Rock Island, IL Steamer JENNIE GILCHRIST Accident, Oct 1881




Rock Island, Ill., Oct. 28. -- A little after 10 o'clock last night the steamer JENNIE GILCHRIST left this place with 13 passengers and a crew of 16 men on board. She had in tow one barge and one flat-boat. The latter was being pushed at the bow of the steamer, while the barge was fastened to the port side. She passed through the bridge and had proceeded about a half-mile above, when, at 10:30 o'clock, the engineer discovered that the rod which was used to reverse the wheel was broken, and the boat at once began drifting rapidly down the stream, swollen by the floods. When the danger became apparent, MR. SKELTON at once rushed into the cabin, telling the passengers of the accident which had happened and urging them at once to take refuge on the barge. He informed the pilot, who exclaimed, "Why don't they do something ! For God's sake do something !" and blew his whistle as a signal of distress. THe pilot then left his wheel, giving it a turn for port, and rushed for the barge, crying as he went down stairs, "Save yourselves, she is going to strike the bridge." In the cabin everybody was frantic: the women were crying, and the men were about as useless. No one seemed to have any idea of what to do. The crew, with the exception of Pilot DERRAND, the clerk, engineers, and firemen are reported to have been drunk and as terror-stricken as the others. MR. SKELTON and Clerk SHUBER tried to get the passengers down to the barge. The few women, who were in the cabin, were in a state of helplessness, doing nothing, saying nothing, evidently expecting death. The gentlemen tried entreaty and advice, but it was useless. No one would stir. They were told that their only hope was in getting on board the barge. Still they would not move. SKELTON and SHUBER then shook the women, and tried to drag them out of the cabin, but in this they failed, and in despair left them to their fate.
As the steamer drifted down upon the pier, urged on by the swollen current, she partly turned and presented her starboard side to the pier, striking it just aft of the boilers. Eight persons had taken refuge on the barge, and as it swung around to the left of the pier they cast off the stern end and spring lines. The bow line was fastened to the flat ahead, and when it was cast off the flat swung to the right and the line went out with a rush. A negro named JAMES SMALLEY was at that moment climbing over the bow of the barge, and, the line being between his legs, he was hurled overboard. HENRY SKELTON seized him by the trousers and hauled him aboard, a much astonished but highly grateful negro. When the JENNIE struck the bridge she hit a little aft of the boiler heads and broke them in. At once steam began to rush out, and for a moment there was a prospect of being scalded or of being drowned. The scene at that time was terrible. Those on the barge knew not whether they were safe or in mortal danger. Around them was a thick cloud of steam, suffocating them so that their only chance to breathe was by lying down on the deck. In the cabin of the boat they could hear the cries and moans of the fated passengers who had remained there. While the crew on the forecastle were appealilng loudly for help they could be seen, but at that time no help could be given. The barge drifted off to the left, followed by the boat, and the flat following it. Near Paige, Dixon & Co.'s mill the barge stranded. The stay there was short. The Evansville had heard the cries for help, and it left Rock Island on its errand of mercy. In about 20 minutes it came upon the stranded barge and rescued its 12 passengers from their perilous situation, carrying them back to Rock Island. Besides the 12 saved on the barge, there were five picked up on the Iowa shore who had clung to the wreck, one being a woman who had displayed remarkable pluck.
The following is a list of the saved as far as known:
Crew -- BILLY BROWN, JOHN MOSS, JOHN SHUBER, clerk; JOHN GILCHRIST, Captain; MR. DERRAND and MR. HERR, pilots. Two engineers and three more of the crew were also rescued.
Only a partial list of those drowned by the accident can be obtained today, owing to the injury to the clerk and the absence of the owner, who started for his home in Rapids City this morning. It is known, however, that MRS. TREVOR, MISS SADIE TEMPLE, and JOHN TEMPLE, of Rapids City; W. W. WENDT, of Cordova, and JAMES SANDFORD, a fireman, have been drowned. The number lost is estimated at 16. All day parties have been out from this city searching the river and the island just below Rock Island, in the hope of recovering some of the bodies of those supposed to be lost. So far the search has proved fruitless. The friends of those supposed to have taken passage on the GILCHRIST are in the city awaiting information concerning their missing friends, but owing to the confusion and the absence of those best posted on the passenger list, great doubt still exists as to the number and the names of the lost. A heavy rain set in at an early hour this afternoon, and prevented the diver, Capt. WALT, from making any investigation of the cabin and hull of the sunken steamer, which lies in about 20 feet of water, just below the city. Arrangemts have been made to make this inspection tomorrow, when it is probable that some bodies will be recovered, as it is said that three or four persons were seen in the cabin and other portions of the boat by those who left her just as she was sinking. The river is slowly falling at this point. During the last 24 hours the river has gone down one inch.
The officers of the JENNIE GILCHRIST are severely censured by the surviving passengers for their lack of ability to cope with the accident. It is alleged that the officers, with the exception of the clerk, made their own personal escape a matter of first importance, and allowed the passengers to look out for themselves. It is also stated that the boat was overloaded with passengers and freight, and was carrying more than she could successfully handle. She was merely a freight boat, and not licensed to carry passengers. The most serious charge, however, is made by one of the surviving passengers, to the effect that the crew, including the second pilot, were under the influence of liquor, and to this fact is attributed the lack of management after the first accident to the machinery before the bridge was encountered. There was a great deal of whisky in the cargo, and some of it was tapped before the steamer left the wharf.

Chicago, Oct. 28. -- A Rock Island dispatch, announcing the steamboat JENNIE GILCHRIST disaster, says that she carried 15 passengers and a crew of 13 when she sank. Twelve persons saved themselves by getting on a barge which the GILCHRIST was towing. These inclluded the officers, most of the crew, and one passenger. The barge floated past the city about 11 o'clock, the men shouting in the darkness for help. The boat Evansville steamed up and started in pursuit, and brought them in after midnight. MRS. WENDT, one of the four female passengers, was picked up clinging to a plank; the other three are drowned. MRS. WENDT was badly scalded by escaping steam. The fireman, JAMES SANFORD; WILL BROWN, a colored man, and a passenger, three in all, were rescued after daylight this morning; they were holding on to the pilothouse. BROWN was badly scalded by steam and he and MRS. WENDT are both likely to die.

The New York Times New York 1881-10-29