Montgomery, AL Steamer ORLINE ST. JOHN FIRE, Mar 1850

Burning of the Orline St. John, Mar 1850


The steamboat Orline St. John left Mobile for Montgomery, Ala., on Monday evening, March 2d, 1850. On the fourth of the same month, when within four miles of her place of destination, she was discovered to be on fire on the larboard side, near the boilers. In less than three minutes from the time at which the first alarm was given, the whole cabin was enveloped in a sheet of flame. There were about one hundred and twenty human beings on board, and it is reported that not more than fifty of that number survived the destruction of the boat. As soon as the. fire was discovered, the pilot steered for the shore, which the steamer fortunately reached before the tiller-ropes were, severed by the flames. The boat was run ashore in a dense cane-brakc on which her bow and waist rested, while the stern projected into the river. A few persons who happened to be on the forward part of the boat were landed without any difficulty, but the greater number of passengers ran aft, with the hope of getting into the yawl. But the deck passengers and a part of the crew had got possession of this small boat, and had already left the steamer. More than one hundred people were now collected at the stern, which, as mentioned above, projected into the deep water, which effectually cut off all means of escape in that quarter ; and to go forward was now impossible, as the whole of the middle of the boat was completely wrapped in flame. To make the situation of these people still more critical, the cabin threatened to fall on them. " As the flames spread aft, (says an eye-witness,) the scene was indeed terrible. The ladies and children had gathered in the extreme after-pare of the boat, and their screams for help can never be erased from my memory."

If the yawl had been brought back, all might have been saved ; but the deck hands who had taken possession of it, ran it ashore in the cane-brake ; and before the captain and second mate could bring it back, all who remained on the steamer, without a single exception, were drowned or burned to death. Every woman and child who had been in the boat was lost ; the only persons saved were those few who escaped over the bow when the boat struck, and the five or six deck hands who ran off with the yawl. There were a number of returned California gold diggers on board ; such of them as saved their lives lost all the produce of their toils. No property of any kind was saved, except a trunk belonging to Col. Preston, which his servant threw over the bow into the cane-brake.

LIST OF KILLED.—Mrs. Hall and daughter, Augusta, Ga. ; Mrs. and Miss Vanhorn, and Mrs. Cain, S. C.; Thomas Stevens, printer, Camden, S. C. ; Judge Tindslay, Hugh Hughes, second mate, and Peter Upson, steward, and wife, Mobile, Ala. ; the second cook, colored, two white deck hands, eight colored firemen and slaves of passengers, and ten or twelve cabin passengers, names unknown.

Edward Maul, second clerk of the steamer Farmer, and a returned Californian, were severely burned. Purser Price, of the United States Navy, from California, lost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gold belonging to government. Mr. Noland, a Californian, lost ten thousand dollars, and several others from the gold region lost all they had. The boat, cargo, and baggage were entirely destroyed. There was an insurance on the steamer for twenty thousand dollars.

Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory and Disasters on the Western Waters, James T. Lloyd & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, 1856, pages 207-209