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Fire on the Mittie Stephens: One of Texas' Least Known Disasters  

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tracesoftexas
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16th February 2020 4:11 pm  

On Feb. 12, 1869, the steamboad Mittie Stephens caught fire on Caddo Lake, resulting in the death of 61 out of 107 people aboard.  Here are several contemporary newspaper accounts of the disaster:

 

 

Burning of the Steamer Mittie Stephens.
Sixty-three Lives Lost.
The Survivors at Jefferson, Texas

 

"Our telegraphic columns this morning contain the particulars in brief of another terrible steamboat disaster-- the burning of the Red River packet Mittie Stephens, Capt. H. Kellogg, in Caddo Lake, at midnight, night before last.Sixty-three lives are reported to have been lost, among them Mr. W.A. Broadwell and Mrs. S.L. Lyon and son, of New Orleans.The survivors, forty-three in number, reached Jefferson, Texas, yesterday, and we may today be enabled to lay before our readers fuller particulars respecting the disaster. The Mittie Stephens, though not a very new boat, was a favorite in the Red River trade. She left our city for Jefferson and Shreveport on her last trip the evening of Friday, the 5th. Her agents were Messrs W.M. Surls, No. 2 Tehoupitoulas street and H.R. Eppler, No. 4 Tehoupitoulas street."

----- New Orleans Times Picayune, February 13, 1869

 

 

We copy as follows from the Shreveport Southwestern of the 16th:

 

"We are indebted to Mr. J. Lodwick, one of the steersmen, for the following particulars of this unparalleled catastrophe:The Mittie Stephens, Captain Kellogg, George Remer, clerk, left this port for Jefferson on Thursday, the 11th, at 4 o'clock p.m., with over one hundred souls on board. Nothing worthy of notice happened until 12 o'clock at night, the time for changing watchmen, about two and a half miles below Swanson's Landing in Caddo Lake, when Mr. Lodwick remarked to Mr. Swain, the pilot on watch, that he smelt something burning, and at the same time noticed smoke rising from the hay forward on the larboard side. The alarm was at once given, the boat headed for shore, and all hands put to work to extinguish the flames, but without effect. In less than five minutes the bow of the boat was run ashore near Jeter's place, at which time the forward part of the boat was completely in flames, cutting off all egress in that direction. The passengers then rushed in the stern of the boat, driven by the flames and with the hope of making their escape in that direction. The stern of the boat was at least 160 feet from the shore, in ten feet water. The yawl was swamped at once by being overloaded, and the occupants met a watery grave. Here the scene beggars description. Nearly one hundred frantic, terror-stricken people-- men, women and children-- were collected on the afterguard, with the flames hissing and crackling behind them and a watery grave before them. Every movable thing was thrown overboard, and many men jumped overboard and found watery graves fighting for something to float on. Here fathers could be seen hunting for their wives and children, wives for their husbands, and children for their parents, amid the shrieks and cries of the excited crowd. As the flames approached, all of the men jumped overboard, some to find a watery grave, and others to save themselves by swimming; but not a lady could be induced to take the cold water, and they perished in the flames. In less than half an hour from the discovering of the fire the vessel was a total wreck and over sixty persons had perished.

The steamer Dixie, Capt. Thornton Jacobs, came alongside and rendered valuable assistance with her skiff in picking up persons floating in the water. Messrs. Swain and Lodwich staid at the wheel until driven away by the flames, and were the last persons to leave the hurricane roof, at which time the cabin was entirely deserted. They both jumped overboard from the stern and swam ashore. In fact all who were saved did the same thing. As soon as the fire was discovered a large amount of powder was thrown overboard, as well as what else could be got at, but the fire made such headway that every effort proved fruitless. Cap. Kellogg and his officers behaved with great coolness, and made every effort in their power to save the passengers.

The last seen of Mr. George Remer, the first clerk, was as he jumped overboard. He was one of the oldest clerks on the river, but not the regular clerk of the boat. Mr. C.F. Hayes, who occupied that position, was taken sick just before the boat left New Orleans, and stopped off.

Mr. J.C. Christian was one of the oldest and most respected citizens of this parish. He got on board the Stephens at Mooringsport, where he had been waiting two days, and in less than an hour met a watery grave in sight of the port from which he embarked. Of the other persons lost we had no personal acquaintance, but how the eye dims and the cheek blanches as we glance over the long list. Here we find father, mother and three children in one place, four of the same name in another, two in another, etc., all of whom found their last resting place at the mid hour of night, by the light of the burning wreck. Great God, how inscrutable are thy ways! From what we can learn the safe contained at least $100,000 in gold, which, we presume, can be recovered.

