NEW ALBANY —
Boats named after prized race horses should be destined to have good fortune. Not so with the Lucy Walker. Owned by one of the wealthiest Cherokee businessman in the nation, the 144 foot vessel known for speed received her moniker from a fast filly. Rumor had it that the boat won a few races against other steam powered competitors as well.
On the afternoon of Oct. 23, 1844, less than nine months after its completion, the steamboat’s luck ran out about four miles south of New Albany. Around 4 p.m., three boilers on the ship exploded, taking the lives of at least 50 passengers and crew. Due to the passenger manifests being lost in the subsequent fire and sinking, the true number of those lost may never be known.
Steamboat accidents weren’t uncommon during this time. Snags under the water caused quite a few to sink. Fire was also a danger. Stacked cotton bales that most ships transported to and from the South could easily ignite. Likewise, the steam technology was relatively new. People were still learning how to control its awesome, yet at times dangerous, potential.
“The average life of a river steamboat, if they were lucky, was between three and five years give or take,” said Keith Norrington, curator and director of the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville. “Steamboats weren't known for their longevity.”
Both the boat and its owner had interesting histories even before that catastrophic voyage. Few Native Americans had as much money as Joseph Vann, the Lucy Walker’s owner. Largely inherited from his father, the money allowed Vann to construct huge mansions and even a race track. More than 200 slaves worked at his plantation. When he entered the riverboat business, he brought them along to labor as firefighters and to do other types of work on the steamboat.
Completed in 1843 in Cincinnati, the Lucy Walker had some interesting first passengers, especially considering she was owned by a Native American. In March of that year, the boat had moved 200 Seminole Indians from New Orleans to Indian Territory under the direction of the U.S. Army. During this time, the government was forcefully relocating southern tribes to this purported Indian Territory. While under charter, the Lucy Walker assisted.
Historians aren’t certain as to what caused the boiler explosions that sunk the Lucy Walker. Several different stories emerged after the incident. Some blame faulty, ill made equipment for causing the disaster. Others argue that the owner’s supposed race with another boat and his subsequent actions to increase her speed contributed to the mayhem. One unproven legend tells of Vann ordering a slave to throw bacon into the furnace so they could increase their power and win the race. Even today, speculation still remains 160 years after the tragedy.
“Boiler explosions were very common on steamboats,” Norrington said. “There were a lot of boiler explosions like the Lucy Walker.”
Yet most can concur that for some reason the normal captain of the steamboat did not pilot the ship that day, leaving Vance, the owner, in charge. After taking passengers on at Louisville and New Albany, the boat ran into some trouble down river and stopped moving. Moments later the blast occurred. Only minutes following the explosions, the entire ship caught fire and sunk 12 feet to the bottom of the Ohio.
Luckily, Capt. L.B. Dunham and his snag clearing ship Gopher had been nearby. Many accredited Dunham for saving numerous lives after he rushed to the scene and plucked the injured from the water. Most of those hurt were taken to New Albany for medical treatment.
“[Capt. Dunham] informs us that the Lucy Walker was in the middle of the river, and such was the force of the explosion that part of the boilers and the boat was thrown on shore,” stated the Oct. 24, 1844 edition of The Louisville Morning Courier. “Just after the explosion the air was filled with human beings and fragments of human beings. One man was blown up 50 yards, and fell with such force as to go entirely through the deck of the boat. Another was cut entirely in two by a piece of the boiler.”
In all, historians have estimated that around 56 people died in the blast, most of which were men. Fourteen of the bodies were buried at Fairview Cemetery. Another approximately 55 passengers survived.
“Capt. Dunham left the wounded at New Albany, all of whom were kindly and well cared for by the hospitable and humane citizens of that town,” The Courier said. “Capt. Dunham deserved the thanks of the community for his humane and vigorous exertions to save the lives of, and his kindness and attention to the sufferers.”
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com