Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Steel Hull Now are Cheapest  

When the Great River Was Covered With Boats  

The Wolverton Brothers Built a Continuous Hull, Sawing It Off Where The Customer Directed  

  During the time the great river was covered with raft boats the Wolverton Bros., established a boat yard at Le Claire, Iowa at the head of the upper rapids.  Joe and Wm. Wolverton came from the lakes and were good workmen.  They adopted a new and novel method for the construction of boats. They kept a force of men at work building a continuous hull 18 feet wide.  This was about the regulation width of the raft steamers and other boats of the smaller class used along there at that time.  When a man came along who wanted a boat the Wolverton’s would cut off one from this continuous hull and give the purchaser any length  desired.  The model bow and stern would be added, and the hull slid into the river where the upper works would be put on to it.  I remember that their price for a hull was $18 per running foot, built of good oak lumber.  Lumber was cheap at that time and no such figures could be made now.  Lumber has gone up to such a figure that steamboat men of the present time tell me that it is economical to make the hull of steel.  That the steel hull costs a little more, but when taking into account the expense of repairs on the wooden hull for a period of 10 or 15 years the steel hull is the cheapest of the two. 



 Capt. L.C. Alley  

Now living in retirement at his country seat near Fort Madison, Iowa.  A veteran of the upper Mississippi.  Has been mentioned frequently in Capt. Thomas’s Narrative.  

  Joe Wolverton, the youngest of the two brothers was a hustler for business, and made frequent trips on the river, looking for people who wanted boats and he knew how to build them.  With a piece of chalk, on the floor of a building he could quickly draw a diagram of a hull, showing plainly how it was constructed.  He was also a man whom one could recommend and during my time on the river, I sent him $30,000 worth of work.  He appreciated this favor and told me that if I should happen to get out of a job at any time, to come to Le Claire, and he would give me employment in the boat yard.  And I had occasion to accept his proposition.  My boats laid up during the dull season, and I was employed in the boat yard for about 4 months.  Was there twice.  I was not much of a mechanic, but I could saw off a board and hit the head of a nail, part of the time, but I went to Le Claire and reported for duty.  Joe said all right.  That he would give me the easy job on the hull, that of driving spikes.  So that I joined the spike gang.  It so happened that they were nailing on the bottom plank when I went to work.  The bottom of the hull stood up about three feet from the ground, so that the men had to work in a stooping position.  The clamp gang, the hole gang and the spike gang went in under there in their orders.  I was instructed to place the spike in the hole prepared for it, then to step back and with the big heavy spike maul, drive the spike into the floor timber, and to hit it hard.  The pay was $3.50 per day, which was very good for that time, when living expenses were not so heavy as now.  I soon discovered that boat building was heavy hard work.  On the second morning boss Wolverton wanted to know how I was feeling.  I told him that I was all right with the exception of my neck, which was sore, stiff and twisted.  Felt as though some one had put two half hitches in it.  He attributed this to turning my head and looking upward for the heads of the spikes.  So he gave me new instructions.  To simply place in the spike in the hole, step back, line up my eye without twisting my neck, hit the spike and drive it home.  After I got on to this system, and became accustomed to the heavy work, I went along all right, and put in about four months with the spike gang.  This employment, as a side issue, also gave me an opportunity to learn something as to the construction of the boats which I was handling.   

