The sidewheel steamer Helen McGregor was built in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1825. I have not been able to locate any details of her size other than she was about 340 tons. Her owners are also unknown to me at this time. She sailed on the Mississippi river carrying cargo and passengers to and from various ports. In Feb. of 1830 she was on a voyage from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky with some 400 people or more on board. She stopped in Memphis, Tennessee on the morning of February 24, 1830 to unload and reload people and cargo when at about 0830 a tragedy occurred.
The boat was sitting at the jetty at the mouth of the Wolf river on the northwest side of Memphis. This would be near the current intersection of N. Mud Island Road and Island Drive. A great number of people were milling about all over the ship, some just sitting down to breakfast in the dining room. A large group were standing on the boiler deck, this was, as you would expect, just above the boilers. Everything seemed fine when the pilot rang the bell and the boat cast off to continue on its way.
After moving a very short distance an explosion tore through the boat, one witness said it was like a small piece of artillery going off. Soon a large cloud of steam began to rise and someone yelled "a boiler has burst." The peaceful morning had turned to horror. The boat was apparently in no danger of sinking, but she was too far from shore for anyone to reach her without a boat. It took some time to get her back alongside the jetty so the casualties could be unloaded.
If you have never seen people scalded to death it is difficult to explain the horror of what burns can do to a human being. While I have never seen such a disaster, I was once in an intensive care burn unit after the crash of a commercial jet. Gruesome does not begin to describe what I saw. What happened on this boat was at least as gruesome from the eyewitness accounts.
Shortly after the explosion one unfortunate man, who had been scalded from head to toe, stumbled into a room where several survivors had gathered. His hands covering his eyes he cried "Oh God, Oh God, I am lost, I am ruined." He started to remove his clothes and to the horror of those present, his skin came off with his garments. One man is quoted as saying "he was flayed alive." The injured man, knowing the end was soon to come, could only opine that he would leave this world without the opportunity to say good-bye to his wife and children. His time on earth ended a few minutes later.
It was said that this man "bore his torture with manly fortitude," others begged for death rather to be consigned to never ending suffering. Some even requested that someone "complete the work of destruction," but there is no evidence that anyone provided that service. Casualties were strewn around the boat, people in various states of agony asking for assistance. Others searching for loved ones who they feared had come to grief.
One can only imagine the confusion on that boat, people being treated, others searching, and yet not everyone was being attended to. One man was found by a passenger off to a corner by himself. He was only slightly burned, but his thighs were obviously broken, and it appeared that an artery in his leg may have been severed. The passenger did what he could to stop the bleeding and summoned a doctor. The doctor believed he could be saved if the leg were amputated, but this could not be done until the man was ashore. He was finally taken ashore and the operation was completed. Apparently through the whole episode this poor man had not a harsh word for anyone, but he sadly died following the surgery.
Among several bodies lying on the starboard wheelhouse was one man who was still breathing. His injuries were ghastly, why he had not already drawn his last breath can not be understood. His forehead had been blown away and his living brain, still pulsing, was visible. He was of course unconscious and died shortly thereafter. Pieces of the human flesh were laying all around. Someone picked up a piece of skin which turned out to be part of an arm, it had been torn away by tremendous force. As they looked at the skin they realized that it had been removed from the elbow to the fingertips, with the fingernails still in place.
These are only snapshots of what occurred, there were many other such encounters on the terrible day. Of the over 400 people on the boat between 40 to 60 perished in the disaster. The true number will never be known as there was no manifest of passengers and no count was taken after the explosion do to the need to care for the injured. Not all the bodies were ever found, some being blown overboard, some being blown to pieces with nothing left to find.
It was reported to have been the greatest disaster involving a steamship boiler to date, but it would not be the last. Dozens maybe hundreds of such explosions occurred in the age of steam, some due to negligence some due to an engineering or manufacturing defect. No matter the cause, a horrific death for some or all of those on board was the usual outcome.
© 2015 Michael W. Pocock