WRECK OF THE STONEWALL
By Rose Lee Nussbaum
One of the worst tragedies of the Mississippi River occurred on October 27, 1869. When the passenger and freight steam STONEWALL burned near Neely's Landing, with approximately 300 persons drowned or burned to death.
There are no newspaper stories of the event only the reminiscences of some of the witnesses to the catastrophe written many years later. One of these was written by Willis Knox of Jackson who, in 1928, was eight years old when he saw the boat pass his father's house at Neelys Landing. Another report of the wreck was compiled by the Cape Girardeau County Historical Society in 1936 from data supplied by R.W. Harris who also was eight years old when the boat burned not far from Neelys. Here is their description of the event.
Knox distinctly remembered seeing the boat pass his father's house juts before dark, on that day. Freight was piled high on the decks, and passengers were seen promenading in front of the cabin.
The STONEWALL, according to Harris, was headed for New Orleans and heavily loaded. Because of that the low stage of the river she was running on slow wheels. The fire started in some hay and other inflammable freight, into which it was believed some deck passenger, smoking, accidentally dropped a spark. Before the blaze was discovered it had gained considerable headway.
Attempts to extinguish the fire being futile, the captain ordered a landing at a point just below the mouth of Indian Creek. In heading the boat toward that formerly was known as Devil's Tea Table (a large protruding rock which was blown out when the Frisco Railroad was built in 1904) an unexpected bar was struck. The boat gradually turned around and the north wind carried the blaze directly through her.
Panic stricken passengers were caught like rats on the blazing boat, between which and the Missouri shore was 150 feet or more of swift, icy cold water.
The leaping flames, lighting the sky for 1 1/2 miles away, soon attracted the neighbors who hurried to the river bank, land owned then by Edward Cotter, a pioneer in Neelys Landing. While Elam W. Harris, John E. Harris, Sam Morgan, Jim McLaughlin, Matt Hughes, Peter Hughes, Delevan Sheppard and others built a fire of fence rails, four others went out in a skiff to rescue passengers.
These carsmen were Lowrie Hope, Martin O'Brian, Frank West, and Derry Hays, the latter a Negro. Their efforts at rescue were hampered because they could not get too near the boat, but they were able to save many. some of the passengers were seen to walk into the flames. Others jumped into the river, some forcing horses from the lower deck to swim while they clung to the animals' tails. The two pilots, forced from the pilot house, jumped into the river. One was saved, but the other's body was never recovered. The engineer, who stayed at his post almost to the last, finally was rescued by the skiff.
Only about 40 passengers were saved, and it was estimated at the time that more than 300 perished either in the flames or by drowning, Knox stated in the paper.
Whiskey and coffee were given to the survivors on the shore, and they were later taken to nearby homes and cared for until they were able to continue on their way. Steamers coming down the river that night and the following several days stopped at the terrible tragedy to give what aid they could to the survivors. The bodies of those who were found were buried in a long grave on the farm of Edward Cotter, after their accurate description was taken together with their apparent age, items of clothing, jewelry, money and papers, for possible later identification. These pieces of information and valuables were filed carefully away by the coroner, Judge John R. Henderson. About 75 bodies (Harris says more than 60) were buried in this grave on the Cotter farm.
When the hull had cooled, what was left of the freight was salvaged and sold. Mr. Harris recalled that his father bought a firkin of butter from Wisconsin. One of the horses, scarred from burns, was long owned by Frank Oliver, who called him Stonewall.
When the boat's safe was opened, only paper money, scorched to a crisp, was found, much to the public's disappointment. The safe had been under day and night guard until it was opened.
Money and valuables taken from the victims were saved and turned over to relatives upon due proof of claim. the last of these claims was paid out in the May term of the Probate Court in 1894. John Bonney was county treasurer and public administrator, and a board of appraisers was appointed, including M.W. Williams, W.B. Colyer, and J.M. Reed.
The rest of the information for this article was taken from the original papers of Judge John R. Henderson, Justice of Peace, Shawnee township. Judge Henderson was appointed acting Coroner and had the responsibility of summoning juries, making records and taking care of the legal aspects of the wreck.
One of Judge Henderson's first tasks was to summon coroners juries to view the bodies to determine the cause of death and record their various possessions. One body, identified as that of Francis Brennan, had $55.00, one $5.00 bill badly torn, one gold watch and finger ring, bunch of keys and pocket knife. There were 61 bodies listed, 22 of these evidently having nothing in their possession. Some of the items found on the bodies were as follows: No. 2 one silver watch No. 80395 and $40.65; No. 7, 20 cents; No. 21, $3.90 in currency, two ten and five twenty franc French gold coins, two forty-five Italian coins, 3 two lire and 1 lire Italian coins, 25 cents in American silver and 2 finger rings; No. 25 one revolvers and 30 cents and forty-two dollars in silver; and No. 50, sixty dollars and a certificate of deposit for $300.00 dated October 6, 1869 on National Union Bank by Michael O'Toole. Other items found on the bodies were 3 revolvers, gold and silver coins, rings, watches, and foreign currency.
