Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Day Of The Saluda Explosion And The Federal Government's Response

memphis steamboats

During the first two-thirds of the 19th century, steam boating was the most popular mode of transportation.

The first steamboat appeared in North America circa 1815 and the number of boats increased every year. The old images above show how steamboats lined up one after another in Memphis and below portrays the old Levee area of St. Louis which was always busy, night and day, with steamboat traffic. To understand how exciting this new mechanized way of river transportation was, one needs only to read the stories and quotes from Mark Twain himself a riverboat pilot.

Fast Transportation for the Era

Steamboats offered a fast mode of transportation. In fact, faster than anyone had ever experienced. A steamboats massive power came from it's boilers. The steam engine was a spectacular invention, one in which came before much of the inherent science of it was understood. Steam pressure inside a boiler turned the boat's paddle wheels. More pressure meant more power and more power meant faster speed and faster speed seemed to be in demand.

Steamboat Boiler Dangers

saluda steamboat explosion
When unregulated pressure continues to build in a steamboat's boiler you can have a spectacular explosion like the image to the right.

This is exactly what happened on Good Friday, April 9th, 1852 at the docks of Lexington, Missouri.

The boat was chartered to bring Morman converts to Utah who had arrived from Europe. The immigrants sailed to New Orleans then up the Mississippi to St. Louis. From there a steamboat was to take them to Council Bluffs, Iowa where they would begin their overland journey to Utah.

The boat exploded very near the dock after only about two revolutions of it's paddle wheels. Records are a bit inaccurate but it appears about 175 passengers boarded the Saluda in St. Louis. The death toll of the explosion was over 100 people some of which were bystanders on the dock. So violent was the boiler explosion that parts of bodies were strewn everywhere including in the town itself. The body of the captain and part owner of the vessel was found on the far side of the dock warehouse. Other victims were found on top of nearby bluffs. To give you an idea of the hazards of steamboat travel in that era, there were a total of 34 steamboat accidents/disasters in North America during the two year span 1850-1851.

Out of that amount 12 of these mishaps were due to boiler explosions. The total death toll for for all mishaps those two years were an astounding 525 people. Out of that figure 199 died because of boiler explosions. During the year 1852 there were 6 other steamboat boiler explosions aside from the Saluda.

To demonstrate how bad the boiler problem was, 13 years into the future the steamboat Sultana, image at right, exploded it's boilers on April 27th, 1865 near Memphis costing the lives of an estimated 1,300 to 1,900 people most of whom were returning Union soldiers who had been held in Confederate prisons. There were estimated to be about 750 survivors. The Sultana had been extremely overloaded with the returning troops.

Another fact about steamboats during this era is that they had a life span of some 3-5 years. This was not only due to boiler explosions but also from collisions, snagging an object and sinking, catching fire and running aground. It's almost unbelievable when you compare that to our modern transportation system.

Boilers Powered Just About Everything

Boiler explosions were not only confined to steamboats. The picture at left shows a train locomotive after an explosion. With the locomotive the explosion happens outdoors. You can imagine the total destruction when a boiler blows apart inside the wooden structure of a steamboat. Many steamboats also had more than one boiler.

The boiler problems were a result of new technology that wasn't fully understood coupled with lax government oversight. The lax oversight was due to Congress not wanting to be accused of hampering national expansion by regulating the steamboat industry. Travel safety in that era was not a top priority.

There was a lot to be learned about steam boilers. How much boiler plate thickness was required for a certain amount of pressure? Why were pressure relief valves not installed in many boilers? How can one accurately measure how much pressure is in the boiler? What should the boiler water levels be? These were just a few of the questions that were open to speculation. A steamboat boiler needed to be constantly monitored by an engineer or crewman. The boilers drew in large amounts of water usually from beneath the boat. Rivers have a lot of mud  and often the mud and pebbles would be sucked into the pipes. An explosion could occur if the water was blocked long enough causing the pressure to increase.

Steamboat Regulation

Safety Inspection of U.S. flagged merchant vessels powered by steam or partially by steam began in 1838.

While the intention was to protect lives and property, the reality was that things didn't improve much afterward. The Steamboat Act of 1852 was the result of yearly increases in maritime disasters and carnage. The 1852 Act put more formality into the federal inspection effort. Although the new act started things in the right direction the inspection procedures still proved inadequate.

The Sultana disaster in 1865 was an example. Another Congressional Act was instituted in 1871 which formally created the Steamboat Inspection Service. Any progress that was made since 1852 was kept and in addition a formal set of maritime safety codes were established. The 1871 Act pertained to all steam powered vessels including freighters, tugs and ferries.

See additional Western Trips photo article on the links below...

The Tall Ships

A Steamboat and an Indian War

Visit Lexington Missouri

Lexington, Missouri is a short 35 mile drive east of Kansas City. I think you will find it interesting to stop and visit the memorial in Lexington's Heritage Park created in 2002 for the victims of the Saluda disaster.

Lexington has a very rich history including a famous Civil War battle site and a city park commemorating where Lewis and Clark made a stop during their historic journey west.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)

The sites below will give you plenty of information.




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