One hundred and fifty years ago, during the early morning of Jan. 30, 1866, the rattling of windows and doors woke many Evansville residents. Although few people actually saw the flash in the eastern sky, recent veterans knew from experience something had exploded.
At that moment, upriver from Evansville, the surviving passengers and crew of the steamboat Missouri were struggling for their lives in the cold, dark Ohio River. Some were killed instantly when the boilers of the steamboat exploded. Others, some badly scalded by steam, were blown into the river or trapped as the boat began to sink.
With the arrival of dawn, residents of Evansville saw large amounts of wreckage in the river. The steamboat Charmer went upriver to investigate and found the sinking remnants of the Missouri. Searchers from the Charmer found a ghost ship. Only bloodstains and the body of Captain Hurd’s wife Catherine were found in the wreckage. Later in the day, news arrived that the steamboat Dictator had picked up some survivors, and continued to Cincinnati.
Throughout the spring of 1866, ads appeared in Evansville papers searching for missing persons from the Missouri and coroner’s inquests were held to determine the identities of bodies pulled from the river. Made without the boat’s manifest, the official death toll was placed around 65.
In April 1864, the Missouri arrived in Evansville on its first trip. The Evansville Journal described her as “magnificent beyond all conception” and “the finest boat afloat, not even excepting (her twin) the great Mississippi.” Twenty-two months later, her submerged remains rested in the river a half-mile above where the LST-325 is docked today in Evansville. In 1873 and 1874, the wreck was taken apart and blown up to clear the channel.
The explosion of the Missouri, followed 10 days later by the explosion of the W.R. Carter in Vicksburg, Mississippi, ironically captained by Jacob Hurd, brother of the Missouri’s captain, led the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service to outlaw the use of tubular boilers on steamboats. The explosion of the Missouri remains Evansville’s worst maritime disaster.
For more information about the sinking of the Missouri, visit willard.lib.in.us.