Tragedy at Neely's Landing: The Burning of the Steamer Stonewall
The sidewheel steamboat Stonewall burned at Neely's Landing, Missouri, October 27, 1869, taking the lives of nearly 210 people. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
A light southerly wind blew unhindered up the meandering Mississippi River at dusk on Wednesday, October 27, 1869. The sidewheel steamboat Stonewall plied its way down the slow-rolling river toward New Orleans, having just left Grand Tower an hour before.1 Homes along the river began flickering with lantern light as evening appeared. With the clock approaching 6 pm, cabin passengers aboard the Stonewall took draws from their evening cigars, while others lounged by the stove.2 Most had just finished dinner. Only a few passengers were on the deck that evening, as "the night was dark and the air chilly and piercing," the temperature being in the mid 40s.3 Despite the brisk weather, several deck passengers used candlelight to aid an evening card game near hay bales used to feed the mules and horses onboard. A simple, solitary candle lighting up the night would soon fall over and bring the demise of the steamboat, leading to the deaths of nearly 210 of the 270-plus passengers and crew, bringing nationwide attention to the small, unincorporated Cape Girardeau County rivertown known as Neely's Landing, Missouri.4
When the hay caught fire, one could have easily dumped a pail of water on the burning bundle, but there was no bucket available to inhibit the increasing flame. A roustabout yelled "Fire!" but the early cry went unheeded since crew members thought he was just making noise.5 Yet the south wind soon fed the flame and quickly set the wooden steamboat ablaze. Within ten minutes the boat was burning such that the pilot, Edward Fulkerson of St. Charles, directed her toward the Missouri shoreline near the since-removed rock formation, the Devil's Tea Table.6
The Devil's Tea Table, a guidepost to many flatboat travelers and a stopping point for weekend spectators alike, became a pile of rubble nearly 33 years after the Stonewall's demise. Between 1902 and 1904, the St. Louis, Memphis and Southeastern Railroad had removed the Tea Table, since the company needed to make tracks to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair at Forest Park. Mark Twain wrote of the Devil's Tea Table in his Life on the Mississippi:
At Grand Tower, too, there was a railway; and another at Cape Girardeau. The former town gets its name from a huge, squat pillar of rock, which stands up out of the water on the Missouri side of the river—a piece of nature's fanciful handiwork—and is one of the most picturesque features of the scenery of that region. For nearer or remoter neighbors, the Tower has the Devil's Bake-oven—so called, perhaps, because it does not powerfully resemble anybody else's bake-oven; and the Devil's Tea Table—this latter a great smooth-surfaced mass of rock, with diminishing wine-glass stem, perched some fifty or sixty feet above the river, beside a beflowered and garlanded precipice, and sufficiently like a tea-table to answer for anybody, Devil or Christian.7
It was near this rock formation the Stonewall ran aground on a sandbar some 150 yards from the Missouri river bank. The swift, murky water was approximately six feet deep along the sandbar, and in that frigid water, cabin, deck passengers, and crew alike found themselves awash in despair but also flailing in their only hope of survival. One newspaper article claimed victims died from "the cold shock to the system and chilly atmosphere of the night." Because the pilot knew the river well, he realized guiding the boat toward Neely's Landing might provide some chance the town's residents would hear their plight and be willing to lend service to those who would undoubtedly be needing care. One Neely's resident at the time and former state manager for the Missouri Highway Planning Survey, J.H. Long, was eight years old when he saw the Stonewall pass his father's house that evening. He recounts that moment in his memoir:
