The dawn of August 1, 1837, promised a sweltering day when the steamship “Dubuque” was ready to leave the coast of the small village of Burlington.
During the night the crew had unloaded cargo for local traders, and now, with the trail of the river mist fading, the last passengers on their way to the lead mines in the city of the same name climbed the boat onto the already overcrowded decks.
The river was low and heavy with hooks and sticks that summer, forcing the Dubuque to sail slowly upstream under moderate pressure, and by late afternoon she was still ten miles below Muscatine – then called Bloomington.
The afternoon heat on the boat was stifling as the sun struck the exposed decks and turned the small upper cabins into stoves. The heat forced most of the passengers listlessly to gather along the railing in search of the meager breeze.
Suddenly, without warning, the boat shuddered convulsively, and then there was a tremendous roar as the port boiler exploded. A huge geyser of boiling water and steam ripped from the bowels of the boat, carrying equipment and superstructures skyward, and then the debris tumbled down on the exposed passengers.
Scalded and blinded, some passengers jumped overboard in a vain attempt to escape, only to be beaten to death by the paddlewheels that were still flapping around. Other passengers crouched on the ruined deck and screamed in pain.
The pilot of the Dubuque directed the riverboat downstream and steered the crashed ship to the nearest bank. Here more of the scalded people jumped ashore and ran blindly through the forest, tearing off their clothes, which in some cases tore the flesh with them.
More agony awaited the victims crouching on the bank, because two hours would pass before the steamship “Adventure” would arrive with medical help.
Twenty-two passengers and crew died that afternoon, and many more were horribly scarred and burned in the first and worst steamship explosion on this stretch of the Upper Mississippi. But elsewhere on the river there would be explosions with terrifying regularity.
Although the engine room crew on duty at the time of the explosion died as soon as the boilers exploded, the cause of the disaster is likely due to the water level in the boilers being too low. This caused the smoke vent over the water lever to get red hot, faint, and then burst.
In those early days of Mississippi boating, boats pulled boiler sewage straight from the river. But this water was often heavy with soil and other obstructions that would impede the flow of water through the system and lower the water level.
The Dubuque had been built in Pittsburgh and did not have the later melting plugs in the boiler to melt and extinguish the fire with steam. Because the boat was moving at a slow speed, the engineer was unlikely to use the racing trick of locking the safety valves by tying them down with weights.
The violence generated by exploding cauldrons could be terrifying, as demonstrated by the 1849 explosion of the “Louisiana” near the St. Louis levee, killing 150 people. The three boilers on the boat let go as she backed away into the river and tossed shrapnel through the lower town.
A chunk of the cauldron cut a mule in half and then traveled on to kill a carter and his horse. Another piece tore through a pile of cotton and struck three iron pillars near a coffee house further away.
Neighboring steamers were also heavily attacked by the Louisiana, killing many people. A Louisiana passenger was blown 60 meters into the air and another completely smashed through the wheelhouse of another steamer and made a hole like a cannonball.
Despite this danger, river traffic continued to increase, and by the 1850s Burlington had more than 900 steamboat arrivals and departures during a typical shipping season. But travelers have never forgotten that these romantic-looking ships can cause enormous loss of life in the event of a disaster.