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May 15, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Lucy Walker steamboat disaster

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. 

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