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Research and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas


 “In case the evidence proves that the officials are guilty of negligence, their licenses will be revoked, and suit will be filed against them in the United States District court for Iowa.”   The Daily Argus, November 2, 1881, page 4.


Daily Gazette, Tuesday Morning, November 1, 1881, page 4.


  Capt. George W. Girdon and Mr. J. G. Scott, the Government steamboat inspectors for the district, are at the Harper House.  They came to investigate, according to law, the cause of the disaster to the Jennie Gilchrist.  They began operations this morning in a private room at the hotel, and all their proceedings will be kept secret until they are published.  We have Capt. Girdon’s assurance that the investigation will be thorough.


~~~ *** ~~~


Davenport Democrat, Tuesday, November 1, 1881, page 1.





There has been no search for the hull of the steamer Jennie Gilchrist which lies a 11th of a mile off the foot of Warren street, as yet, though it was intended to have the diver, Capt. Wall, go down to it this afternoon.


The government inspectors, Girdon for boilers and Scott for hulls, arrived at the Harper House this morning, and commenced investigation as the cause of the calamity.  They sit with closed doors, and do not permit the presence of reporters.  Coroner Morris is aiding the inspectors.  The inspectors say that they are going “to the bottom of the whole business,” and fix the responsibility of the disaster, if anyone is responsible.  James Osborne, who acted as Davenport agent of the steamer, and Capt. Falkner, of the night police, who went out, with Auerochs and McGee that night, to save lives, and did save Mrs. Wendt, have been summoned to appear this afternoon.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Daily Argus, November 1, 1881, page 4




How the Accident will be Investigated.



There is the strongest belief that the accident will be fully and carefully examined, and the mediate and immediate causes thereof fully inquired into.  The investigation will be conducted not alone by the coroners of Rock Island county, Illinois, and Scott county, Iowa, but also by the United States Board of Steamboat Inspectors, of which Capt. Girdon, of Galena and Capt. Scott, of Dubuque, are the members.  In this triple search for all the facts connected with the dreadful affair of last Thursday night, by which eleven persons lost their lives, it is fully expected that if any one is to blame either directly or indirectly, one of these three examinations will result in placing the blame where it most certainly belongs.




Capt. Girdon of Galena and Capt. Scott of Dubuque, the two United States Government Inspectors of steamboats for this district arrived last night and commenced this morning to inquire into the causes of the fatal accident to the steamer Jennie Gilchrist.  This examination will be secret as only one witness at a time is allowed before the Board and the two veterans who conduct the inquiry are determined to make it as critical and searching as is possible under the circumstances.


The well be no whitewashing either officers or crew and if either or any of them shall be found guilty of carelessness or criminal negligence the accused will have to answer for it in the proper court.


If the evidence taken shows that carelessness was exhibited after the cam rod was severed and before the floating craft came into contact with the bridge, or if it was found that due care and diligence was not used, then the license of so many of the officers as are concerned in the accusation will be revoked, and the owners thereof will have to retire from the river business and adopt some other calling.


If the testimony adduced at this investigation show that there was criminal negligence from which cause death resulted to the eleven passengers and crew who that night found a watery grave, then proceedings will be instituted in the United States court, and the punishment due in such cases will be meter out.


This enquiry is in the nature of a grand jury proceeding in which the finding of the Board answers to the indictment of the grand jury.  It possesses this exception, however, that the Board of Inspection is the final court so far as revoking the license of the officials of a steamboat upon which the accident occurred.





On the arrival of Captains Girdon and Scott last evening, they were visited by an Argus representative to gain such information anent the investigation as was deemed proper to be made public.


