Dawn of Aug. 1, 1837, promised a stifling hot day as the steamboat “Dubuque” readied to cast off the shore of the small village of Burlington.
During the night, the crew had off-loaded cargo for local merchants and now, as the traces of river fog disappeared, the last passengers bound for the lead mines at the boat’s namesake city embarked onto the already crowded decks.
The river was low that summer and heavy with snags and bars, so the Dubuque was forced to proceed slowly upriver under moderate boiler pressure and by late afternoon it was still ten miles below Muscatine — then called Bloomington.
The afternoon heat on the boat was oppressive as the sun beat upon the exposed decks and turned the small upper cabins into ovens. The heat forced most of the passengers to gather listlessly along the rail, seeking the meager breeze.
Suddenly, with no warning, the boat gave a convulsive shudder and then there was a mighty roar as the port boiler blew apart. A tremendous geyser of boiling water and steam ripped from the bowels of the boat and carried gear and superstructure skyward and then the debris cascaded down on the exposed passengers.
Scalded and blinded, some passengers leapt overboard in a vain attempt to escape only to be battered to death by the still flailing paddlewheels. Other passengers huddled on the shattered deck, screaming in pain.
The Dubuque’s pilot pointed the riverboat downstream and ran the shattered vessel onto the nearest bank. Here, more of the scalded victims sprang ashore and ran blindly though the woods tearing off their clothes, which in some cases, pulled away the flesh with them.
More agony awaited for the victims huddling on the shore because another two hours would pass before the steamboat “Adventure” would arrive with medical help.
Twenty-two passengers and crew died that afternoon, and many more were horribly scarred and burned in what would be the first and worst steamboat explosion on that stretch of the Upper Mississippi. But elsewhere on the river, explosions were to occur with distressing regularity.
Although the engine room crew on duty at the time of the explosion died instantly when the boilers blew, it is likely the cause of the disaster could be traced to the water level falling too low in the boilers. This caused the flue above the water lever to become red hot, weaken and then rupture.
In those very early days of Mississippi River boating, boats drew boiler waster directly from the river. But this water often was heavy with soil and other obstructions that would inhibit the flow of water through the system and water levels would fall.
The Dubuque had been built in Pittsburgh and did not have the later fusible plugs in the boiler to melt out and quench the fire with steam. Because the boat was moving at a slow speed, it was unlikely the engineer employed the racing trick of locking out safety valves by tying them down with weights.
The violence generated by detonating boilers could be frightening, as demonstrated when the “Louisiana” exploded near the St. Louis levee in 1849, killing 150 people. The three boilers on the boat let go just as she began backing into the river and threw shrapnel throughout the lower city.
A chunk of the boiler cut a mule in two and then traveled onward to kill a drayman and his horse. Another piece tore through a pile of cotton and knocked down three iron pillars at a coffee house blocks away.
Neighboring steamboats were also heavily battered by the Louisiana with much loss of life. One passenger from the Louisiana was blown 200 feet in the air and another went completely through the pilot house of another steamer, making a hole like a cannon ball.
In spite of thee danger, river traffic continued to build and, during the 1850s, Burlington would record more than 900 steamboat arrivals and departures during a typical shipping season. But travelers never forgot these romantic looking vessels could cause tremendous loss of life when disaster struck.