The unusual light and length of time it
lasted soon told the people living in the surrounding vicinity that
something of terrible import was going on on the river bank, and in a few
hours a large crowd had congregated on the river bank, immediately fronting
the burning boat.8
The Devil's Tea Table was a point of reference for many riverboat pilots
prior to the stones being blasted away around 1902. Courtesy of Michael
Flames increased from bow to stern while scores of passengers jumped from the burning boat and found themselves in another fight for their lives since few could swim, which was the case with many folks in the nineteenth century. Frank Leslie's Illustrated ran a sketch and a brief recalling the horror: "She had so much hay onboard that she burned like tinder."9 The steamboat's carpenter, Elisha P. Watson, made the following comment regarding his escape:
I thought this the only chance for my life and jumped into the river; the water was deep and I couldn't swim, but I got ahold of what seemed to me to be a bundle of clothes. . . . The bundle of clothes didn't hold together. . . . I then got a small board under each arm, and by this means and a great deal of kicking of my heels, got to the bank. I was almost too exhausted to stand, and a kind farmer came along and helped me to his house near by, where I received much attention. While I was in the water I saw a woman drown right alongside of me, but I could not help her. . . . The shrieks and cries of the people drowning, or about to go under, were heart-rending and made me almost crazy.10
The Dubuque Daily Herald spells out what is,
perhaps, the more telling reason so many drowned at what was to be their
salvation, a sandbar: "Unfortunately, at the end of the bar was a slough,
and there it was that the larger number drowned."11 At first
read, one might think of a slough as being an old river cut-off or a
meandering backwater flow; however, the slough was actually a trough running
parallel to the sandbar, a trough gouged out from the river's channel (and
high volume of water) being on the Missouri side. The River and Harbor Act
of March 2, 1907, authorized the surveying of the Mississippi River from St.
Louis to Cairo, Illinois. Though printed thirty-nine years later, the survey
map clearly shows the sand bar at the mouth of Indian Creek, the site of the
disaster. A few yards from the bar's breaching the river's surface, the
depth, according to the map, was only three feet. Another ten to twenty
yards east of the bar, though, the river drops dramatically to the depth of
twenty-seven feet.12 Because the alluvial channel held more
toward Missouri's craggy, limestone bluffs below Neely's Landing, the river
would have been more turbulent at that location. The turbulence and deeper
water together surely hastened the deaths of those fleeing the burning
This 1865 river map shows Neely's Landing stretching nearly one-half mile
along the Missouri shore. The Devil's Tea Table appears as a landmark.
Courtesy of Joe Perez.
Women aboard the steamer were few. One report suggests
there were only eleven women, crew or otherwise, making the trip south, and
only two were believed saved. Along with debris falling from the boat, those
jumping into the water had to endure being thrashed by mules and horses that
were cut loose or had escaped the burning boat. The Bangor Daily Whig
and Courier reported that every conceivable object one could obtain was
thrown into the water and "to these passengers clung with tenacity of life."
In some cases, panic-stricken passengers would grab anything they could,
even other people.13
Though printed 39 years after the Stonewall
burned, this 1908 river survey map clearly shows Tea Table Bar at Neely's
Landing, and it reports the water depths, suggesting a deep channel just
east of the sandbar. Courtesy of Center for Regional History, Southeast
Missouri State University.
