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Floyd County

May 15, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Lucy Walker steamboat disaster



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.”

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