   There was a class of men in the different towns along the upper river, who were in the habit of coming aboard, looking the boat over, getting the price, and pretending that they wanted to purchase it.  We found that in nine cases out of ten these fellows were either professional wind jammers who could not buy the rudders or that they were crooks, working some sort of graft.  I found one of these fellows on the levee at McGregor, Iowa.  I was on a trading boat.  We had sold a load of apples, and was taking on a cargo of potatoes for the down trip.  The boat was new and towed two barges.  A genteel fellow approached me and asked me if I was employed on the steamer and I answered in the affirmative.  He was attired in a neat cloth suit, wore a diamond upon his shirt front, a silk hat, and carried a small cane, with a gold head.  He gave his name as Richardson.  He put up a smooth talk, and like others of his class whom I had met, he wanted to buy a steamboat.  The captain stood on the lower deck and I referred the stranger to him. I was suspicious of the fellow, and while the captain was showing him the machinery, I went up into the cabin and suggested to the clerk that he close the safe until the stranger went ashore, which he did.  The man was very well pleased with the boat.  Said it was just the thing he wanted, and that he would see us again at some point along the river.  He went ashore and returned to the boat again about 5 p.m. It appeared that  all of his talk during the first visit was to form an acquaintance with the captain and the clerk.  He wanted to use them.  When he came aboard the second time the man was in deep trouble.  The banks had closed, he knew of no one in the town, and with plenty of money on deposit in a distant city, he was practically stranded in the town of McGregor.  He put up a smooth and lengthy tale of woe, and finally got around to the main issue.  He wanted the captain to cash a check.  Now, our “cash man,” the captain, wore a slouch hat and cowhide boots but he was not as green as he looked.  He had been in the check game long before he met Richardson.  As a matter of accommodation, he had at one time, cashed a bogus check for a stranger, while on a train between Chicago and Davenport.  He gave Richardson the details of this incident, and them promptly turned him down.  At Dubuque I met a detective with whom I had a slight acquaintance.  He showed me a photo of the man we had met at McGregor.  His real name was Piper, and he was an all round crook and an expert forger, and his work was so smooth that he had beat about all of the banks along the river.  A big reward was offered for his arrest, and the officers were on his trail.  They finally caught him at some point in Indiana and he was brought to Muscatine, where  he had worked the bankers for several thousand dollars.  The officer with Piper in tow reached Muscatine about midnight.  Instead of placing him in jail, the detective allowed Piper to occupy a room at the hotel.  The forger knew that he was in a close place, and that the doors of the penitentiary would soon open to receive him, so he jumped from a second story window and made his escape.




Story of the tragedy By Chas. H. Patten, Who Boarded the Boat At Memphis only a few Hours Before the Terrible Explosion.


   The Sultana disaster, twelve miles above Memphis, in the a. m. April 27, 1865, was more disastrous than the titanic disaster, that is to say, in the number of lives lost in proportion to the lives on board of the two vessels.  The Sultana landed at Memphis about 9 p. m. April 26, 1865.  The writer being well acquainted with the chief engineer, Lemuel Wilson, whom I served under as assistant on the steamer, Fanny Ogden, during the winter of 1862 and 1863, went aboard of the Sultana to renew an old friendship.

  Mr. Wilson told me about the trip up from New Orleans, leaving the port with about 250 hogsheads of sugar in the hold and other miscellaneous freight, and about 25 passengers.  When just a few miles below Vicksburg he discovered that one of the boilers was leaking badly at the ends of the flues, so when the boat landed at Vicksburg he requested  the captain to lay over until the necessary repairs could be made.  Mr. Wilson told me how he had to have two (2) sheets put in two of the boilers over the bridge wall and roll the flues of three of the boilers.  I forgot to state that the Sultana had a battery of six tubular boilers, with fore and aft mud drums under her, the same, connected under the bottoms of the boilers, and in addition to these, there were what is known as chaulk joints, these being open flared connections, about 8 inches in diameter between and riveted to the boilers over fire doors near the front cuds.  This arrangement made it possible for the water to pass from one boiler to another rapidly and incase the boat was listed that is to say, down on one side or the other, the water could run to the lower boiler freely.  By keeping this fact in mind as we describe a few of the succeeding details.  I shall be able to dispense with all mystery in connection with this, the greatest life destroying explosion of steam boilers that ever occurred.

  There were some steamboat men then that thought that the Sultana was a mystery, but when I relate what Mr. Wilson, the chief engineer told me, the minds of the readers will be disabused of  all thought of mystery in the Sultana explosion.  When the repairs to the boilers were completed at Vicksburg, the U. S. Quartermaster at Vicksburg ordered the Captain, Bart Bowen, to take aboard some soldiers, about 975 including the officers.  These were returning prisoners of war, the most of them from Andersonville prison, an emaciated hollow eyed lot of men, who were now tasting the air of freedom once more-the first time in years-and they were happy as children when they staggered aboard the boat, thinking of home and friends once more and on account of their previous suffering and present condition, the restless soldiers were allowed the widest liberty of action that their cramped quarters permitted, and they were continually moving about; any unusual sight on either shore was a signal for a general rush to that side of the boat, causing a list of the boat which if prolonged, would be sure to result disastrously.

