Steamboat explosion tragic chapter in Lexington’s history

By Linda Emley

The 1881 Lafayette County history book tells the story about a steamboat that was named the Saluda.

“STEAMBOAT EXPLOSION — 1851. The river was high, a good deal of ice floating, and the steamboat  Saluda, with a heavy load of freight and crowded with Mormon emigrant passengers, had tried in vain for two or three days to stem the current and get away from Lexington.

”On Friday, April 9th, the captain determined to make another desperate effort to go on up the river, and ordered an extra pressure of steam to be carried. About 9 o’clock the signal was given to start, and at the second revolution of the wheel both boilers burst at once, blowing the boat all to slivers forward of the wheelhouse, so that she sunk immediately. The captain and clerk were blown half way up the bluff, and two pilots as far the other way out into the river and instantly killed.

“The boat’s’ iron safe, weighing about six hundred pounds, with a dog chained to it, was thrown clear over the levee warehouse and part way up the bluff. Eighty-three persons were buried at Lexington from this wreck, and it was never known how many more bodies were lost in the river.”

I first heard about this story from my grandmother when I was a little girl. She spoke about the riverboat burning and how hard it was to watch this tragedy from the north side of the river. I never knew the name of the boat, but I still see the sadness in my grandmother’s eyes when she talked about it. I don’t remember who told her the story and always wished I had asked her more questions about it.

I finally found the rest of this story one day when I was at the Machpelah Cemetery in Lexington and ran across the Memorial Marker for the lost passengers of the Saluda. It reads as follows: “In memory of those who lost their lives in the explosion of the steamboat “Saluda” on April 9, 1852. Many of whom are buried here in a common grave. The total loss of life was never definitely determined but was estimated at about one hundred, as many were blown into the river and lost. Most of the casualties were Mormon converts in route to Salt Lake City from Great Britain.”

In 1910, another book was published about the history of Lafayette County and it gave a few more details about the Saluda. I’ve edited this story because of its length and graphic details. “Explosion of the Steamboat Saluda” by Col. James Hale. The following was written by an eyewitness to the awful scenes connected with the blowing up of the steamboat Saluda with 250 Mormon immigrants aboard.

“Then the captain ordered the engineer to make all the steam possible, saying he ‘would either round the point or blow the boat to h—.’ About nine o’clock, with all the steam the engineer dare carry, the boat left the wharf, and when only about thirty feet from the shore, with the forward cabin deck crowded with passengers, the boilers all exploded, causing a complete wreck of all that part of the boat above the lower deck and extending back to the wheel house.

“The current caught the wrecked boat and threw it back against the levee, where it was tied up, the bow resting against the shore, with the lower forward deck above the water and the lower deck at the stern several feet below the surface.

“As the writer ran down the hill the first thing he saw was the boat’s safe lying in the road, back of what is now the waterworks power house. The safe was intact, and chained to it was a dead yellow spotted pointer dog. This was about seventy yards from where the explosion occurred.

“In the flat just west of the power house was the dead body of a large man, lying with his face downward and limbs extended as if he had sailed through the air like a blue rock. A sheet was soon spread over him and he was identified as Captain Belt, commander of the boat.

“In a short time almost the entire male population of the town was on the levee and the removal of the dead bodies from the wreck was commenced.

“A large brick house at the upper end of the levee was improvised as a hospital, and all the injured were given quarters there. Every physician in Lexington was soon at the scene of the disaster and did all they could to relieve the distress of the victims.

“Only a small number of those lost were found, a great majority of them having been blown into the river and carried downstream by the swift current. On the day after the explosion all the then dead, numbering about thirty, were buried in a long trench in that part of Macpelah cemetery known as the Potter’s field. Others were buried there who died later or were found.

“Including the crew, there must have been on the boat at the time of the explosion nearly three hundred people, two hundred of whom were never accounted for. It was one of the most destructive steamboat disasters that ever occurred on a western river. The second clerk was the only officer who escaped.

“The above is a correct statement concerning this accident, notwithstanding the fanciful story that was published not long since in one of our popular, cheap magazines, by a man born long since the accident, and who sought to make capital. There is not one single fact to support this statement of fiction.”

I always enjoy hearing first-hand accounts on historical events. I tried to find out more about Col. James Hale and I think I found him buried in the Macpelah Cemetery. A man named James I. Hale died on Aug. 2, 1914. He was born June 25, 1823, in Virginia. His death certificate lists him as a retired steamboat man.

Some of the orphaned children were adopted by local families. I’m looking for some stories about them.

I’ve been told that there is a house in Lexington that was built from some of the wood from the Saluda.  I have yet to find this house, but I did locate one piece of the Saluda. A junk dealer sold the Saluda’s bell to a church in Savannah. A similar bell is on display at a small Memorial Park at 1300 Franklin Ave in Lexington. This memorial was built to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Saluda disaster and was dedicated on April 9, 2002.

I’m working with Byron Nicodemus of the Lexington Tourism Board to promote the story of the Saluda and the 10 sites in Richmond that are important to the history of the Mormon Church. One of these sites is the Mormon History Room at the Ray County Museum. In the peak days of the summer, half of the traffic at our museum is here to see our local Mormon history. I’m working on a story about these Richmond sites, but if you would like to learn more now, you can pick up a booklet about them at the museum.

Next time you are driving around Richmond, look for the bronze plaques that tell some of these stories. These plaques were erected by the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation. The MMFF is a nonsectarian organization dedicated to collecting and preserving information related to the Mormon experience in western Missouri during the 1830s. I serve on the MMFF board as their treasurer, so I do understand the importance of this part of our local history.

I preserve history so we won’t forget the stories from our past like the Saluda Steamboat that exploded on Good Friday in 1852.

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