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Carrollton’s Redstone disaster left early mark on city

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By Dave Taylor

To many, the date April 3 conjures memories of the disastrous tornadoes that swept through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio in 1974. Mention a Carroll County disaster with great loss of life and local thoughts turn to a fiery tragedy on Interstate 71 in the spring of 1988. But long before either of these events filled the pages of local newspapers another tragedy unfolded near Carrollton that scarred the psyche of the local populace just as deeply. On April 3, 1852, the steamboat Redstone exploded with reports of between 60 and 70 people killed and injured.

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The two major methods of interstate commerce in the mid-19th Century were steamboating and railroading. Both offered opportunities of carrying large loads of passengers and cargo to distant destinations in a timely fashion. Both also posed the threat of great danger, however. This was due in part to the technology of the day, but also in large part to human error and recklessness. This was especially true of those luxurious floating palaces—the steamboat packets.

Most river towns of any size enjoyed their fair share of steamboat commerce and Carrollton was no exception. Carrollton and other Ohio River towns of the era had at least one wharf boat, a barge serving as a floating wharf or pier. Steamboats, when landing would tie off to the wharf boat, unload or load passengers and freight. The city often owned the wharf boat but leased it to a wharf master or docking company who operated it, turning over a share of proceeds to the community.

Madison, Ind. in 1852 was one of the largest cities in Indiana due in large part to river commerce and the railroad that connected that city to Indianapolis, Ind. Several steamboat packet companies operated between Madison and Louisville, while others operated between Madison and Cincinnati, Ohio. Large companies, such as the Cincinnati and Madison Mail Line Co., owned several vessels that operated between these ports, much as Delta and Southwest Airlines operate fleets of commercial aircraft today. Among the important cargo shipped by these companies was the United States mail.

Steamers traveling the river between Madison and Cincinnati would make regular stops at river towns along the way—including Carrollton, Ghent and Warsaw in Kentucky; and Vevay, Rising Sun, Aurora and Lawrenceburg in Indiana—during which they took on or unloaded passengers and freight. Schedules for these stops were frequently published in the local newspapers. Steamboat companies often boasted that folks along the river could set their clocks by the steamers’ whistles—they were that meticulous about keeping to a scheduled routine.

Steamboating was a highly competitive business between packet companies. The sporting blood in officers, crew and passengers often caused caution to be cast aside and great risks were taken in search of greater speed to forge ahead of an eager opponent.

There were a number of landings along the river’s meanderings where passengers or shippers could merely hail a passing steamer and she would pull in for passengers or cargo. One of these in Carroll County was Scott’s Landing, located near where Four Mile Creek empties into the Ohio. In 1852, there was a large mass of land opposite Scott’s Landing that extended into the river from the Indiana shore called Craig’s Bar. The river channel was close to the Kentucky shore, and water at Scott’s Landing was just deep enough to allow shallow-draft steamboats to nose in toward land and let down the gangplank for embarking or disembarking passengers. Craig’s Bar became permanently submerged by the higher water levels achieved with the construction of Louisville’s McAlpine Dam during the 20th Century.

On April 3, 1852, the steamer Redstone pulled away from the Madison wharf boat bound for Cincinnati. Principally owned by parties in Lawrenceburg, Ind., the three-year-old steamer had only recently entered the competitive Madison/Cincinnati trade. It was customary in those days for a packet to leave Madison at noon so the boat could arrive in port at Cincinnati by daybreak the following morning.

A young wedding party was among 40-50 people boarding in Madison. The couple, Weston by name, intended to visit the bride’s sister who resided near Covington. The Redstone carried a crew of about 20-30 additional souls, headed by longtime riverboat veteran, Captain Thomas W. Pate of Rising Sun.

The trip between Madison and Carrollton usually took little more than an hour. The Redstone chugged up to the Carrollton wharf about 1:20 p.m. where still more passengers, mail and other freight were taken aboard. A steamer of a competing line was also in port and, apparently, Capt. Pate determined he would get ahead of his competitor so as to be the first to secure other freight and passengers from those who might hail the boat from shore along the way.

“Several experienced steamboat men who saw the Redstone at Carrollton when she passed up, prophesied that she would explode her boilers from an over-charge of steam,” The New York Daily Times reported on April 13.

Upon arriving at Scott’s Landing, at the foot of Craig’s Bar, the Redstone was called in for a passenger, the Rev. Perry A. Scott, a Baptist minister, formerly stationed in Covington, and more recently in Warsaw. Mr. Scott had been on a visit to his parents, and was returning to his pastorate.

“The Redstone shoved out and backed down from the landing about one hundred yards,” The Cincinnati Gazette reported on April 5. “A strong wind was blowing in shore, and it was with difficulty that she could back her way out. At the second (paddlewheel) revolution she made to start forward, her three boilers exploded at the same time, with a tremendous noise, shattering and tearing the boat literally to atoms. She sank in less than three minutes, in twenty feet of water.”