  The army officers had been told of this and for a time preserved order and kept the men to their allotted places, but finally their vigilance relaxed and the duty fell upon the officers of the boat, which, as may be supposed caused a friction between the crew and the soldiers, the latter resenting any attempt to curtail their liberty, thinking no doubt that their past suffering among enemies was sufficient without being held in bond and kept under restraint by their friends.

  The chief engineer (Wilson) fully sworn of the situation and conscious of the fact that the officers of the boat were powerless to command, even in an emergency, became alarmed at the frequency of the lists, and prepared as best he could, to avert the danger.  He ordered the hot water hose to be coupled up, and stationed men at the nozzle, and in position to lighten up and shift the body of it from place to place, as he might direct.  He then went among the guards and in the dark told the men of the danger of crowding to either side of the preparations he had made, and that he had the authority to use the hose, and warned them to move and move quickly whenever he gave the order to do so; while he knew that all the men in the lower deck if gathered to one side were in no wise a counterbalance for those on the two upper decks, yet they would assist in preventing a dangerous list. Had this system thus inaugurated, been in vogue on the two upper decks, the  boat would have made the voyage in safety, but unfortunately this was not the case, the soldiers being left to wander about at will, crowding across decks at something new to look at and escaping the threatened danger only because the objects of interest were about evenly divided between the two shores.  The boat was thus continually listed from side to side and the engineer and the assistants were kept busy all the time except when the soldiers were asleep.

  After taking on coal from coal barges, taking on enough to make the run to Cairo, Captain Bowen tapped the bell and the writer stepped ashore, little thinking that the captain had rang the bell for his last time, and also of any disaster that was to come.  I went down to the boat that I was on, a government boat, and retired about midnight.  It seemed to me that I had scarcely got asleep when I was aroused by the watchman of the boat telling me that he thought the Sultana had blowed up, for he had heard the detonation.  I quickly dressed and went out on the boiler deck from where I could see there was great excitement on the levee at the report of the Sultana’s explosion.

   The wharf was soon crowded with people.  The little steamer, Mark Cheek had just came to the levee and proceeded up the river and did valiant service in rescuing a great many of the sufferers of the disaster, bringing the rescued and about 80 to 100 dead bodies down to the city.  The dead were laid out in rooms on the wharf boat, and when at daylight many went to view the dead, I counted the bodies but I have forgotten how many there were.  The business houses and residences were draped in mourning for two or three days.  The Memphis Bulletin came out with leaded columns, and everybody seemed to me to be in great sorrow for the disaster.

  I met my friend Mr. Lem Wilson, the chief engineer of the ill fated Sultana, in St. Louis the year after the disaster, and he related to me the full details of the explosion. First, Mr. Wilson told me about the U. S. Quartermaster crowding the soldiers on the boat at Vicksburg, against the protest of the captain and the boat’s agent, departing from Vicksburg with about 2,200 souls aboard, and what occurred after departing from Memphis.  He, Mr. Wilson, said that after departing from Memphis the boat had swung out into the stream, the human cargo had become a restless, moving mass, and that the lights of the little town of Hope a short distance above Memphis, gave him renewed cause for alarm.  The soldiers rushed to the larboard (or port side) and it listed the boat over so that the buckets of the starboard wheel were out of the water.

  The possibility of turning over so frightened the soldiers on the upper deck that they ran back of their own accord, and for a time prevented a dangerous list.  This incident, while it increased the restlessness of the soldiers, did not prevent its occurrences, and any light, however faint or distant, continued to attract attention.

