaves owned by Creek Indians, but were quickly recaptured by a Cherokee posse, and many were beaten as punishment, but unlike other slave revolts elsewhere in the South, none were killed Vann took his black rebels to crew the Lucy Walker to separate their bad influence from the other slaves at Webber’s Falls. One of the participants in the "Big Runaway" was a slave known as Kalet or Caleb Vann. In 1937, his daughter, Mrs. Betty Robinson, told an interviewer of the Works Progress Administration: "I was born close to Webbers Falls…in the same year that my pappy was blown up and killed in the big boat accident that killed my old Master".

The WPA also interviewed another former slave, Lucinda Vann, who told a story about Jim Vann, an engineer or fireman aboard the steamboat who was forced by Captain Vann at gunpoint to toss slabs of meat into the boiler since the fat was supposed to superheat the boiler water and thus increase steam pressure. Vann had been drinking, and was engaged in a race to New Orleans with a steamboat that had left Louisville with the Lucy Walker. According to Lucinda Vann’s account, Jim Vann threw in the meat into the firebox, and then leaped overboard just before the boilers exploded. Essentially the same story was also told by Robert P. Vann, grandson of "Rich Joe." R.P. Vann talked with, but did not name the Negro fireman, who was supposed to be the only survivor of the explosion. Also killed in the explosion was 20-year-old Preston Mackey, uncle of Robert P. Vann and son-in-law of "Rich Joe". Lucinda Vann recounted that an arm of Preston Mackey was recovered (recognized by the design of his shirt sleeve) and placed in an alcohol-filled container and sent to Webber’s Falls. There a doctor would occasionally display poor Mackey’s appendage for the curious (including Lucinda Vann).

The steamboat’s home port was Webbers Falls on the Arkansas River in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The boat frequently steamed to both Louisville, Kentucky and New Orleans, Louisiana. She was a side-wheeler, with three boilers, only one deck, no masts, no figurehead, and an above-deck cabin.

Among the first passengers of the new Lucy Walker in March 1843 were 200 Seminole Indians transported from New Orleans to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, under charter to the U.S. Army The Indians had been captured in Florida by the Army as part of federal efforts to remove southern Indian tribes to Indian Territory. Five years earlier, other commercial steamboats had been used by the Army to transport Vann’s fellow Cherokees to the West as part of their own Trail of Tears.

Thomas F. Eckert, John Cochran, and Thomas J. Halderman had successively served as master or captain of the Lucy Walker. Captain Halderman was an experienced river man, who since 1820 had worked as fireman, deck hand, engineer, and captain on steamboats, and later was a steamboat inspector. For some unknown reason, Halderman was replaced in Louisville just before departure, and her owner, Joseph Vann, took over the duties as captain.

Lucy Walker departed the Louisville wharf at noon on Wednesday, October 23, 1844, outbound for New Orleans. Some of the passengers were perhaps excited about the looming Presidential campaign in less than a fortnight between Whig and Kentucky native-son candidate Henry Clay and Democrat James K. Polk of Tennessee, while other passengers had likely participated in the pre-Churchill Downs horse racing season at Louisville. Aboard at the last minute was a Presbyterian church delegation. Lucy Walker probably avoided the rapids known as the "Falls of the Ohio" by traversing the new Louisville Falls Canal. She then crossed to the northern bank and picked up additional passengers at New Albany, a major river port.

About 5:00 on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 23, 1844, the vessel’s engines stopped and she drifted mid-river about 4 to 5 miles below New Albany while some repairs were made. Suddenly, the three boilers exploded in a mighty blast, propelling shards of metal and pieces of human flesh. One man shot 50 feet in the air, to fall as a missile, piercing the boat’s deck. Another was sliced in half by a piece of a boiler wall. The vessel then caught fire and quickly sank in 12 feet of the Ohio River. Soon the water was filled with bodies of passengers and crew of the Lucy Walker, both living and dead. Many were mangled or burned and survived only by rescue efforts of Captain L.B. Dunham and the crew of the nearby snag-boat Gopher, which had been removing underwater obstacles under contract to the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers.

Among the dead were General James West Pegram, a lawyer and banker, whose sons were important Confederate officers in the Civil War. Pegram was also an important leader in the Whig party. Samuel Mansfield Brown was identified as a postal agent from Lexington, Kentucky. On August 1, 1843, Samuel M. Brown was one of the protagonists in a famous frontier brawl at Russell Cave, Kentucky, with Cassius Marcellus Clay, a Louisville newspaperman, emancipationist, and distant cousin of Henry Clay.

Only two children and none of the women died, probably because their cabin was further from the blast than the hurricane deck where most of the male passengers were gathered. Newspapers did not name Vann’s slave crewmen. Thirty-six passengers and twenty crew members were identified as killed in the explosion, and forty-eight passengers and seven crew members who survived, with a total of 111 persons aboard. The pilot, Captain Thompson, estimated that there were at least 130 travellers, including deck passengers, and a thirty-man crew when the Lucy Walker left Louisville.[ Since the vessel’s passenger manifests and crew lists were lost, there is no way to know precisely how many died.

Loss of steamboats by collision, fire, or river obstacles (snags) was well understood, but boiler explosions seemed arbitrary and mysterious. Immediately after the loss of the Lucy Walker, many newspapers began to speculate on the cause or causes of the explosion. One paper opined that a faulty force pump and low water level in the boiler was the cause. Another newspaper reported qualms about reckless behavior of the boat’s officers or shoddy construction of the boilers. Later there was speculation that steamboat racing might have contributed to the disaster.

The high death toll of steamboat disasters like the Lucy Walker sparked public concern, litigation, and Congressional debates about insurance issues, compensation of victims, responsibilities of vessel owners and masters, and need for state or federal legislation. There were ad hoc local and Congressional investigations of individual steamboat disasters, especially those involving boiler explosions. The general public was concerned that steamboat racing contributed to these disasters, but many steamboat captains and passengers were thrilled by the excitement and gambling accompanying the contests. Much of the problem was ignorance by steamboat operators. In these early days, the physics and mechanics of boiler explosions was not well understood. Designers did not know the tensile, compressive, or shear strengths of metals. Engineers did not know the effects of scaling, mud, etc. on feedwater pumps. Safety valves could be overloaded, and there were few pressure gauges. Too low water levels in boilers led to overheated boiler walls. Sometimes owners were simply too frugal or greedy to pay for good equipment or competent employees.

In addition, steamboat safety was an important aspect of the larger conflict between partisans of Andrew Jackson’s states-rights vision of America as a federation of strong state governments and Henry Clay’s "Internal Improvements Program" by a strong central government. An inadequate 1838 law was greatly strengthened by the Act of 1852, which included hydrostatic testing of boilers, the establishment of maximum pressures allowed, and inspection of boiler plate at the point of manufacture. In addition, engineers were subject to testing and licenses. Subsequent legislation led to the establishment of the Steamboat Inspection Service and eventually a real reduction in fatal episodes. Among the first government sponsorship for pure scientific research was a grant to the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia for the study of causes of boiler explosions. The investigation of steamboat fatal accidents like the Lucy Walker in the early 19th century was paralleled by similar actions taken after fatal crashes of airships and aircraft in the first half of the 20th century, which resulted in the establishment of the Federal Aeronautics Administration.