“TRIAL TRIP OF THE NEW STEAM FERRY BOAT.
Its Explosion, with Terrible Consequences!”
Friday, April 12th, 1867 was a warm spring day in Monroe. The recently organized fire company had just gotten a new engine and hose. The firefighters put on a parade to show off their new uniforms and equipment. Parade watchers were distracted however, when the new steam ferryboat pulled out of it’s landing on the Cottonport side of the river and headed for Monroe on its maiden voyage.
Monroe (and Trenton) had waited along time for an easy way across the river. The railroad bridge had been burned during the Civil War, and residents had to rely on skiffs and rafts to cross. The ferryboat was a welcome addition to the Ouachita River trade.
People gathered on the bank to witness her landing. The leading citizens of the day then came aboard for the trip to Trenton. Among them were: Frank P. Stubbs, Dr. John T. Simmons, Captain Frank Morey, Judge Henry M. Bry, Robert Dortch and the editor of the local newspaper, George McCranie. The boat pulled out of the landing and was halfway across the river when some of the men noticed something wrong. The pump was working, “with inconceivable violence, even shaking the foundations of the pump.” They were assured that the boiler was full of water and they were going slowly because there was not enough room in it for steam.
The trip to Trenton took forty minutes. Upon landing, the citizens of the town came to see the new marvel. Major Thomas McGuire, who owned Traveler’s Rest Plantation, suggested that it needed a horseshoe on the bow for luck. One was quickly found and nailed down. After the half-hour stop in Trenton, the group loaded back on the ferry. Mr. Lincoln, the manager of the McGuire’s steam sawmill, came on board and tested the gauges and inspected the boiler. He noted that the boiler was short on water. Mr. Stubbs caught the engineer and told him he would like to see some water pumped into the boiler. The engineer replied, rather shortly, “I’ll attend to that.” and was seen to tinker around the boiler. The nearby men took it for granted that he filled it with water. It was a costly mistake.
The whistle was blown for leaving. The ropes were cast off and the boat began to back out into the river. Mr. Stubbs still felt uneasy and made his way to the river side of the boat to stand near the railing. That move may have saved his life. Just as they were leaving the landing, the flue collapsed. McCranie described the noise in his paper as only a veteran of war can. “Suddenly a deafening noise fell upon our ears — as we remember now, like the near explosion of a large shell – accompanied by a rush of steam into our face.” After opening his eyes, he beheld an awful sight. Men,women and children had been blown into the river and had broken bones and burns. The boat was on fire and drifting into the river. Two men were able to get the boat back to shore and put out the fire. Dispatches were sent to Monroe for medical aid. There was only one surgeon in Trenton and he was overwhelmed.
After the dispatch was sent, wild rumors began to circulate in Monroe and the people began to panic. Night had fallen and it was difficult to get a boat across. Mr. McCranie’s wife, who had gotten to the other side, wondering if her loved one was alive or dead, found out that he had made his way to Monroe. Her relief was enormous. The wounded were taken on board the steamer Swan the next day and brought back to Monroe to be cared for. In all, nine were injured and one, Dr. John T. Simmons, was killed.
An examination was made of the boat. The larboard flue had collapsed and had been wrenched from the main boiler. The smoke stack lay on the bow, and a portion of the wheelhouse was blown away. Observing water lines after the explosion, investigators concluded there was only three inches of water in the boiler. The engineer of the boat was interviewed from the jail. According to him, one of the valves was broken and he gave orders not to put any more wood on the fire. He intended to float down to Cottonport for repairs. When Mr. Stubbs told him that the water was low, he checked it and thought that it had plenty of water. The only excuse he made for not noticing the water depth was that the water may have been foaming all through the boiler, fooling the gauges into giving inaccurate readings. After a hearing in the trial of the engineer,Justice Delery ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict and all charges were dropped.
The ferryboat was eventually repaired and put back into service. It would be a long time, however, till many residents would ride.