  When the boat was making the long crossing from St. Claire to what the steamboatmen called “Paddy Hen and Chicken,” the hoodoo water of Island 40 and whether a presentment, founded on previous occurrences of travel,  actuated the engineers, are weather it was a precaution, due to the belief of the hoodoo power of the Island, the speed of the fuel pumps were greatly increased, and the boilers were pumped up until the water level, if taken on an even keel would have been found only a few inches from the top of the shell.  The assistant engineer was trying the water at the time, and when the gage stick was pressed against the upper gage cock of the starboard boiler, the boat was felt to careen suddenly to port, and so far over that steam started out of the second and bottom gage cocks when he tried them.  The thump of the starboard engine as the wheel was lifted almost clear of the water, caused him to drop the gage stick and run to the front of the box, where on account of the extra list, he found it necessary to shut off all steam from that engine.  The port wheel was buried nearly to the shaft in the water, the soldiers in terror ran to the opposite side of their own accord.  There was universal panic, orders were unheeded, discipline forgot and the engineer, knowing that no power on earth could prevent a disastrous explosion, if the boat remained longer in her present position, ran to the middle of the deck room and gave a hurried glance at the water gages.  His heart sunk within him as he noted that the gage needles of the starboard boilers pointed downward and that steam was issuing from the upper flanges of the stern draw legs.  The surging of the steam pipes over his head and a groaning in the port cylinder, told him plainer than words that the water from the boilers was now passing over to that engine.  His first thought on seeing the position of the water needles was to order the fires drawn, then it became necessary to shut down the port engine.  It seemed a long while since the water left the outer boilers.  He felt that the shells were red hot from the fierce fires that were burning under them and that plate and seam were already stretching out to the bursting point, and he knew that when the water ran back into them again the sudden increase of pressure would tear them to atoms.  While he stood undecided, he felt the boat righten itself, not gradually and steadily as would have been natural in such a case, but with a sudden short, jerky motion, that caused the decks above and beneath him to tremble and crack as if their planking and beams were being wrenched apart.  Almost paralyzed with fear he turned and ran to his station as fast as trembling limbs would carry him and ascended the steps.  As he faced about the sound like the hissing of a snake, followed immediately by a thunderous report accompanied by a rush of steam and hot water, stunned and blinded him for a moment and when he opened his eyes in the awful pandemonium that ensued he stood half stifled and alone on the station.  The whole upper works from the boilers aft, except the wheelhouses and a portion of the ladies cabin were blown away.

   The stacks toppled over, carrying pilot house, texas and the midsection of the boiler decks with them, the whole crashing down together, crushing and mangling hundreds that were pinned between decks, while those on the hurricane roof were hurled to their death in the water below.  Sheets of flame from the furnaces shot upward igniting the splintered timbers, and ran aft with the speed of thought, winding the whole after portion of the boat in a seething flame of fire.  The port wheel, sunk to its shaft, was kept rolling by the force of the current.  The bulkhead of the bakeshop, behind the engineer had been blown away and the wild cries of the burning victims sounded in his ears, and the flames surged up and around him.  He turned and jumped into the water just forward of the wheel and passed under, clinging to one of the buckets.  On rising to the surface his head came in contact with a long wooden ladder, to which he and some others equally fortunate, clung until it became entangled in a clump of young trees growing in the water a little distance from the Arkansas shore.  From this position he saw the burning wheelhouses fall outward, and the last remnant of the upper works at the rear disappear in the flames, and most terrible of all he saw the head of the boat turn downstream. 

  The wind had been blowing toward the stern, and all forward of the fire room had escaped the flames.  Fully five hundred people were huddled together on the unburnt upper deck and forecastle.  Now as the boat swung around the fire with added fury ate into this last refuge and the closing scene was possibly more horrible than the beginning.  As the fire advanced scores fell or were pushed overboard.  A life boat was thrown from the hurricane roof bottom up and crashed down on the heads of those below, drowning many more than it rescued.  Husbands tied life preservers to their wives and children and pushed them over into the struggling mass. Door and shutters were torn off and the maddened men fought for possession as they fell into the drowning throng, heavy stage planks and bales of hay were thrown into the water, only to sink with those they fell upon and rise too far away to be of any service.  The flames were now leaping forward to the jack staff forming a canopy of fire and smoke above the doomed people, and when the last supporting stanchion burned away the remnant of the upper deck fell forward on to the crowded for castle and the last living soul on board perished.  In side of forty minutes from the time of the explosion the drifting hull was a mass of twisted iron and smoking timbers, over 1,900 people lost their lives and the only mystery is, that there were so many saved from explosion and fire.

   Captain Bart Bowen’s body was never recovered.  The engineers were not to blame for the explosion.  The ones most to blame were the officers in command of the post at Vicksburg for crowding and overloading the boat.  

                                    Signed Chas. H. Patten 



         Chas. H. Patten


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