In response to questions, the gentlemen stated that they had issued summons to all the witnesses of the accident, and were determined to get at all the bottom facts, let the consequences be what they may.  They thought that such a searching investigation was due alike to the officers and crew of the boat as well as to the public, and they did not propose to “white-wash” anybody or anything, but intended to find out all about it and then make their decision.  They fully expected to commence the investigation last Friday or Saturday, but owing to the sickness of Capt. Girdon the visit had to be postponed.


In speaking of the ill fated craft Captain Girdon said that she had been built but four seasons and was a good and secure steamboat.  The boilers formerly in use had been condemned and the owner was obliged to replace them with good machinery which rendered the boat first class in every particular.  A passenger license had granted her to carry between twenty and thirty passengers.


The gentlemen in speaking of the investigation started that it would be difficult to tell how long such investigation would continue, as the facts might all be gathered in a few days, and then again it might require months.  They both expressed themselves as determined to get the inward facts, and time was of secondary consideration.

The progress of the investigation could not be made public, but the finding of the Board was of necessary public property.


The judicial proceedings of such were found necessary after the investigation would go to the district nearest whose shore the accident occurred.  As the mishap took place near the Iowa shore, the suit will be instituted by the United States District Attorney for Iowa.


The accident to the Jennie Gilchrist was regarded by the Inspectors as the most serious that had occurred on the upper river for the past seventeen years.  It was the only mishap in the whole district that had resulted in loss of life the present season, and the district includes all the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers.


The next most serious accident which had occurred in the district was the explosion of the steamer Lansing, at Hampton, a few years ago.  At that time several people were badly scalded, but it did not prove as serious as was at first expected would be the case.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Daily Gazette, Wednesday November 2, 1881, page 4.




The investigation by the steamboat inspectors as to the cause of the recent river horror, began yesterday at the Harper House, and will continue until the whole thing is perfectly understood.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Davenport Democrat, Wednesday, November 2, 1881, page 1.





The steamboat inspectors, Messrs. Girdon and Scott, were occupied again today in examining witness and others concerning the Jennie Gilchrist disaster.  They occupy a parlor at the Harper House, and sitting with close doors admitting but one person for examination at a time.  Newspaper reporters are not allowed to get within earshot of the council chamber.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Daily Argus, Wednesday, November 2, 1881, page 4.




The investigation of the causes of the recent accident to the steamer Jennie Gilchrist, by which eleven lives were lost, as conducted by Government Inspectors Girdon and Scott, is proceeding in a satisfactory manner at the Harper House, in this city.  The Inspectors have made a personal inspection of the scene of the disaster, and are now engaged in hearing the testimony of the officers, crew and passengers of the ill fated craft.  In addition to these witnesses, the guards and engineer on the bridge will be examined, and the full details of that fatal mishap will be brought to light before any official action is taken by the Board of Inspectors.  In case the evidence proves that the officials are guilty of negligence, their licenses will be revoked, and suit will be filed against them in the United States District court for Iowa.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Davenport Democrat, Thursday, November 3, 1881, page 1.





The steamboat inspectors Girdon and Scott are awful busy across the river holding an investigation over a steamboat calamity which occurred on the Iowa side of the channel, assisted by Coroner Morris who officiates over a body which was found in Scott county.  Ah, well—the time will come when such inspectors will be hoisted out of office so far that they will never see it again.


