Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Wreck of the "Chamois"

Steamboat Explosion Received Wide Coverage

By Dale Cox

While travel on the early paddlewheel steamboats that served Jackson County was picturesque and romantic, it could also be very dangerous. Fires and boiler explosions were common, while the snags, rocks and sandbars of the rivers claimed a surprising number of boats. The average life of a steamboat on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers was only a few years and quite often the boats ended their careers with an even more tragic loss of life. A number of these unfortunate accidents took place along the Jackson County banks.

Little is known of the first such incident, a fire that destroyed the steamboat Flossie at Brown’s Ferry in 1835. The next known accident was the loss of the Chamois to a boiler explosion in 1842. The fatal incident was reported widely in the nation’s newspapers:

…The steamer Chamois, Capt. Morton, burst her boiler on Thursday, 3d of November, near Chattahoochee, at the fork of the river. She was aground, and trying to pull off when the explosion occurred, which hurried three souls into eternity. There were others more or less injured, but none severely. It is stated as usual, that no blame whatever is attached to the officers of the boat. The names of the persons killed are Leander Vale, 1st engineer, Wm. Cannefax, Steward, and Joseph Floyd, deck hand.

A similar report appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer under the headline, “Dreadful Steamboat Disaster on the Chattahoochie.” According to that publication, the Chamois was grounded on a sandbar at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers and the crew was using both the power of her engines and a capstan to try to pull her into deeper waters:

…The captain was standing at the time on the boiler deck, and was thrown a great distance, but miraculously escaped, with some slight bruises. The boat is a complete wreck and will prove an entire loss. This was the first trip of the boat up the river for this season, and she had a large freight on board, which is all damaged. The engine and furniture will be saved. The deck hands were all engaged at the capstan hauling off, and are all more or less injured.

The site of the wreck, shown above, is now covered by the waters of Lake Seminole.
The next year another vessel, the 228-ton sidewheeler Irwinton went down at Brown’s Ferry, fortunately with no loss of life. It was actually the second time that the Irwinton had hit the bottom of the river. On May 11, 1838, the boat was steaming down the Apalachicola below Blountstown when her crew discovered that she was on fire. To prevent the total loss of the boat, they scuttled her and allowed the river water to put out the fire. She was subsequently raised and put back in service.

Note: This article was excerpted from The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One. The book is available at Chipola River Book and Tea at 4402 Lafayette Street in Downtown Marianna or click here for information on ordering through Amazon.com.

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