Dawn on August 1, 1837 promised a hot and sweltering day as the steamboat “Dubuque” prepared to cast off off the small village of Burlington.
Overnight the crew had disembarked the cargo from the local merchants and now, as the traces of river fog disappeared, the last passengers bound for the ship’s eponymous town lead mines have embarked on the already crowded bridges. .
The river was low that summer and laden with snags and bars so the Dubuque was forced to slowly ascend under moderate boiler pressure and by late afternoon it was still ten miles below of Muscatine – then called Bloomington.
The afternoon heat on the ship was oppressive as the sun beat down on the exposed decks and turned the small upper cabins into ovens. The heat forced most of the passengers to nonchalantly gather along the rail, looking for the meager breeze.
Suddenly, without warning, the boat had a convulsive chill, then there was a loud roar as the port boiler exploded. A huge geyser of boiling water and steam escaped from the bowels of the ship and carried the equipment and superstructure skyward, then debris cascaded down on the exposed passengers.
Scalded and blinded, some passengers jumped overboard in a futile attempt to escape only to be beaten to death by the still-beating paddle wheels. Other passengers huddled on the broken deck, screaming in pain.
The Dubuque pilot steered the riverboat downstream and steered the broken vessel to the nearest shore. Here, other scalded victims jumped to the ground and ran blindly through the woods ripping off their clothes, which in some cases took the flesh with them.
More agony awaited the victims huddled on the shore as another two hours would pass before the “Adventure” steamboat arrived with medical aid.
Twenty-two passengers and crew died that afternoon, and many more were horribly scarred and burned in what would be the first and worst steamboat explosion on this part of the upper Mississippi. But elsewhere on the river, explosions were to occur with distressing regularity.
Although the engine room crew on duty at the time of the explosion died instantly when the boilers blew up, it is likely that the cause of the disaster could be attributed to the water level which fell too low in the boilers. This caused the conduit above the water lever to turn red, weaken and then rupture.
In the early days of Mississippi River boating, boats drew boiler waste directly from the river. But this water was often laden with soil and other obstructions that prevented water from flowing through the system and water levels decreased.
The Dubuque had been built in Pittsburgh and did not have the last fusible plugs in the boiler to melt and extinguish the fire with steam. Because the boat was moving at a slow speed, it was unlikely that the engineer used the racing trick of locking the safety valves by tying them up with weights.
The violence generated by boiler explosions could be frightening, as demonstrated by the explosion of the “Louisiana” near the Saint-Louis dike in 1849, killing 150 people. The boat’s three boilers broke just as she began to recede into the river and shoot shrapnel all over the lower town.
A piece of the boiler cut a mule in half, then went forward to kill a gunman and his horse. Another piece tore up a pile of cotton and knocked over three iron pillars in a cafe a few blocks away.
Neighboring steamboats were also heavily battered by Louisiana with significant loss of life. A passenger from the Louisiana was blown 200 feet into the air and another passed completely through the wheelhouse of another steamboat, making a hole like a cannonball.
Despite the danger, river traffic continued to increase, and during the 1850s Burlington would record over 900 steamboat arrivals and departures in a typical sailing season. But travelers have never forgotten that these romantic-looking ships could cause enormous loss of life in the event of a disaster.