~~~ *** ~~~


Davenport Gazette, Friday Morning, November 11, 1881, page 4.





One of the Government Inspectors Talks for Himself.



ROCK ISLAND, ILL, November 4

   We have been here since Monday, the 31th ult., investigating the cause which led to the loss of the steamer Jennie Gilchrist the night of the 27th of October, and wherein six passengers were drowned.  We have taken about 100 pages of testimony and examined over twenty witnesses.  I find the newspaper reports are malicious misrepresentations.  Not one of the officers or crew were drunk, and none of the

officers drinking men.  We also find upon evidence that the boat was duly fitted out with all the requirements of the law, and this in the most minute particulars.  The boat was fully repaired and docked this spring.  We inspected her the day she was launched at LeClaire, Iowa, April 19, and found her one of the best, safest and best officered boats of her size on the river.  The coroner of this county is now holding an inquest and the testimony as published in the papers of this place agrees with that taken before us, and fully substantiates all the facts as I have herein set forth.  The newspapers here wanted just such a sensation to fill up their local columns, and when the Coroner publishes his verdict it will give them another sensation.  I will personally appear before the Coroner’s jury tomorrow, and insist on my part, that they fully investigate my official acts in the inspection of this boat.  We shall be here several days, as we shall push everything to the bottom facts, and then return to report.  In this case there will be no whitewashing, and we will show for ourselves clean hands.

                                                        Very Respectfully,

                                                                     Geo. W. Girdon,

                                                                     U. S. Local Inspector.


The above is a communication from Captain George W. Girdon to the supervising Inspector of Steamboats at St. Paul as published in the papers of that city.  Capt. Girdon is very reckless in some of his statements, particularly when his investigation has been chiefly concerning his own official acts, and an ordinary amount of modesty would have induced him to express himself more carefully.  The same would be true if he had a becoming respect for the truth.  When he says the newspapers are “malicious misrepresentations” he errs, to term it as mildly as possible, because everybody knows that the newspapers could have no motive for misrepresenting; and when he says they “wanted just such a sensation to fill up their columns” he heartlessly misjudges.  Instead of “six passengers” having been drowned, the best information to be had puts the number at nine or ten.  When Capt. Girdon attempts to insinuate that none of the crew had been drinking on the night of the fearful disaster, he puts his word against the sworn evidence of more than one witness as competent as himself.  When he slightingly anticipates the verdict of Coroner Morris’ jury, and intimates that it will a job of “whitewashing”, he insults six men, every one of whom is disinterested, and no one of whom is investigating himself.


Daily Argus, November 12, 1881, page 2.


Captain George W. Girdon, United States Local Inspector of steamboats has been freeing his mind in a letter to the supervising inspector at St. Paul.  The accuracy of the statements continued in the letter are best exemplified by the one that only six were drowned when it is an established fact that the least number was nine and perhaps eleven.  Mr. Girdon is evidently chaffing under the statement that the inspectors were derelict in their duty and although the Argus has never yet made that claim, a letter like the following is almost enough to persuade it that there is some foundation for it; at least such an evident effort at self justification at the expense of all truth argues strongly in that direction.


(The letter from Mr. Girdon that appears in the above article is the same that is appears next.)


Capt. Girdon states that the newspapers reports were “malicious misrepresentations, particularly when his investigation has been chiefly concerning his own official acts, and an ordinary amount of modesty would have induced him to express himself more carefully.  The same would be true if he had a becoming respect for the truth.  When he says the newspaper reports are “malicious representations” he errs, to term it as mildly as possible because everybody knows that newspapers could have no motive for misrepresenting; and when he says they “wanted just such a sensation to fill up their columns” he heartlessly misjudges.”


  And further on it represents him again: 

  “When Capt. Girdon attempts to insinuate that none of the crew had been drinking on the night of the fearful disaster he puts his word against the sworn evidence of more than one witness as competent as himself.”