The last seen of Col. Broadwell was as he jumped overboard at the stern of the boat. He was, no doubt, drowned. The circumstances attending the loss of Mrs. Lyon and her son Frank are truly heartrending. They were the last in the cabin to awake, and then, not until the flames had reached them. They rushed to the aft end of the cabin, where Mr. Lyon used every effort to get his wife and child to step over the railing and jump into the river, a distance of eighteen or twenty feet. The sight was too much for her, and blinded and suffocated by the smoke, she swooned away with her child clinging to her. Mr Lyon staid with them until the flames scorched him and compelled him to leap overboard, after all chance of saving his wife and child had gone. He was picked up by the Dixie's skiff in an insensible state.

The steamer Dixie, Capt. Thornton Jacobs which arrived here yesterday, brought the charred remains of Mrs. Lyon and son. They were found on the lower deck of the wreck, immediately below the place where they were last seen. The Dixie, on her down trip, lay by the wreck all day Sunday, and her officers succeeded in recovering the remains of fourteen persons. Too much praise cannot be awarded Capt. Jacobs for his invaluable services in rescuing the passengers. At the time he first discovered the flames he was six miles off, with fires out and laid up for the night. He at once dispatched his skiff to the scene, and followed with the Dixie as soon as he could raise steam.

A large force is still at the wreck, looking after the bodies of the lost, but up to last accounts nothing had been seen of the body of Col. Broadwell. Not a single lady passenger in the cabin was saved, they one and all refusing to take to the water, the only avenue of escape left."

----- New Orleans Times Picayune, February 17, 1869

 

 

The Shreveport Southwestern of the 19th says:

"The iron safe belonging to the Mittie Stephens has been recovered, brought to this city and turned over to the agents of the insurance companies. It is supposed to contain a large amount of money. Up to yesterday morning thirty-eight bodies had been recovered and buried. Nothing as yet has been seen of the remains of Col. Broadwell."

 

 

 

The New Orleans Crescent (New Orleans, Louisiana)
23 February 1869
The Burning of the Mittie Stephens.
FURTHER ACCOUNT OF THE DISASTER.
(From the Jefferson (Texas) Jimplecute

 

"Our citizens have not yet recovered from the shock of one of the most appalling occurrences that has ever happened to steamboating west of the Mississippi. The fine sidewheel passenger steamer Mittie Stephens, Homer Kellogg, master, left New Orleans for this port on the evening of the -- instant. She proceeded on her way, with every prospect of a speedy and safe voyage,until the hand of fate fell upon her and the unfortunate crew and passengers. We hereto append the statements, in substance, of a passenger and the watchman of the boat as sworn to before a notary. It is proper to state that all the affidavits made by passengers and officers coincide, and do not materially differ:

Statement of A. Pace, Passenger.--Mr. Pace states that he was a passenger on the Mittie Stephens, from New Orleans to Jefferson, Texas. That during the whole voyage to the time and place of the burning of the boat, he was careful to observe the constant diligence, watchfulness and attention of all the officers and crew. At 12 o'clock on the night of the 11th inst. he was aroused from sleep by the smell of fire, and the ringing of the alarm bell. He immediately proceeded to the stern of the boat, at which time the passengers were given the alarm by the crew. That the pilots remained at the wheel until the fire drove them away. The officers and crew did all that could be done to save the lives of the passengers. The fire broke out in the hay on board, and the bow of the vessel was in flames in from one to three minutes after the fire was discovered. The hay was kept covered by a tarpaulin during the trip, and the officers and crew used every precaution to prevent the hay from being exposed to the fire. He was sick during the voyage, and was frequently up in the night and found the captain up at all times. Messrs. Seuzaman, Bjirke and S.J. Johnson, the latter of whom had from seven to eight thousand dollars worth of goods aboard, concur in Mr. Pace's testimony as regards the unremitting vigilance and caution on the part of Captain Kellogg and his men.

Statement of Samuel Underwood, Watchman.-- Mr. Underwood was watchman of the steamer Mittie Stephens, and on watch at the time of the disaster. At about 12 o'clock on the night of the 11th inst., was on the staging on the bow of the boat, and discovered a bale of hay on fire, about thirty feet from the torchlight and some distance from the furnace. All the hay on board was covered by tarpaulins. He instantly gaze the alarm of fire. The deckhands present threw buckets of water on the fire, but failed to quench it. The mate then ordered the hay to be thrown overboard, when the flames covered the balance of the hay, and prevented the orders of the mate from being carried out. The engineer turned the hose upon the fire, which failed to extinguish it. The crew, with the mate and witness, worked at the hose until the flames drove them off. They then went to the assistance of the passengers, and helped them to escape. As soon as it was known that the boat would be consumed, the mate ordered the crew to throw overboard the powder that was in the hold of the vessel. Witness and the mate assisted the passengers until they were driven off by the flames. It was not exceeding ten minutes from the discovery of the fire until the boat was enveloped in flames. The officers and crew did all that could be done to save the passengers and boat. All the officers, so far as witness could or did know, were at their post and on duty.

