Captain Isaac Perrin was the co-owner of a new steamboat called Moselle – a 150 tonne vessel that wasn’t especially large for its time, but was more than made for achieving what were back then breakneck speeds for voyages up and down the Ohio River.
One of the key commercial draws for a successful contemporary steamer was how quickly it could complete a voyage, and Perrin had already set the speed record for the Cincinnati to St. Louis route as a result of showing a blatant disregard for the safety of his passengers.
Perrin was ruthless in his desire to maintain the celebrity of Moselle as the, “fastest steamboat in America,” and he was able to achieve top speeds by keeping the boiler’s safety valve closed during stops – thus, no steam was lost and pressure would be accumulated in the engine.
Despite the obvious dangers associated with such an act, excited passengers gathered on the Moselle’s upper deck on April 25th 1838 in anticipation of Captain Perrin’s attempt to beat another boat to the intended destination even though it had already set off beforehand – it would not do to risk the Moselle’s reputation for speed at the expense of another vessel.
The Moselle left the port at Cincinnati in the afternoon and made its first stop approximately one mile upstream. An experienced engineer that was on board Moselle had raised the alarm to indicate that the amount of pressure that had built up in the engine as a group of German immigrants boarded the vessel was such that he eventually disembarked in protest at the reckless management of the steam apparatus.
As the bow of the boat was pushed from the shore with approximately 280 passengers on board, the enormous pressure that had built up in the steamboat’s boilers caused an ear-splitting explosion of steam, smoke and flames.
Shrapnel of timber, copper, iron and steel whizzed about in all directions and a huge cloud billowed several hundred feet into the air. As soon as the accident occurred, the boat floated downstream for about a hundred yards before sinking, leaving the upper part of the cabin sticking out of the water whilst passenger baggage, alongside the many human casualties, floated on the surface of the river.
Steamboat explosions were well known historically for the gory human injuries they caused and the explosion on board the Moselle was said at the time to be by far the worst yet.
All four of the boat’s boilers had burst simultaneously and as a result, the deck was blown high into the air sending the people who had crowded upon it upwards as well. Fragments of the boiler and human body parts were thrown across both sides of the river to the Kentucky and Ohio shores even though the distance of the former was as much as a quarter of a mile away.
Captain Perrin had been standing on the deck at the time of the accident right above the boiler whilst engaged in conversation with another person. He was thrown onto the steep embankment of the river and killed, while his companion was prostrated onto the deck and escaped without injury. Another person was blown a distance of a hundred yards with such force that his head and part of his body penetrated the roof of a nearby house.
Some of the passengers who weren’t injured by the initial explosion jumped overboard and eye-witness accounts state that up to sixty or seventy passengers languished in the water, of whom less than a dozen eventually made it to the shore.
It was said that the fine weather on the day had attracted large numbers of passengers onto the deck and this contributed to the long list of casualties.
The rescue efforts to save those in need were said to be feeble as only a few boats were in the vicinity to provide adequate assistance and as a result, many of the bodies were never recovered.
Historians generally agree that at least 150 people perished on that fateful day and dozens more suffered horrific injuries.
The sinking of the Moselle made the headlines across the whole of the United States and whilst it remained by far the deadliest steamboat tragedy for the best part of another two decades, its cause was typical of a lot of similar accidents that occurred throughout the period as competitive steamboat captains, driven by masculine bravado, vied for the celebrity status that came with the glory of reaching high speeds.
The 1838 Moselle disaster caused public outrage and eventually resulted in the enactment of legislation to create a federal steamboat inspection service. Construction guidelines were introduced for boats and boilers alongside requirements for safety and monitoring equipment on board as well as river traffic guidelines to prevent collisions.
Contemporary analyst reports estimated that between 1816 and 1848, 2500 Americans had been killed and as many injured in 233 steamboat explosions that cost $3million worth ($91 million in 2018) of damage to property.
Railroads, which were faster, cheaper and much safer than steamboats largely replaced them as the principle mode of passenger transport after the American civil war.
We can’t help thinking however that the safety improvements of rail travel may have had more to do with drivers not behaving like f*cking idiots by racing each other than the fact that they travelled on rails instead of floating on water.