His statement that the “newspapers here have wanted just such a sensation to fill up their local columns” is an old and worn out dodge.  You will never find a man who has committed any act which draws down merited newspaper criticism who does not rebel against said criticism and refer to any mention as sensationalism and the paper as sensational.  Sensational is a cheap word and easy of use, but the people prefer a paper which gives them the facts without fear or favor instead of hiding facts or suppressing evidence; call it sensational or what you will.  His last and worst claim is in regard to Coroner Morris and the jury, and although here at home where Mr. Morris and the men who compose the jury are too well known and too highly respected to fear any insinuations which Mr. Girdon may have to bring against him, yet they will have their effect abroad.  The coroners and the jury have no spite to work out against Mr. Girdon and are simply investigation the facts of the case, and if witnesses as competent as the valiant inspector, testify to facts diametrically opposite to those which said inspector would have us believe are true, he is only following the well known practice of trying to prejudice the community against the tribunal which may render a decision against him.  His last remark “we shall show for ourselves clean hands” show plainly the animus of the entire letter.  “We shall show for ourselves clean hand” is best interpreted.  “We will endeavor to have all blame taken away from us” and that endeavor seems to be his sole purpose.  To that end he has shown a total disregard for the truth, to be mild, in his communication to the supervising inspector.  To that end he has acknowledged that his investigation was conducted.  To that end he has tried to prejudice his chief against the verdict of the jury be that what it may.  His attacks on the papers are futile.  Their readers are fully able to arrive at their own conclusion as to whether or not their statements are “malicious misrepresentations” or plain details of an unwelcome truth; whether there are sensational or simply a fearless desire to keep the public informed as to the facts.  Whether or not the “coroner’s jury will furnish another sensation,” is a question as to the use of the word.  It will give its unbiased opinion as to the causes which led to the terrible loss of life at that disaster; Mr. Girdon can call it sensational if he so desires.  All that is necessary to say in regard to the actions of the newspapers here is that they gave an account of what was certainly a horrible accident, as furnished by the witnesses whose credibility was beyond question.  That account has gone before the people as creditable and true; no reason has yet occurred why it should change.  That account was not furnished through malice, nor was it dictated through a desire for sensationalism; it was a plain, unvarnished tale of what were reportedly persons we were bound to believe.


If that account is wrong the proper authorities will so determine, but if it is not in the province of Mr. Girdon to so assert in any Pontius Pilate attempt to “show himself with clean hands.”


~~~ *** ~~~


The Davenport Democrat, Friday, November 18, 1881, page 1.




Perhaps Mr. George W. Girdon, steamboat inspector for this district—whose attempts to excuse his own weakness in allowing the steamer Jennie Gilchrist a license to carry passengers, by whitewashing the carelessness of the officers of the steamer in not having suitable anchor ready for emergencies and in not properly warning the passengers of their danger—has read the report of the supervising inspector general, who says the present system of steamboat inspections very faulty and of little protection to the public, and he advises complete reformation in the matter of inspection.  Mr. Girdon will not accuse the supervising inspector general of being “hungry for a sensation!”  And here is a note from the St. Louis Republican which Mr. Girdon can hug to his bosom:

    Steamboat inspection is a good part a perfect farce, and we didn’t need a report from the supervising inspector general to convince us of that fact.  To a very great extent it is just as much a shallow and meaningless form as the supervision of a bank’s affairs by the usual board of respectable and gentlemanly directors.  The regulations may be broken a thousand times and no harm come, but this affords no excuse when great damage is done in one case out of a thousand, or a million, by the violation.


And the case of the Gilchrist is described in the paragraph.  Inspection which would grant such a boat permission to carry 30 passengers must be a farce—and then when you come to add the criminal temerity of the officers in attempting to make the rapids in a dark night with 20 passengers on board and a barge and flat-boat in tow, Inspector Girdon’s letter to his chief exoneration the officers, is simply of a piece with the farce of inspection.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Daily Argus, November 8, 1881, page 4.




  Captains Girdon and Scott, as government inspectors of steamboats for this district, have also concluded their examination of the accident, but the testimony will be revised and perfected before a decision is rendered.  This will probably not be made known until next week, as a second disaster of a small tow boat will engage their attention for the next few days.  During the investigation the officers of the Gilchrist are not allowed to engage in the work for which they were licensed, as their licenses are in a measure revoked until after the investigation is concluded when the decision either revokes the licenses, or else permits the men to such positions on other boats.


The decision of the inspectors can not be secured for several days although many conjectures are given as to the probable effect.


~~~ *** ~~~


The Davenport Democrat, Monday, November 21, 1881, page 1.