The stories mention a horse found after the wreck. But one of the papers is a sworn statement by Daniel Morgan that he took up after the tragedy, a mule. this was dated October 29, 1869 and signed by Judge Henderson. Such papers were necessary at that time because a horse thief often met with an untimely end; also, a good mule was worth $75.00 then -- quite a sum of money.
One of the most interest papers is the list of expenses accrued from the accident. Judge Henderson spent twenty-five days working at $8.00 a day for a total of $160.00. Thos. L. Frank received $4.00 for summoning three juries and $150.00 for five days work. Jurors paid were: Delevan Sheppard, V.M. Dempsey, James McLaughlin, Charley Markert, B. Swallow, R.D. West, E. Cotter, Solomon Oguin, Roland Childs, A.G. McNeely, James E. Harris, John Whittaker, Daniel Morgan, Charles Neely, R.F. Woods and G.W. Franks. They received varying amounts of money ranging from $19.00 to $1.00. Some of the local people hired to work were: R.H. Abernathy, John Medlock, Wm. Starret, Jason Grammer, Frank Crabb, Joseph Acre, Monroe Trickey, Charles Grammer, Wm. Stiff, Spencer Daughety, John Caldwell, John Anderson, Andrew Knight, Isaac Akman, Jacob Hamilton, George Vastine, Rueben Vingate, Casper Grundy, Eliza Voght, Thomas Childs, William Franks, Robert Franks, Henry Anderson, William Reese, John Slayton, Layfate Franks, James C. Smith, Daniel Morgan, James Powell, Spence Grundy, Rueben Mobry, M.M. Williamson, John Martin, E.W. Harris, George Wilson, Troy Oguin, John Black, J.T. Jackson, R.J. Mullenax, Derry Hays, Thomas Trickey, Thomas McCain, Grundy Leaper, Robert Bolen, Henry Extel, M. Rhyne, Solum Uenberg, Alexander Starret, Alexander Uenberg, Thomas Robins, Silas Martin, Abner McNeely, R.W. Harris, Sidney Penny and John Whittaker. They were paid from $2.00 to $8.00 each. The total bill to the county was $620.55.
Most of the remaining papers saved by Judge Henderson consisted of Jury summons and affidavits as to the identity of the bodies. One paper also answers the mystery of what was in the safe--according to the sworn statement of R.W. Harris, John E. Harris and James Hull (sp)--and I quote, "The contents of the safe consisted of thirty cents in nickels and a lot of cinders, supposed to be burnt books, papers and one bundle supposed to have been 'Green Backs' and we do appraise the said safe and contents at the value of ten dollars."
The only item from the boat itself was one ticket issued to F. Brennan for an Upper Berth Room 24.
The scene of the tragedy was thereafter known as the "Stonewall Bar" and at the time of Mr. Knox's paper (1928) evidences of the wreck could still be seen. From the June 29, 1937, Southeast Missourian we find that there was still interest in the wreck. The Cape Girardeau County Historical society anual meeting was held near by and after the meeting was adjourned some of the members of the Society visited the Cotter Cemetery near Neelys Landing. Near this cemetery are also located the graves of sixty-three victims of the steamboat STONEWALL disaster.
Recently my husband, daughter and I spent an enjoyable afternoon visiting with Mr. and Mrs. Henry Schenimann, lifelong residents of Neelys Landing. Mr. Schenimann is literally a treasure chest of river history. The eighty-one year old octogenarian recalled many stories that he had heard when a young lad about the wreck of the STONEWALL; the worst catastrophe to ever happen at Neelys. The bodies--or floaters as he called them--were buried in a long grave on a ridge north of the mouth of Indian Creek on land that belong to a Cotter. This land has changed owners down through the years belonging to a Mrs. Bray, Frank Oliver, Kranawetter, and August Litzelfelner. Approximately 65 years ago the land belonged to the Healey Quarry Company. At that time, according to Mr. Schenimann, a man by the name of A.C. McGilvery lived on the farm and he removed the stones from the grave and piled them in an unused area. Whether or not the stones are still somewhere about is unknown. The land presently belongs to Proctor and Gamble Paper Products Company.