Carrollton’s namesake steamer destroyed by fire in 1895

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By Dave Taylor

There were quite a number of steamboats in the 19th and early 20th centuries named for various cities and towns sprinkled along America’s inland waterways. Famous boats operating on the Ohio and Mississippi included namesakes for Louisville, Cincinnati, Madison, St. Louis, Natchez, Memphis and many others.


Carrollton had a namesake packet for just under five years near the end of the 19th century. Although Carrollton was not her home port, the sternwheeler made quite a few stops in this city between her launch date of January 28, 1891, and August 5, 1895, the day of her demise.

The Carrollton was built in the late months of 1890 at Knox Yard in Harmar, Ohio with completion and final inspections at Marietta, Ohio. She was owned by the White Collar Line, which operated a fleet of boats on the Cincinnati to Memphis and New Orleans trade.

The steamer was primarily used to ferry freight and passengers between Cincinnati and Madison, Ind., although for a short period of time in 1895 she made several round trips between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati after another White Collar Line steamboat, the Iron Queen, burned.

Mishaps were frequent among riverboats of that era. Two incidents involving the Carrollton stand out in the Steamboat Inspection Service report for fiscal year ending June 30, 1895: “On Sept. 18, 1894, while the steamer Carrollton was descending the Ohio River near Madison, Ind., a passenger named Coleman, while intoxicated, fell overboard and was drowned. On Nov. 23, 1894, the towing steamer, the Bob Pritchard, descending the river with a tow of loaded barges, and the passenger steamer Carrollton, ascending, came into collision near the mouth of Stepstone Creek, Ky.”

Just prior to the tragic fire that ended her career, the Carrollton “was running between Cincinnati and Madison at present, having been chartered … to run in opposition to the Barrett Line Steamer Scotia,” according to The Cincinnati Commercial Gazette. “The competition between these lines was very bitter, and the Carrollton was carrying passengers for nothing, bringing in 225 Monday morning.”

In early August 1895, The Carrollton Democrat also reported that the city’s namesake steamer was taking passengers free of charge. Meals aboard were 25 cents each.

On Monday afternoon, Aug. 5, 1895, five steamers were in port at the wharfboats at Cincinnati. At one wharfboat, the sidewheeler Big Sandy was loading for Louisville, and at the other the Carrollton was loading for its trip to Madison, Ind. The vessel was scheduled to depart for Madison at 5 p.m. It was the day for cleaning boilers. The steamers were chained to the large wharf boats and had no steam up, so they could not pull out from the dock in case of a fire. Other steamers in port included the H.K. Bedford, Scotia and Tacoma.

On the Cincinnati wharfboat were 200 bales of hay and 1,000 bales of straw that had been unloaded earlier in the day. Cincinnati newspapers reported later that some boys had been seen playing about the wharf early that afternoon.

“One boy was seen who said that he saw a boy light a cigar stump and throw the burning match in the hay,” The Commercial Gazette reported.

The fire rapidly spread and soon swept through the wharfboats. An effort to save the bales proved fruitless and the 1,200 bales were soon reduced to ashes.

“At 1:45 o’clock the fire was discovered in the wharfboat,” The Carrollton Democrat reported on Aug. 10, 1895, “and every effort was made to extinguish the flames but in vain. The Big Sandy and Carrollton were anchored to the wharf, and neither having steam up, it was impossible to get them out into the current and out of harm’s way.”

Jack Cromley, clerk of the Cincinnati Wharfboat, told a Commercial Gazette reporter that he and another dockworker tried to extinguish the blaze as soon as they discovered the smoke, but “in a minute’s time the flames had spread and we had all we could do to escape with our lives. By the time we reached the bank and turned around the fire had spread to the boats and we could see the crews and passengers rushing frantically through the smoke and flames… The fire went like a whirlwind and it was one series of flashes of flame after another.”

Onboard the Carrollton, First Mate John Thompson gave the warning to passengers and crew, going from cabin to cabin breaking in doors with an axe. Several race horses, bound for the Madison riverfront race track, were led off the burning wharf and escaped the flames. One horse pulling a dray panicked, jumped into the river and drowned.

The steamers H.K. Bedford, Scotia and Tacoma narrowly escaped destruction. All the other boats in the harbor pulled out and proceeded to fight the fire.

“The fire took up the space of a square, and the entire damage was done in less than an hour after the fire started,” The Commercial Gazette reported. “Fireman Bennett, of the Fours, paid a terrible penalty for his bravery. He ran on the stage while the fire was raging its fiercest. He was overcome by the heat and had to be dragged away. The awful experience had upset his mind, and he was shouting fiercely in his madness as the patrol wagon hauled him away. Officer Ellis, who found him, had a desperate struggle to save him, and had to use force to keep him from throwing himself into the flames.”

Crewmen and passengers aboard both the Carrollton and Big Sandy escaped the blaze. There were a number of injuries, most being among the firefighters who fought to control the inferno. The crew on the Carrollton included Captain, Andrew Hazlet; clerks, Edward Long and Lafe McCord; mate, John Thompson; pilots, John Oyler and Frank Hazlett; steward, Frank Brosart; and engineers, John Wilson and John Dixon.

McCord made a strong effort to save a valuable Italian harp, belonging to Hanover College Professor Harry Conner. McCord “was coming down the steps with it, but the flames got too furious and burned out the sweet sounds forever,” reported The Madison Courier on Aug. 6.

Although there was no loss of life, the financial toll was great. Total loss of the mail line was estimated at $103,000 with the vessels and wharfboats insured for only $90,000. The loss of the Carrollton alone was estimated at $35,000. The steamer had been insured for $30,000. The hulls of both steamers sank. The steamers as well as the wharf boats were total losses.

“The past two years have been hard ones on steamboats and steamboatmen,” The Carrollton Democrat reported on Aug. 10, 1895. “To the usual trials of river men, such as the ice in winter and the low water in summer, the accidents which have happened to the Mary Houston, Golden Rule, Longfellow, State of Missouri, City of Madison, Big Sandy and Carrollton have been added.”

Additionally, there were losses of cargo which had already been loaded aboard the vessels and cargo stored on the wharfboats. The several hundred passengers and crewmen of the two steamers lost all their luggage and clothing except the clothes they had on their backs. Ultimately, the estimate of losses, including boats and all cargo, exceeded $150,000.

Several Madison grocers were among merchants who lost goods on the Carrollton, according to The Madison Courier.

“Joe Positri lost 185 bunches of bananas, Will J. Graham 151 watermelons, W.H. Rogers 37 kegs of white lead. Ed Mason lost 100 watermelons, lemons and bananas,” the paper said.

To the Carrollton’s barkeep, Gus Simmons, who was said to be well-known to the steamboat fraternity at the time, the loss totaled $700, including his bar, stock and fixtures.

“The Carrollton was a general favorite all along the river,” wrote the editor of The Carrollton Democrat five days after the tragedy, “to say nothing of the city whose name she bears.”


Dave Taylor is a staff writer at The News-Democrat and the author of several books on local history.