George W. Fulton of St. Louis, the Stonewall's first engineer, had rushed outside to see a burning bale of hay but was unable to stop the spreading flames. He also recalled the passengers' struggle to survive:
One man, hatless and coatless, was last seen astern earnestly struggling ashore, clinging to a plank or door, and when in a fair way to make it, another swimmer seized his frail support and both sank to the bottom. . . . There was a number of life preservers in the cabin, which a very few had the presence of mind to seize.14
Way's Packet Directory suggests the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana, built the Stonewall in 1866. The packet measured 224 feet from bow stem to the main stern transom and was 42.5 wide. Captain John Shaw and Dennis Long of Louisville owned the boat, neither of whom were aboard when the Stonewall caught fire. Frederick Way, Jr., also wrote that the Submarine No. 13, a wrecking boat, passed by the blaze at Neely's within an hour of the disaster, and its crew provided no assistance; there was no explanation given to their inactivity. Way reported the Stonewall's hull was later recovered, taken to St. Louis, and converted into a warfboat.15
Because Neely's Landing was a village of fisherman and other oarsmen, it was only a matter of time before townspeople came out to help. J.H. Long noted in his memoir the names of several oarsmen who attempted to help retrieve victims from the water using a skiff. Among the boatmen were Lowrie Hope, Martin O'Brian, Frank West, and Derry Hays, the latter of which was a slave once owned by John Hays, the first sheriff of Cape Girardeau District. The eyewitnesses said there was only one skiff. If that were true, perhaps the men took turns making trips into the current with the skiff, relieving each other upon their return.16
The steamboat had a yawl that a number of passengers used to reach the Missouri shoreline, and Neely's residents were certainly willing to help those in distress, too. Long wrote about those using the skiff:
They would run as near the burning boat as they dare, and when parties leaped into the water, would get them in the skiff. They succeeded in getting several out, who otherwise, would have suffered a terrible fate. . . . It was said that above the roar and noise caused by the fire, cries of people slowly being roasted alive could be heard. As there was only one skiff and hundreds needing assistance, those on the bank could only look upon the agonizing scene, powerless to help.17
Long wrote of seeing only one skiff used in the rescue, which is surprising considering the town's proximity and the residents' economic ties to the river. One would think more boats would have been on hand, but the one skiff and the minimal help the oarsmen lent to the cause received mention in various news stories, particularly The New York Times: "The people at Neely's Landing saw the light, and hastened to assist the unfortunate passengers. One [oars]man rescued sixteen persons with a skiff. Had it not been for their help all would have been lost."18
A week after the boat burned, the Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus reprinted a letter to the editor, W.M. Hamilton, which he had received from a gentleman who helped the riverside recovery that October night. The letter came from M.J.H. of Oak Ridge, a small town about ten miles west of Neely's Landing, and was written October 31, 1869. Following is a portion of the letter:
There lay on the cold mud, some 16 bodies that had been fished up with a few hours from around the wreck. . . . But O, the strength of manhood that carried them from the burning wreck, is gone. Death stares at them. They have not the strength to clamber from the cold ice water. Here Providence provide them a Harris, a Cotter, a West, a McNeely, a sable Davey, and last comes Hope! . . . Good Samaritans those, the people of Neely's Landing and vicinity.19
Most of the letter M.J.H. wrote describes his personal lamentation over the deaths that occurred so quickly that solemn night.
Though the rescue effort saved only about fifty human lives, those rescued received dutiful attention from Neely's residents, unless, of course, they were fortunate to have boarded the Belle Memphis on its way to St. Louis, which happened to pass by three hours after the Stonewall caught fire. To the victims' needs the citizens of Neely's tended. Residents built a fire on the river bank using wood rails, providing immediate warmth and a convenient place at which to dry their clothes. Ed Cotter and other townspeople took in victims for a night or two until a relative or friend secured for them a return trip home. There was no telegraph service out of Neely's at the time to expedite the destitute passengers' returning home. Some victims spent weeks at Neely's before finding their way home.20
Long mentioned, too, that news of the Stonewall disaster soon spread throughout southeast Missouri. Underwriters, for instance, came to verify what cargo had been lost. The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, after hearing of the charred boat, appointed a committee to ensure that those who perished received a proper burial. The Neely's community made quick and careful response during this time of distress.21
Food and clothing came in, in generous quantities, for the sympathies of the people were aroused to the highest pitch. Among those who lived several miles from the scene of the disaster, was Aunt Mag Oliver, the widow of John Oliver, who had only died on July 4th that year. Mrs. Oliver had a magnificent Country Home and was known for her hospitality and generosity. She went to work and cooked up a large lot of eatables of all kinds and sent down to those who might need it.22
Some victims were taken to homes in and around Neely's. Long's parents, along with John E. Harris and the Ed Cotter family, were among those who provided temporary living arrangements for survivors. Long remembers another victim for whom he had sympathy, a man who stayed several weeks at the home of his uncle, John Harris.