Official Report of the District Inspectors to the Supervising Inspector.



The Licenses of the Pilot-Captain, Engineer and First-Mate Revoked—No Look-out on Watch, No Anchor Ready—Running at Night on Day Certificate, and Other Misdemeanors.



The following is the report of Steamboat Inspectors Girdon and Scott to the Supervising Inspector, General Flower, of St. Paul, in regard to the Jennie Gilchrist disaster.  It will be read with interest by the public generally, especially in Scott and Rock Island countries, whose people were thrilled with horror by the disaster, while several homes in both counties were plunged into sorrow by the deaths resulting from the awful casualty.


(The text of the report is the same as that printed below from the Daily Gazette of November 22, 1881 so it will not be repeated here.)


It would seen that the captaincy of the wrecked steamer was transferred from engineer Maines to pilot Dorrance after the disaster; for on the night of the occurrence several of the crew and one passenger informed a Democrat reporter that the engineer was the captain, as he had more time to attend to the business than the pilot did, being right with the passengers and crew most of the time, for the cabin was a mere enclosure in the engine quarters.  The law forbids the engineer of a steamer acting as captain, hence the change after the fatal wrecking.


Several parties who suffered “in mind, body and estate” through the disaster, have been awaiting this report to determine their decision concerning suits against the owner of the Gilchrist for damages.  The report places the blame on the pilot-captain, the engineer and the mate, who were employed by Mr. Gilchrist, the owner, who permitted his steamer to carry passengers in the night time, in direct violation of the terms of the license of his steamer.  Before long, in all probability, Mr. Gilchrist, of Rapids City, will find himself in the deep waters of a flood of litigation.


~~~ *** ~~~


Daily Gazette, Tuesday Morning, November 22, 1881, page 4.





The Gilchrist Disaster and the Inspectors Official Report.



The Officers Censured—No Lookout on Watch—Running at Night on a Day Certificate—Other Findings.



Gen. Flower, of St. Paul, Supervising Inspector of steam vessel for this district, on Friday last received the following report of the Board of Inspectors in regard to the Jennie Gilchrist disaster:


OFFICE OF UNITED STATES LOCAL INSPECTORS OF STEAM VESSELS, GALENA, ILL., Nov. 15, 1881.—Hon. Mark D. Flower, Supervising Inspector of Steam Vessels, Fifth District, St. Paul. Minn.,

Sir:--We respectfully submit the following report as the result of our examination, held at Rock Island, Ill, from November 1 to the 8th inclusive, relative to the cause of the disaster to the stern-wheel passenger steamer Jennie Gilchrist; a steamer of 74 48-100 tons burthen, and allowed by the inspection certificate to navigate the Mississippi river and tributaries between Galena, Ill., and Dubuque and Davenport, Ia., and which accident occurred on the night of the 27th of October, 1881, and whereby nine lives were lost and the steamer sunk near Davenport, Ia.  The steamer Jennie Gilchrist was owned by H. M. Gilchrist, of Rapids City, Ill. and built in the year 1877 at LeClaire, Ia., and was last inspected by us on the 19th day of April, 1881, at LeClaire, Ia., as a daylight passenger steamer, and allowed to carry twenty-five passenger of all grades; and was fitted out at the time of inspection with wire tiller rope, wire bell pulls, speaking tube and return sound pipe, two fire pumps (one hand and one steam), with steam siphons for bilge pumps, twelve buckets, one barrel, 100 feet of hose: stairs from main to upper deck forward and aft; three axes, one skiff (for life boat), fifteen cork life preservers, sixteen wood floats, and had two slide valves, poppet cut off, noncondensing engines nine and three-quarter inches in diameter of piston, and three feet stroke, and two steel boilers, built in 1879 at the Iowa Iron works, Dubuque, Ia., and allowed a steam pressure of 169 pounds.


 The steamer Jennie Gilchrist, Dana Dorrance, master, left Rock Island about 10 p.m., on the 27th of October and bound for Cordova, Ill.  a distance of about twenty-four miles; and had a flatboat named the “No. 3” which was loaded with empty lime barrels and barrel staves in tow ahead; and an empty barge named the “Robert” in tow on the port side of the steamer, and had on board at the time a crew of eleven persons all told and thirteen passengers and fifteen tons of freight.  The steamer proceeded on her trip up the river, and at a point about two thirds of the distance from the Government bridge to the abutment of the old bridge at Rock Island, she broke the full-stroke cam rod of the starboard engine, from which cause the boat became unmanageable, and before the starboard engine could be disconnected, and the boat worked ahead with the port engine, she drifted down against the government bridge, striking it with the starboard quarter, and careened and passed under the bridge—by which accident Miss Sadie Temple, Mrs. Fanny Trevor, Mrs. J. Camp, Wm Wendt, Henry Thomas and John McCabe, passengers, and James Sanford, firemen, James Temple, cook and steward, and Geo. Sydney, deck hand, were drowned.  The steamer while passing under the bridge lost her boilers overboard, after which she drifted down about a half a mile and sunk in about ten feet of water.  In the meantime the survivors were rescued by the steamer Evansville, Capt. J. M. Hawthorne, and skiffs from Rock Island and Davenport, Ia.  A portion if the survivors had taken refuge in the empty barge (Robert) which had been cut loose from the steamer about the time she same in contact with the bridge, while some had got on board the flat (No 3.) and some clung to the wreck of the steamer.


