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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Steamboat Races
and Tragedies

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

One of Texas’s least-known but deadliest disasters can be blamed on human nature, not the sometimes chaotic forces of nature.

Before railroad lines connected Texas communities, the fastest mode of mass transportation churned up and down the state’s larger rivers – steamboats. High pressure wood- or coal-fired boilers converted water to steam, which in turn powered an engine that turned huge paddlewheels at the stern of the vessels they propelled. The hotter the fire in the boiler, the greater the steam pressure; the greater the pressure, the faster the engine operated. Of course, for that to happen, a boat’s captain had to order the closing of safety valves.

With no government regulation of safety standards, captains could run their boats as fast as they wanted, no matter the danger. Time being money, captains knew shippers and passengers would choose vessels known for making their run faster than other steamboats.

Business motivations aside, betting on steamboat races arose as a logical expansion of wagering on horses. Beyond that, racing – then and now – certainly provides thrills to both participants and spectators.

Mix the lack of regulatory oversight with both corporate and personal greed, throw in arrogance fed by the daredevil nature of many steamboat masters and the potential for disaster loomed around every bend of the river. Steamboat races became common along the nation’s waterways, and Texas was no exception.
Galveston, the state’s busiest seaport, saw a high volume of riverboat traffic in addition to commerce from the sea. Steamboats regularly plied the inland and bay water route between Houston and the island city. The trip down Buffalo Bayou into Trinity Bay and then to Galveston took seven hours, give or take.

In 1853, two of the most popular boats connecting the two cities were the Neptune and the Farmer. John Sterrett, captain of the Neptune, previously had been the master of the Farmer, whose new skipper was a man named Webb.

That January, the Neptune raced the Farmer from Houston to Galveston. While the outcome of the race is uncertain, the two boats got so close to each other on one stretch of the journey that their hulls rubbed together.

On March 22, they raced again. Neptune had the lead, when just into Trinity Bay, the Farmer’s boiler exploded. The blast hurled many of the vessel’s 72 passengers into the water. Thirty-six people died, including Capt. Webb.

Sterrett turned the Neptune around and returned to rescue as many of the passengers and crew as he could. That won him some acclaim, but it did not go unnoticed in the press that a foolhardy race had cost three dozen lives.

The Farmer disaster was not the first steamboat race gone bad in Texas. Fifteen people died or suffered injuries in 1841 when the Albert Gallatin’s boiler blew during a race on Galveston Bay.

And amazingly, the senseless loss of lives on the Gallatin and later the Farmer, did not end steamboat racing in Texas. Two decades later, in the spring of 1873 the Beaumont News-Beacon published a detailed article on a Sabine River race between the James L. Graham and a cotton boat named Era No. 8.

"The black smoke rose in perfect clouds, indicating an unrestricted use of pine knots,” the newspaper reported. “In the race from Sabine Pass, the "Era" left 56 minutes ahead of the "Graham," but as they passed up the reach below town, the "Era" was only one or 200 yards ahead. We suppose the "Era" will not give up yet, and we will have the pleasure of seeing a little more of the fun ourselves."

As with other forms of risky behavior, sensible people did realize the dangers involved in steamboat racing.

"Such disasters have their foundation in the present mammoth evil of our country, an inordinate love of gain,” a board of inquiry reported following a steamboat explosion in 1838. “We are not satisfied with getting rich, but we must get rich in a day. We are not satisfied with traveling at a speed of ten miles an hour, but we must fly. Such is the effect of competition that everything must be done cheap; boiler iron must be cheap, traveling must be done cheap, freight must be cheap, yet everything must be speedy. A steamboat must establish a reputation of a few minutes 'swifter' in a hundred miles than others, before she can make fortunes fast enough to satisfy the owners. This seems to be demanded by the blind tyranny of custom, and the common consent of the community."

The steamboat era eventually ended, but steamboat racing continues to this day, albeit with rules. Every year since 1963, as part of the runup to the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Derby Festival has sponsored the Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River between Louisville and Jeffersonville in Indiana.

Sidney Sherman, one of the Neptune’s passengers, survived the 1853 disaster but was among those injured. Ironically, that wasn’t the first time he’d risked his life on Buffalo Bayou. On April 21, 1836 he had led the Texas cavalry at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Given that steamboat travel was faster and far more comfortable that riding horseback or in a wagon, Sherman probably did not give up that form of transportation after the Neptune-Farmer incident. But it may not be too much of a coincidence that not long after, he chartered Texas ’s first railroad line.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 29, 2013 column

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