This man with his newly wedded wife, his father and mother were on the boat, moving to some southern point. All were lost, except this one member and in my boyish heart I remember how sorry I was for him, as he seemed utterly heart broken and said that hereafter life held no charms for him. This man, if I remember correctly, after vainly trying to save his wife and parents reached land by swimming to shore with the assistance of a wheel barrow he picked up on the lower deck.23
The actual number of lives lost that night will never be known, and the newspaper reports of the day vary. The Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus reported the Stonewall had on board the following: cabin passengers, 35; deck passengers, 165; officers, 17; crew, 58. The total number of lives on board would be 275 "of which, not to exceed fifty-two are known to have been saved, leaving the loss of two hundred and twenty-five souls."24 Without having the boat's passenger list, which, if it existed, went down with the boat, there would be no way to quantify the number of persons aboard the Stonewall, and because so many victims were never found in the muddy river, an accurate death toll would be impossible to tally. The St. Louis Missouri Republican ran a detailed story two days after the burning, however, and the following point should be noted:
There were between two hundred and fifty and three hundred people on the 'Stonewall,' not more than fifty of whom are probably saved; yet it is impossible to know the names of the lost. The register of the steamer is gone, and there is no memoranda in this city [St. Louis] or elsewhere to tell who embarked on the doomed vessel to perish in the flames or find a watery grave in the bosom of the turbid Mississippi.25
In the hours and days following the Stonewall
disaster, search parties were sent and recovery efforts made to find anyone
along the river's bank who might still be alive. Two days after the
Stonewall burned, search parties had made no new discoveries. The
lifeless bodies pulled from the river shortly after the fire were taken to a
nearby farm, their possessions removed, their personal items inspected,
documented, and their bodies laid in a mass grave, some sixty bodies in all,
put to rest on the Edward Cotter farm near an old cedar tree that once stood
on the property.26
Pictured in this 1910-era photo are Neely's Landing
townspeople posing in front of the warehouse that bordered the Mississippi
River. Courtesy of Michael Hahn.
The Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus reported that fifty-seven bodies had been pulled from the river and that the "river has been thoroughly dragged for half mile below, but those engaged in the search have not found any more."27 Valuables were removed and kept in boxes, being saved for family members who might wish to reclaim items their deceased relatives once owned. By the fourth day, what bodies had been recovered and identified were either buried along with those in the mass grave or were sent back home to family. Fortunately, there were some who could identify the bodies of loved ones or friends:
My name Wm Henry Dick. I live in St. Louis. I and him (deceased) staid under the same roof. His name is Sweet William. He has sent his wife on to New Orleans. He was a roustabout on the Stonewall. I saw him Tuesday night when the Stonewall left St. Louis. He left on the boat. He summered in St. Louis but lived in New Orleans.28
Captain Shaw, the boat's owner, identified one victim, too: "I knew the deceased. Her name was Ann. She was chambermaid on the Stonewall and resides in St. Louis."29
In a sworn statement from John Henderson, local residents Edwin Hines, R.W. Harris, John Harris, and others removed the Stonewall's safe and inspected its contents for possible knowledge of victims' names or their destinations. The safe contained thirty cents in nickels, burned books, and cinders, "one bundle supposed to have been 'greenbacks.'" Hines and those inspecting the safe's contents valued the remaining items at $10.30
J.H. Long recalled one man specifically whose body had been pulled from the river that night. The man, Long wrote, "was at once taken to the fire and every effort made to revive him, but he was so enfeebled by the cold an exertions to get out, that he never rallied, but died during the night." Long remembered the man had come from Galveston, Texas.31
