Lucy Walker steamboat disaster

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Lucy Walker explosion, as depicted in an 1856 woodcut.

The Lucy Walker steamboat disaster was an 1844 steamboat accident caused by the explosion of the boilers of the steamboat Lucy Walker near New Albany, Indiana, on the Ohio River. The explosion occurred on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 23, 1844, when the steamer's three boilers exploded, set the vessel on fire, and sank it. 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.

Circumstances leading up to the disaster[edit]

The Lucy Walker was an average vessel of her time: 144 feet (44 m) long with a beam of 24 feet 6 inches (7.47 m) and a draft of 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m). She displaced 183 tons.[1] She was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1843 and her 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. Thomas F. Eckert, John Cochran, and Thomas J. Halderman had successively served as masters or captains of the Lucy Walker.[1] Captain Halderman was a very experienced river man, who since 1820 had worked as fireman, deck hand, engineer, and captain on steamboats, and later was a steamboat inspector.[2] For some unknown reason, Halderman was replaced in Louisville just before departure, and her owner, Joseph Vann, took over the duties as captain.[3]

Lucy Walker departed the Louisville wharf at noon on Wednesday, October 23, 1844, outbound for New Orleans.[3] 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.[4] 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. It has been asserted[by whom?] that Rezin Jameson, one of the pilots during the Robert E. Lee's famous race in 1870 with the Natchez, had also been a pilot on the Lucy Walker in 1844.[5] However, Jameson's name does not appear in any of the New Albany or Louisville newspaper accounts of the explosion.

Explosion and fire[edit]

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 (6.4 to 8.0 km) below New Albany while some repairs were made.[6] Suddenly, the three boilers exploded in a mighty blast, propelling shards of metal and pieces of human flesh. One man shot 50 feet (15 m) 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 (3.7 m) of the Ohio River. Soon the water was filled with bodies of passengers and crew of the unfortunate 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 snagboat Gopher, which had been removing underwater obstacles under contract to the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers.[7]

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.[8] Another newspaper reported qualms about reckless behavior of the boat's officers or shoddy construction of the boilers.[9] Later there was speculation that steamboat racing might have contributed to the disaster.[10]

The demise of the Lucy Walker was not the worst steamboat disaster in American history (see the Sultana), but it was among the most deadly.[11] It is possible that more than 100 persons died that day.

Legislation and regulation[edit]

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,[12] but many steamboat captains and passengers were thrilled by the excitement and gambling accompanying the contests.[13]

Much of the problem was ignorance by steamboat operators. In those early days, the physics and mechanics of boiler explosions were not well understood.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.


Among the dead were General James West Pegram, a lawyer and banker, whose sons (General John Pegram and Colonel William Pegram) would become important Confederate officers in the Civil War. Pegram was also an important leader in the Whig party.[17] Special Postal Agent Samuel Mansfield Brown of Lexington, Kentucky, was also identified as a victim.[18] Brown had been 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. When he learned of Brown's demise, Cassius Clay noted that Sam Brown was the bravest of all of the many persons Clay had fought during a very combative career.[19]

Only two children and none of the women died, probably because their cabin was farther from the blast than the hurricane deck where most of the male passengers were gathered.[citation needed] 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.[9] Since the vessel's passenger manifests and crew lists were lost, there is no way to know precisely how many died.

The owner, his horse, and his steamboat[edit]

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 [Vessel Docs., Bu MI&N]. 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" [(1)June 12, 1839]. The filly was not only a frequent winner in quarter mile races, but also produced many colts that Vann sold for as much as $5000 each [Wright]. 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.

In February 1843, Vann advertised his new possession: "The new fast running steamer, Lucy Walker; Eckert, Master; Little Rock to New Orleans, sheet metal roof; two fire engines and hose" [(1)February 7, 1843]. 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 [(1)March 16, 1843]. 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.

