Fort Adams, MS Steamboat BEN SHERROD Fire, May 1837


On the 8th of May, 1837, the large Louisville and New Orleans packet, the Ben Sherrod, caught fire on her upward trip, while she was engaged in an exciting race with the steamer Prairie. It was one o'clock at night, and the boat was about fourteen miles above Fort Adams, ploughing her way up the Mississippi with great velocity. The Prairie was just ahead of her, in sight, and the crew of the Ben Sherrod were determined, if possible, to go by her. The firemen were shoving in the pine knots, and sprinkling rosin over the coal, and doing their best to raise more steam. They had a barrel of whisky before them, from which they drank often and freely until they were beastly drunk. The boilers became so hot that they set fire to sixty cords of wood on board, and the Ben Sherrod was soon completely enveloped in flames. The passengers, three hundred in number, were sound asleep, not thinking of the awful doom that awaited them. When the deck hands discovered the fire, they basely left their posts and ran for the yawl, without giving the alarm to the passengers. Capt, Castleman attempted for a time to allay the excitement and confusion, by telling them the fire was extinguished. Twice he forbade the lowering of the yawl, which was attempted. The shrieks of nearly three hundred and fifty persons now on board, rose wild and dreadful, which might have been heard at a distance of several miles. The cry was, "To the shore ! to the shore !" and the boat made for the starboard shore, but did not gain it, as the wheel ropes soon burnt. The steam was not let off, and the boat kept on up the river. The scene of horror now beggared all description. The yawl, which had been filled with the crew, had sunk, drowning nearly all who were in it; and the passengers had no other alternative than to jump overboard, without even taking time to dress. There were ten ladies who all went overboard without uttering a single scream; some drowned instantly, and others clung to planks ; two of the number were all that were saved. Several passengers were burnt alive. One man by the name of Ray, from Louisville, Kentucky, jumped overboard, and hung to a rope at the bow of the boat, until rescued by the yawl of the steamer Columbus, which arrived at the scene half an hour after the boat took fire. Mr. Ray's face and arms were much burnt while clinging to the boat. He lost twenty thousand dollars in specie. The steamboat Alton arrived half an hour after the Columbus, but from the carelessness or indiscretion of those on her, was the means of drowning many persons who were floating in the water. She came down under full headway among the exhausted sufferers, who were too weak to make any further exertion, and by the commotion occasioned by her wheels drowned a large number. A gentleman by the name of Hamilton, from Limestone county, Alabama, was floating on a barrel, and sustaining also a lady, when the Alton came up, washing them both under. The lady was drowned, but Mr. Hamilton came up and floated down the river fifteen miles, when he was rescued by the steamer Statesman. Mr. McDowell sustained himself some time against the current, so that he floated only two miles down the river, and then swam ashore. His wife, who was floating on a plank, was drowned by the steamer Alton. Mr. Rundell floated down the river ten miles, and was taken up by a flat-boat at the mouth of Buffalo creek ; he saved his money in his pantaloons' pocket. Mr. McDowell lost his wife, son, and a lady named Miss Frances Few, who was under his protection ; also a negro servant. Of those who escaped, we have seen and conversed with James P. Wilkinson, Esq., Mr. Stanfield, of Richmond, Virginia, and Daniel Marshall, Esq., of Moscow, Indiana. The scene, as described by them, was truly heart-rending; while some were confined to their berths, and consumed by the flames, others plunged into the river to find watery graves. One lady, who attached herself to Mr. Marshall, and had clung to him while they floated four or five miles, was at length drowned by the waves of the Alton, after imploring the boat's crew for assistance and mercy. Mr. Marshall was supported by a flour barrel, Only two ladies out of ten who were on board were saved; one of these was Mrs. Castleman, the Captain's wife ; the other was Mrs. Smith, of New Orleans.



Ben Sherrod

...The Prairie flirted with disaster during a race with the Ben Sherrod on May 8, 1837, a few miles from Natchez. During the race, the boilers on the Ben Sherrod overheated and set on fire 60 cords of wood creating an instant inferno. All members of the deck and engine room crew were reportedly drunk.

As the fire spread, scores of people jumped into the water with the captain unable to steer the boat to the bank because the wheel ropes burned in the fire. The steamer Alton raced to assist but ended up running down survivors in the water.

All the while, the Prairie continued on to Natchez, never assisting the burning Ben Sherrod. More explosions followed on the Ben Sherrod, the last when 40 barrels of gunpowder ignited, creating an explosion heard for miles. Seventy-two people died in the mishap..... In addition to the destruction on the river, most homes and buildings in Natchez were flattened.