The names of the passengers saved are as follows:  Mrs. Johanna Wendt, W. G. Skelton, John Gilchrist, Thomas Hastle, Dr. J. B. Davenport, John Calaban and John Zuber.

The names of the crew saved are as follows:  Dana Dorrance, master and pilot; Patrick M. Maines, first engineer; J. A. Hire, pilot and mate; John Schaechter, clerk; William Heidenreich, watchman; Joseph Moss, James Small, John Ellis, Wm. Brown and L. Cummings, deck hands.


Form the sworn statement of Dana Dorrance, master and pilot; Patrick M. Maines, first engineer, and J. A. Hire, pilot and mate, we find that the steamer Jennie Gilchrist at the time of the disaster was fully equipped with cork life preservers, wood floats, life boat and oars and anchor, and at the time an empty barge alongside of the steamer, which empty barge afforded a greater means of safety than any other life saving appliance; but unfortunately the barge was cut loose from the steamer before all were rescued.  From the testimony we learn that the time occupied by the steamer in drifting down from where the cam-rod broke until she struck the bridge, did not exceed five minutes.  At our suggestion there was a skiff taken as near as could be to the point where the steamer Jennie Gilchrist was at the time the cam-rod broke, and the skiff, with three persons in it, drifted with the current from that point to the bridge in two minutes and twenty-five seconds.  From the testimony before us, we believe the breaking of the cam-rod to have been purely accidental, as we have no evidence of any undue strain being put upon it by reason of an excess of steam at the time.  We learn from the evidence that there was 143 pounds of steam at the time the steamer Jennie Gilchrist backed out from Rock Island, and at the time of the breaking of the cam rod there was a steam pressure of 165 pounds.  We have no evidence of any difficulty in navigating the steamer with the tow she had at the time of the accident.  As the steamer Jennie Gilchrist was not allowed by her inspection certificate to navigate a distance of over 100 miles, it was not necessary for the clerk to keep a record of the names of the passengers, the place of their embarkation and destination.  The number only is required to be kept, in accordance with section 4467, revised statutes.

From the testimony of the surviving passengers we learn that Capt. Dorrance, Engineer Maines, Pilot and Mate Hire, Clerk Schaechter and Watchman Heidenreich were not at the time of the accident, or at any time during the day, intoxicated, and are fully exonerated from all charges of intemperance at the time of the accident.


  In reviewing the testimony we find:

  First—That the steamer Jennie Gilchrist was being navigated without one of the crew being on watch in or near the pilot house, as required by rule 44 of the rules and regulations.


Second—That she was being navigated in the night time, with a daylight passenger certificate.


Third—We find from the testimony that there was no effort made to cast the anchor at the time of the breaking of the cam-rod, or after; and we also find that at the time of the accident the anchor was alongside of the boilers, and without any hawser bent on, and could not from its location be brought into immediate use.


Fourth—We find that there was a want of diligence on the part of the Captain, and a great lack of discipline on the part of the officers, in not giving timely warning to the passengers and crew to enable them to escape from the steamer to the empty barge, Robert, alongside of the steamer, and we find the engineer, Patrick M. Maines, was negligent in not fully informing the Captain, (who was the pilot on watch at the time) of the nature of the break in the machinery.  We therefore hereby revoke the license of Dana Dorrance as master and pilot for not having a suitable person as a “lookout” as provided for in rule forty-four, and in not having the anchor in its proper place, and not having it cast overboard when he found the steamer disabled.  We also revoke the license of J. A. Hire as pilot and mate, for not having the anchor forward, with a hawser bent on and ready for immediate use. And indefinitely suspend the license of Patrick M. Maines, the first engineer, for not giving the pilot the warning signal of danger at the time the engine became disabled.


Very Respectfully, Geo. Girdon,

                                       John G. Scott,