We do not deem it necessary to rehearse any more of the statements, as they eliminate no new facts pertinent to the issue, which is that the burning was purely accidental, and that human prudence or foresight could not have averted the calamity.

In our issue of Friday we gave a summary of the affair, and a list of those known to be lost and saved.
The accounts of the eye witnesses represent the spectacle as most appalling. The ill-fated steamer was quietly gliding through the turbid waters of the lake, which at that point was about five miles wide and nearly fifty miles from Jefferson. It was a calm, beautiful, starry night, and naught disturbed its serene stillness save the musical surging of the waves at the prow and the monotonous and labored vibration of the machinery. All on board, except the watches were wrapped in profound slumber. The hour of midnight had just chimed by the clock, when the pilot discovered signs of fire on the larboard side of the forecastle, where it seems two hundred and seventy-four bales of hay had been stowed. Four quick, successive taps of the bell gave the alarm to the crew. That alarm was the knell that summoned sixty-one souls to meet their Maker. Exertions almost superhuman were made by the men, but all to no purpose. The fire-king had begun his reign. Already he was "painting hell on the sky." The maddened flames were holding their high carnival on the doomed decks of the gallant boat, and no earthly power could avert the impending woes that must soon overwhelm her human freight.

Then ensued a scene of dismay, of terror and of death, which the pen of man cannot adequately depict, nor the mind of man fully conceive. The brave captain, comprehending his duty at this crisis, as by intuition, cried to the pilot, "head her from the wind! Open up!" To the clerk, the unfortunate Riemer, he gave orders to rouse and save the passengers. Riemer went below to die at his post. It now was certain destruction to remain any longer on the roof, and the captain bid the pilots save themselves which they did by escaping from the stern of the vessel. Capt. Kellogg made a leap for life through the flames, being slightly burned as he went, and fell into the lake a distance of thirty feet. He had however, inhaled so much hot air that he became insensible; luckily the water was shallow, and he was oveserved by a passenger and the barkeeper, who soon resuscitated him. 

All united in their praise of the captain's presence of mind, prudence and gallant efforts to save the boat and passengers. It would seem invidious to particularize where all did so well; but the thanks of the passengers are directly due to the meritorious services rendered by Mr. Hetherton, the bill clerk, in providing life preservers for them. He was the last to leave the wreck. Binding on a preserver, he dropped into the cold waters of the lake. He floated about awhile, and becoming insensible was picked up or rather towed ashore by the Dixie's yawl.

The Dixie lay in Jim's bayou, about five miles distant, tied to a tree, with steam down. Capt. Jacobs, the master, was informed by the watchman that he believed there was a boat on fire. He thereupon dispatched his mate and a deck hand to the place of the disaster. Capt. Swayne, the pilot of the Mittie Stephens, was the first one of the survivors whom they saw; he was ensconced in a tree to which he had swam. He directed him to the body of Mr. Hetherton, and afterward to that of T.L. Lyons, of the house of J.W. Burbridge, N.O. They then relieved some persons clinging to the rudder of the wreck. Capt. Swayne in the meantime refusing to be relieved until the yawl had done all the service possible. They picked up the corpse of an unknown woman, who came aboard the Stephens at Grand Ecore.

The vessel was but a few minutes consuming, owing to the combustible material of the freight. That short time seemed like an eternity to some. The distressing screams and groans of the sufferers ascended to heaven mingling with the din of disaster, and the prayers of the dying husband and wife, child and mother, friend and foe were cradled in the billows of the lake, which soon rocked them to sleep. Like the boat on which they but a few minutes before so peacefully slumbered; they passed away as it were "a tale that is told."

Mr. Bjirke, a surviving passenger, having been informed by the officers of the steamer that two thieves had come on board at Shreveport, was keeping watch for them in the cabin when the fire broke out. The thieves were both lost.

One of the most signal acts heroism that has ever come to our lot to record, was performed by Phil. Hill the carpenter, and a deck hand, by the name Jacob Stein. Twenty kegs of powder had been deposited in the magazine in the hold. With the presence of mind and a daring that have few parallels in the annals of steamboating, they, in the face of a horrible death, carried the powder up, and threw it overboard. A moment lost, and there would have been no one to tell the awful story. Gallant fellows! Peace hath her heroes, no less renowned than war.

In conclusion we have this to say. With a characteristic generosity our citizens did everything that could be done to alleviate the sufferings and ameliorate the conditions of the survivors; but, as public journalists, it becomes our painful though imperative duty to animadvert upon the conduct of the captain of the Caroline. When the crew of the Stephens presented themselves to him, and asked for a passage to New Orleans, he gruffly replied that he worked for money and could not take them. He afterwards, however, sent them an invitation. Destitute as the poor men were, they were still smarting under the insult, and would not accept the same. Captain Jacobs, of the Dixie, kindly tendered them the use of his boat, and they are now on their way to the city."

Beauty is only skin deep but Texas is to the bone.


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