There are certain things which really should never be mixed together. One of the biggest is alcohol and the operation of any vehicle. That fact was made perfectly clear on May 8, 1837, when the steamship, Ben Sherrod was headed down the Mississippi River. The American side-wheel steamer Ben Sherrod, weighing 393 tons, was under the command of Captain Castleman, and was en route from New Orleans to Louisville carrying about 200 passengers, general freight, a large quantity of coins consigned to banks in Tennessee, and a considerable amount of wealth belonging to private individuals. As was not uncommon, the Ben Sherrod was engaged in an exciting race with the steamer Prairie. It was one o’clock in the morning, and the boat was about fourteen miles from Fort Adams, pushing her way up the Mississippi with as much speed as she could muster. Still, the Ben Sherrod was in sight of, but lagging behind the Prairie. The crew of the Ben Sher­rod were determined, if possible, to pass the Prairie by, so the firemen were shoving in the pine knots, and sprinkling rosin over the coal…basically doing their best to raise more steam.

In addition to the necessary supplies needed to operate the steamship, they also had a barrel of whisky set before them, and they were drinking from it heavily and often, until they were very drunk. As they continued to load the boilers to dangerous levels, the boilers became so hot that the sixty cords of wood on board burst into flames. The Ben Sherrod was soon completely enveloped in flames, and to make matters worse, the drunken men ran away from their posts, rather than doing whatever they could to put out the fire and get the passengers to safety. The approximately 200 passengers were sound asleep, completely oblivious to the terror that awaited them.

When the deck hands discovered the fire, they too left their posts and ran for the yawl (a type of boat that can be used with sails or oars…basically a lifeboat), without warning the passengers. Captain Castleman tried to dispel the panic and confusion, by telling them the fire was extinguished. He tried to keep them from lowering of the yawl, which was what they were attempting. Then, the screams of nearly three hundred and fifty persons on board could be heard. The panic was obvious and could be heard for several miles. They were yelling, “To the shore! To the shore!” The boat made for the starboard shore, but could not reach as the wheel ropes soon burned. When they decided to let off the pent-up steam, the boat kept on up the river. The scene was simply horrific. The yawl, which had been filled with the crew, had sunk, drowning nearly all who were in it. That left the passengers with no choice but to jump from the burning ship, without even taking time to dress. There were ten ladies who all went silently overboard. Some drowned instantly, and others clung to planks. In the end, only two of the ladies were saved. While drowning was horrific enough, worse yet was the fact that several passengers were burned alive.

When the steamer, Colombus arrived on scene 30 minutes later, they found a man named Ray, from Louisville, Kentucky, clinging to a rope at the bow of the boat, where he had jumped to in an effort to escape the heat and flames. Ray’s face and arms were terribly burned while clinging to the boat, but he had to hang on and endure the agony. He lost twenty thousand dollars in coins, but he saved his life, so I’m sure the money was of little consequence to him. The steamboat Alton arrived half an hour after the Columbus, but it carelessly came in too fast, causing the drowning of many people who were floating in the water. As Alton came in, the people were too weak to get out of the way. To make matters worse, it was dark, and they were probably difficult to see in the water. A gentleman by the name of Hamilton, from Limestone County, Alabama, was floating on a barrel, with one of the ladies, when the Alton came up, wash­ing them both under. The lady drowned, but Hamilton came up and floated down the river fifteen miles. Finally, he was rescued by the steamer Statesman. A man named McDowell stayed afloat for some time, fighting against the current, and floated only two miles down the river, finally reaching the shore, but his wife, who was floating on a plank, was drowned when the steamer Alton came rushing in. In all only two ladies out of ten who were on board were saved…one of these was the captain’s wife and the other was Mrs Smith, of New Orleans. Of the 300 people on board, it was later estimated that only 70 had escaped with their lives. The loss of Ben Sherrod was complete negligence, and that only because I can’t think of something worse to call it right now.

Many people were furious with the captain of the Prairie, for leaving a boat in flames without turn­ing around to give aid to the victims. Another man, this one in a canoe near the scene of the disaster refused to save any who were floating in the water, unless they promised to pay him hand­somely for his services…scum, if you ask me. The Ben Sherrod disaster was one of the worst calamities that ever occurred on the Mississippi river. During the burning of the Ben Sherrod eight different explosions oc­curred; first, barrels of whiskey, brandy, and then the boilers blew up with a huge explosion. Finally, forty barrels of gunpowder ex­ploded. That explosion could be heard for miles. The wreckage blew apart, scattering fragments in all directions. Immediately after that explosion, the wreck sunk out of sight just above Fort Adams, taking with it a large quantity of coins, which was on its way to the Tennessee Banks.

The ship remained in the river for years, but now, the remains of the Ben Sherrod are currently being recovered by a consortium of private investors. The remains of the steamship are lying upside down about one mile from Fort Adams and a little over a mile from the present channel of the Mississippi River. The ship has been buried under approximately seventy feet of sand and mud, possibly making it hard to find. So far, about 50 feet of hull timbers have been uncovered. They were in surprisingly excellent condition and the group is hoping that the cargo is there (especially all those coins), still intact, and as well preserved.

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