~~~ *** ~~~


United States Local Inspectors Second Galena District


The Davenport Democrat, Wednesday, November 23, 1881, page 1.





The Supervising Inspector of Steamboats Advises the District Inspectors to Prosecute the Owner and Officers of the Steamer Jennie Gilchrist.—Complaints to be Lodged With U. S. Attorney Lane—The Law’s Penalties.



It would appear that the duties of Inspectors Girdon and Scott concerning the steamer Jennie Gilchrist calamity did not end with their investigation into the causes of the disaster and their report to supervising inspector Flower.  If they accept the hint of their superior, they will go farther.  The St. Paul Pioneer Press of the 22nd has this paragraph:

  Gen. Flower was yesterday in receipt of a letter from the local inspectors who investigated the Jennie Gilchrist disaster asking what they should do in the matter of criminal complaints against those whose licenses had been suspended.  Gen Flower answered that in his judgment criminal complaints should be lodged before the United States district attorney for the state of Iowa, against Dana Dorrance, master, and J. A. Hire, mate.  The United States district attorney, as soon as the complaints are filed, is bound to institute proceeding against the offenders and to prosecute them to the full extent of the law.


It will be remembered that the report of the inspectors, published on Monday’s Democrat, charged the master, Dana Dorrance, with want of diligence in not giving time by warning to the passengers and crew to enable them to escape to the empty barge Robert alongside the steamer “and revoked his license as master and pilot for not having a suitable watchman or look-out as provided for in the rules, and not having the anchor in its proper place, and not having it cast over board when he found the steamer disabled;” and the license of J. A. Hire, mate was revoked “for not having the anchor forward, with hawser bent on, and ready for immediate use.”


It will be interesting to our readers to know the sections of law under which Mr. Gilchrist and the officers of his steamer are to be prosecuted for the negligence's above stated, for there is little doubt that the inspectors will soon arrive in Davenport and lodge their complaints with Hon. James T. Lane, Untied States District Attorney for Iowa.