Rev. Scott was waving with a handkerchief in his hand to his family members on shore who witnessed in horror his departure from this earth into the presence of his God.

“Rev. Scott was never seen again nor was a vestige of his corpse ever found,” The Madison Herald reported. “The fatal handkerchief with which he waved his last farewell was discovered in the branches of a tree far beyond the bank of the disturbed river.”

The Redstone’s first clerk, O.M. Soper, was standing in the door of his office on the steamer, “and he says the first sensation he felt was being lifted up into the air about one hundred feet, descending feet foremost into the river, and he then swam ashore,” reported the Dixon Telegraph, in Dixon, Ill. “When he reached the bank he heard a cry within a foot of shore, and saw a person floating along; he swam out and brought him to the shore when he found that it was Capt. Pate, having one leg broken.”

“Several gentlemen here whose attention had been attracted to the boat’s racing, and the great quantity of steam she was working, saw the explosion,” a Carrollton reporter telegraphed to news outlets up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. “Her chimneys were blown half way across the river. It is said that all on board have perished. The flames are still visible from our office.”

“The noise of the explosion was heard a distance of 40 miles,” reported the Cincinnati Nonpariel, “and the heat was so intense that spoons blown from the pantry were so suddenly heated that they fastened together.”

“A large piece of one of the boilers was blown half a mile from the wreck! Eleven bodies were blown into a corn field, at some distance from the water,” reported the Republican Compiler to its Gettysburg, Penn., readers on April 12.

The explosion was seen and heard by the citizens of Carrollton, who with all possible haste proceeded to the scene of the disaster and rendered assistance.

“We have just returned from the scene which is entirely indescribable,” the Carrollton reporter telegraphed to his colleagues on the evening of April 3. “Comparatively but few if any of her passengers were saved” he wrote of the Redstone. “There were from 80 to 100 passengers, 60 to 70 of whom must be lost. All the ladies on board are thought to be saved. None of the eight persons who got on at this place were lost, although several of them are badly hurt.”

Unfortunately, at least one woman on board perished. All that was found of the young bride, Mrs. Weston, was one arm and hand of her body, “and that was identified by the initials on the wedding ring that encircled her clammy finger, and from which cruel death had failed to separate it” wrote The Madison Herald. “The body was never found, and the bloody fragment of the fair young wife was laid away in a little grave by itself.”

Witnesses later wrote that 25 dead and wounded bodies were taken to a nearby farmhouse, which was converted into a hospital.

“The inmates of this house gave up their rooms, bedding, and every thing in their possession to the suffering. The scene here beggars all description,” wrote a Carrollton correspondent to Scientific American. “The mangled and ghastly corpses by the side of the wounded and dying, with inadequate medical aid and means for the care of the latter, the floor of the rooms covered deep with blood; this, and the view of the scattered wreck and the awe-stricken multitude on the shore below, made up a scene of horror.

              “The river for some distance below Carrollton was strewn with the fragments of the boat, machinery, furniture and clothing. Small pieces of bedding and clothing were found at the distance of very nearly half a mile back from the river, while the trees along the shore were littered with the fragments of the same and of the wreck.”

              At the time of the Redstone disaster, the average lifespan of a western river steamboat was five years. Calamities of this type were unfortunately all too frequent and often caused by recklessness. Within six days of the Redstone explosion similar incidents aboard two other steamers on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers—combined with the victims of the Redstone—totaled well more than 100 lives lost among the three vessels. That is the equivalent of three major airline disasters within one week in today’s culture.

              The events of the first week of April 1852 inspired the Scientific American and other major publications of the day to raise an outcry over the frequency of fatal river disasters:

              “The cause of this explosion is very evident; it was recklessness, that culpable public, and, let us say, legalized murderer,” wrote the editor of Scientific American on April 17, 1852. “Almost every week we have to record some such calamity. Within three weeks, no less than 100 persons have lost their lives by steamboat explosions on the river between Cincinnati and New Orleans. All the laws which have been enacted, and all the safety-valves which have been invented have failed to reduce the number of explosions—there are just as many now as ever. We speak of these explosions frequently, our readers will see that we do it from principle, or we would not take up so much room in our columns with such a subject, but while our people are sent in scores into eternity every week by explosions, because they trust their lives to engineers and steamboat captains, we cannot hold our tongue—and will not.”

              There was no Interstate Commerce Commission, Department of Commerce or National Transportation Safety Board to regulate commercial navigation in 1852. Over time, the frequency of river disasters like that of the Redstone declined, although river travel always posed a danger to travelers.

              The loss of the Redstone remains the worst maritime disaster in Carroll County history to this day.

Staff writer Dave Taylor is an author and researcher who has published the books With Bowie Knives & Pistols: Morgan’s Raid in Indiana and Murder in the House of God about a 1878 judicial hanging in Madison.