Disastrous steamboat mishaps caused death and injury

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.

Around Burlington

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.

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