    Section 4,463 of the revised statues of the United States—laws for regulation of steam vessels—provides that “no steamer carrying passengers shall depart from any port unless she shall have in her service a full complement of license officers and full crew; sufficient at all times to manage the vessel, including the proper number of watchmen.”  Section 4,477 provides that—“every steamer carrying passengers during the night time shall keep a suitable number of watchmen in the cabins and on each deck, to guard against fire or other dangers, and to give alarm in case of accident or disaster.”  Section 4,478 has it that “any neglect to keep the watchman required by the preceding sections, the license of the officer in charge of the vessel shall be revoked and every owner of such vessel who neglects or refuses to furnish the number of men necessary to keep watch as required, shall be fined one thousand dollars.”  And there are provisions, of course, requiring sufficient life boats and anchors to be in proper place, ready for use in case of accident, requiring masters not to carry passengers in the night time when they are licensed for daylight passenger service only, and that the vessel shall be brought to anchor when in the opinion of the engineer the further navigation of the vessel is unsafe.  And then comes the liabilities for violating these rules:

    Section 4493.  Whenever damage is sustained by any passenger or his baggage, from explosion, fire, collision, or other cause, the master and the owner of such vessel, or either of them, and the vessel, shall be liable to each and every person so injured, to the full amount of damage, if it happens through any neglect or failure to comply with the provisions of this title [regulation of steam vessels]. . . and any person sustaining loss or injury through the carelessness, negligence, or willful misconduct of any master, mate, engineer or pilot, or his neglect or refusal to obey the laws governing the navigation of such steamers, may sue the master, mate, engineer or pilot, and recover damages for any such injury.

   Section 4499.  If any vessel, propelled in whole or part by steam, be navigated without complying with the terms of this law, the owner shall be liable to the United States in a penalty of $500 for each offense, one-half for the use of the informer.


But here is the severe article of the law:

   Section 5,344.  Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence or inattention to his duties on such vessel, the life of any person is destroyed, and every owner, inspector, or other public officer, through whose fraud, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law, the life of any person is destroyed shall be deemed guilty of manslaughter, and upon conviction thereof before any circuit court of the United States shall be sentenced to confinement at hard labor for a period of not more than ten years.

  Evidently the owner of the Jennie Gilchrist, her captain and pilot, Dorrance, her mate Hire, and her engineer Maines all will be in a bad box if the advice of the supervising inspector is carried out.


~~~ *** ~~~


Davenport Daily Democrat, Saturday, November 26, 1881, page 1.




LeClaire, November 24th, 1881.

EDITOR DEMOCRAT:--I see by the Democrat that there is a probability of Capt. Dana Dorrance, of the steamer Jennie Gilchrist, being prosecuted.  This is a great surprise to everybody up here, for, it is believed that he stood at his post and did everything that any other man could do, under similar circumstances.  Dana will come out O.K., or we are a false prophet.




~~~ *** ~~~


The Davenport Democrat, Wednesday, May 3, 1882, page 1.





LeClaire May 1, 1882.

…It is said that all of the officers and employees on the Jennie Gilchrist who had their papers taken from them or revoked at the time of the disaster by which so, many were lost, have had their papers returned to them again.  In the interest of humanity and in the name of “civil service reform” it is to be hoped that this is not true.  But it is not all unlikely.  The whole steamboat inspecting system is rotten to the core.  Take the Bella Mac, for instance.  Does any sane man think that her boilers were fit for duty when she burst them going upstream with but 145 pounds of steam, the statement of the engineer on watch.  Her machinery was old and must have been worn out long ago.  In this case several men are sent to their long home and the inspectors pounce on the second engineer and he catch the whole business.  In the Gilchrist case the supervising inspector investigates, and in the end everybody gets exonerated and that ends it.  In the final report it will probably appear that the boat struck the bridge and made a watery grave for ten or a dozen people “though the visitation of God.”  When the case for damages come up in court it will not be half so hard to find witnesses who will swear to having seen over 200 pounds of steam marked on the gauge as Gen Flowers did.  It in truth is too bad that engineers who are employed simply because they are willing to swear to do one thing and will then do another, should be not only protected, but encouraged in wrong doing.  Humanity demands that several of that boat’s crew should don striped suits instead of trying to repeat the horror of last fall.



Collected and transcribed by

 Sue Rekkas


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