Of all the victims from the Stonewall disaster, history can at least personalize one of them, and he might well be the same gentleman about whom Long wrote. The body of Francis Brenan of Galveston, Texas—one of the thirty-nine cabin passengers onboard—was found and his belongings saved. Mark Nussbaum of Cape Girardeau still possesses a number of items from the Stonewall burning, and a few of those items belonged to Brenan. Among the items Brenan carried were his passenger ticket, which showed his destination as New Orleans, receipts of sales from what was apparently his grocer business in Galveston, and a near-thousand word letter from his wife, Ellen. The four-page, handwritten letter illustrated Ellen's love for her husband, her faith in God, Francis's toils with money, health, alcohol, and she praised their having received a blessing between them, their 18-month-old son. There is no mention in the letter whether Francis was on the trip for business or pleasure, but Ellen reassures her husband his future will be more promising:
My advise to you Francis, is to let the world take its right corse and all things will turn up for the better. I am very sure that your friends in New Orleans will send you goods, if they find you worthy of them. . . . They always had a strict eye over you and especially when they saw you loosing a little money they wanted to have you do no business there and you can see it plainly now yourself. . . . There is something in store for you and myself, for if you have only your hands and health you can make a living for yourself and myself.32
Unfortunately for Ellen, Francis never made it back home alive; currently, there's no evidence that his body was returned to Galveston. One other letter Brenan possessed at the time of his death was from Thomas King of New Orleans, date June 25, 1869, in which King, at the request of Brenan's brother, was to ship and charge to Brenan certain goods. It reads, in part: "There is no hay on the levee as good and as heavey as this I send you. The oats are as good as any received this Season. The corn is sound and fresh but the bags are not as large as I would like to ship."33
The St. Louis Missouri Republican wrote the following regarding his death:
Mr. Brenan who was one of the cabin passengers, leaped into the river and succeeded in keeping afloat until rescued. When he was pulled out he had been so long in the water that he did not survive the shock to his system. He was taken to a house and died soon after. His remains were left at the house of Mr. Bedard [sp?], and will be brought away by his friends.34
Apparently, Brenan still had business matters in progress, but no other letters remained with him to further clarify if he were traveling from St. Louis on a business trip.
Though much of the energy Neely's residents spent those first days and nights after the fire accomplished much, recovery efforts lasted for weeks. By December 21, 1869, Cape County had spent $620.55 for "expenses accrued concerning the bodies lost from the Steamer Stonewall October 27, 1869." Sixty-two names appear on the list, detailing the amounts paid for daily employment of those who helped with recovering, moving, identifying, and burying bodies. John R. Henderson was the justice of the peace and acting coroner throughout the recovery process. Thomas Franks of the county court spent thirty-five days summoning sixteen jurors (three juries), one guard, and keeping records of the events generally. Additionally, on November 11, 1869, Henderson summoned a jury to appear before his court and initiate an inquest regarding three deceased passengers aboard the steamboat Stonewall.35
The Cape Girardeau County Archives Center holds at least ten inquest files pertaining to "unknown floaters" found dead along the banks of the Mississippi River between October 1869 and May 1870. While it's impossible to tell exactly how these unidentified people died, at least one inquest file suggests the floater died during the steamboat disaster six months earlier. On May 31, 1870, William Sides of Cape Girardeau made this testimony about his discovery: "I saw him floating down the river and I took a skiff and brought him in." Sides recovered the body "at the foot of William Street at the City of Cape Girardeau." After witness testimony a jury returned its verdict, saying "the deceased came to his death by the burning of the steamer Stonewall." The costs for summoning one witness, summoning a jury, paying for delivery of body to burial site, coffin, and other inquest fees totaled nearly $26.00.36
From the county evidence, clearly Neely's residents and
other Cape Girardeau County citizens did what they could to recover and
identify the human losses and to preserve the personal belongings left
behind. Aside from the letters, ticket, and other papers the Nussbaum family
preserves, no other Stonewall remnants have been found.
One of the few items that still remains from the
Stonewall disaster is this passenger ticket that belonged to Francis
Brenan of Galveston, Texas. Courtesy of Mark Nussbaum.
1. Neely's Landing derives its name from a young entrepreneur, Jacob Hayes Neely, who by 1836, according to local tradition and court records, opened a store, warehouse and provided a boat landing for those traveling the Mississippi. "Awful Calamity: Burning of the Steamer Stonewall." St. Louis Missouri Republican, October 29, 1869.