Slave crew[edit]

In 1835, Vann owned 110 African-American slaves at his home "Diamond Hill" (see the Chief Vann House) at Spring Place, Georgia. During the looming Cherokee Removal crisis, Vann was driven from his home by armed gangs of Georgians, and shifted his families and property for a time to the Cherokee town of Ooltewah, Tennessee, where he built a race track. In 1837, he again moved his business operations to Webber's Falls on the Arkansas River in Indian Territory. There he constructed a replica of "Diamond Hill", which was later destroyed by Union troops in the Civil War.

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 [Burton]. 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 the same year that my pappy was blown up and killed in the big boat accident that killed my old Master" [McDonald; Baker, WPA]

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 [Baker, WPA]. It is known from sailing notices in a Louisville newspaper that the steamboat Minerva was scheduled to depart for New Orleans at the same time as Lucy Walker.[20] According to Lucinda Vann's account, Jim Vann threw in the meat into the firebox, and then leaped overboard just before the boilers exploded [Baker, WPA]. 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.[21] Also killed in the explosion was 20-year-old Preston Mackey, uncle of Robert P. Vann and son-in-law of "Rich Joe".[21] 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).[22]


Albert C. Koch was a German-born geologist who happened to be in Louisville the day following the explosion. He was told that 106 persons died, with many badly injured or burned. He reported that searchers had found shattered body parts of victims on both Indiana and Kentucky banks of the Ohio, including a severed head identified as that of Captain Vann, but the fate of this portion of "Rich Joe" is now unknown.[23]

The destruction of the Lucy Walker is well documented, but nearly every source contains some contradictions, garbled names, or incomplete information. Eyewitnesses included Captain Dunham of the snagboat Gopher,[20] an anonymous gentleman from Baltimore,[24] the pilot Capt. Thompson,[25] and a group of ministers and laymen aboard the Lucy Walker.[26][4] The latter told about their misadventures during and after the explosion, but somehow failed to notice or mention that the owner of the vessel was an American Indian, that drinking and gambling was present, or that the boat was engaged in a race with another boat. Most of the newspaper accounts also failed to note this aspect of the accident. The owner of the ship was identified in most newspapers as Captain David Vann, possibly confusing him with a cousin of that name who had served as the Treasurer of the Cherokee Nation. This David Vann was a brother of Joseph ("Tenulte") Vann. Various sources provide estimates of fatalities widely ranging from 18 to more than 100 deaths. Albert Koch misheard the name of the vessel as "Louise Walker." Even the date of the accident has frequently been listed in error in many reference works, which have the date as October 22 or 25, 1844. Only the Cherokee sources note the role that "Rich Joe" Vann played in the sudden end of the Lucy Walker and his own demise.


  1. ^ a b Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation (Cincinnati Office, 1843–44), "Vessel Enrollment Documents."
  2. ^ Halderman Testimony, Pennsylvania vs. Wheeling Bridge et al., pp.390–393.
  3. ^ a b Wright, Early Navigation..., p. 73.
  4. ^ a b Moore, Wreck of the Lucy Walker
  5. ^ "Jameson" (Steamboat Captains), www.Riverboat (website).
  6. ^ Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1844
  7. ^ Kentucky Gazette, October 26, 1844
  8. ^ New Albany Gazette, October 26, 1844.
  9. ^ a b Louisville Courier, October 28, 1844
  10. ^ New Orleans Times Picayune, November 26, 1844
  11. ^ Debow, Steamboat Explosions in the West p. 308
  12. ^ New York Times, March 22, 1854
  13. ^ Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers..., pp. 300–301.
  14. ^ Brockman, Exploding Steamboats
  15. ^ Paskoff, Troubled Waters...
  16. ^ Sandukos, Gently Down the Stream
  17. ^ Simmons, The Pegrams of Virginia And Their Descendents
  18. ^ Louisville Journal, October 28, 1844
  19. ^ Clay, The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, p. 82
  20. ^ a b Louisville Democrat, 26 October 1844, for 22 October
  21. ^ a b Vann, p. 838
  22. ^ Baker, WPA
  23. ^ Koch, Journey Through a Part, pp. 59–62
  24. ^ Baltimore Sun, October 29–31, 1844 for October 31
  25. ^ Louisville Journal, October 26–28, 1844, for October 26
  26. ^ Christian Magazine of the South, Vol. II (December 1844), pp. 381–382


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