2. "The Mississippi Horror," New York Times, November 1, 1869.
3. Personal communication (temperature data) with Missouri State Climatologist, University of Missouri, Dr. Patrick Guinan.
4. "Terrible Disaster," New York Times, October 29, 1869; Dateline: St. Louis, October 28, 1869.
5. NYT, October 29, 1869.
6. NYT, November 1, 1869.
7. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Bantam Books, 1981, page 123. Originally published by Harper, June 10, 1869.
8. "The Burning of the Steamer Stonewall," by J.H. Long, essay gift to Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, Missouri.
9. "Steamboat Disaster on the Mississippi River," Frank Leslie's Illustrated, November 13, 1869, page 149.
10. NYT, November 1, 1869.
11. "Burning of the Steamer Stonewall," Dubuque Daily Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, October 28, 1869.
12. Map: "Mississippi River from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois, in 17 Charts. Made under direction of the board on examination and survey of Mississippi River. Created by river and harbor act March 2, 1907." Printed 1908. Courtesy Center for Regional History, Southeast Missouri State University.
13. "Burning of the Steamer Stonewall," Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, October 20, 1869.
14. NYT, November 1, 1869.
15. Frederick Way, Jr., Way's Packet Directory 1848-1983, 1983.
16. Long memoir: John Hays, appointed sheriff, December 10, 1812. Cape Girardeau County Recorders Office; John Hays, last will and testament, May 25, 1856, (record book C, pages 223-225). Cape Girardeau County Archives, probate file, box 36, bundle 733.
17. Long memoir, page 3.
18. NYT, October 29, 1869.
19. Weekly Argus, November 4, 1869.
20. Long memoir; Weekly Argus, November 4, 1869; NYT, October 28, 1869.
21. Weekly Argus, November 8, 1869, page 2.
22. Long memoir.
23. Long memoir.
24. Weekly Argus, November 4, 1869; St. Louis Missouri Republican, October 29, 1869.
25. Long memoir.
26. Long memoir.
27. Weekly Argus, November 11, 1869.
28. Affidavit, William Henry Dick, October 31, 1869. Courtesy Mark Nussbaum Family papers.
29. Affidavit, Captain Shaw, October 1869. Courtesy Mark Nussbaum.
30. Affidavit, R.W. Harris, John E. Harris, et.al., 1869. Courtesy Mark Nussbaum.
31. Long memoir.
32. Letter from Ellen Brenan to her husband Francis Brenan, September [1?], 1868; Ellen's letter suggests she had received a letter from Francis dated August 13. Courtesy Mark Nussbaum.
33. Letter from Thomas King, New Orleans, to Francis Brenan, Galveston, Texas, June 25, 1869. Courtesy Mark Nussbaum.
34. St. Louis Missouri Republican, October 29, 1869.
35. Courtesy Mark Nussbaum; Cape Girardeau County Archives, inquests, box 13, "unknown bodies-steamer Stonewall."
36. Cape Girardeau County Archives, inquests, box 14, "unknown male floater, 1870."
"The Steamboat Calamity," New York Times, October 30, 1869.
"Awful Calamity: Burning of the Steamer Stonewall," New York Times, October 30; Dateline: St. Louis, October 29, 1869.
"The Stonewall Disaster-Latest Reports," New York Times, October 31, 1869; Dateline: October 30, 1869.
"The Stonewall Horror-The Steamboat Law Violated," New York Times, November 5, 1869.
"Fearful Disaster," Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus, Thursday, October 28, 1869, Vol. 7, page 2.
"The Stonewall Disaster," Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus, Thursday, November 4, 1869, Vol. 7, page 2.
Cape County Records, book E, page 148.
Steven Bender began researching Neely's Landing, Missouri, in northeast Cape Girardeau County in 1996, and he expects to one day publish a book on the river town. He received a degree in English literature from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Nebraska. He resides in Cape Girardeau.
© Steven Bender
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