Memphis, TN Area Steamboat BRANDYWINE Fire, Apr 1832


The steamboat Brandywine, Capt. Hamilton, left New Orleans on the evening of April 3d, 1832. Her place of destination was Louisville, Kentucky. Her voyage was prosperous until the evening of the 9th, at seven o'clock. When the boat was about thirty miles above Memphis, she was discovered to be on fire. Among the lading, it appears there were a number of carriage wheels wrapped in straw, as articles of that kind are usually put up for transportation on the river. These wheels were piled on the boiler-deck, near the officers' rooms, and under the hurricane roof. It is supposed that the fire was communicated from the furnaces to the highly combustible envelope of these wheels ; the wind blew hard at the time, and the sparks were ascending very rapidly through the apertures in the boiler-deck, which were occupied by the chimneys, these not being closely fitted to the woodwork. It appears, too, that the Brandywine was racing with the steamboat Hudson at the time the fire broke out; and that, for the purpose of producing more intense heat, and thus accelerating the boat's speed, a large quantity of rosin had been thrown into the furnaces. This fatal ruse was resorted to because the Brandywine had been compelled to stop and make some repairs, and the Hudson, in the meantime, had gained considerable headway. Soon after the Brandywine had resumed her course, the pilot who was steering discovered that the straw covering of the carriage wheels was on fire, Strenuous efforts were made to extinguish the flames and to throw the burning articles overboard, but it was found that their removal allowed the wind to have free access to the ignited mass ; from which cause, as Capt, Hamilton reports, the fire began to spread with almost incredible rapidity ; and in less than five minutes from the time the alarm was first given, the whole boat was wrapped in a bright sheet of flame.

The state of affairs on board may be imagined, when it is understood that the Brandywine was crowded with passengers, and the only means of escape from a death of fiery torture which presented itself was the yawl, in which scarcely a tenth part of the affrighted people could be conveyed to the shore at a single trip. But even the faint hope of deliverance which this single mode of escape offered them, soon terminated in disappointment and despair. In the attempt to launch the yawl, it was upset and sunk, The heat and smoke had now become so insupportable, that not less than a hundred persons, made desperate by fear and suffering, threw themselves into the river.

The number of passengers on board, according to some reports, was not less than two hundred and thirty ; of these only about seventy-five were saved ; the rest were either drowned or burned to death. Among those who perished were nine women, and about an equal number of children.

As soon as all hope of extinguishing the flames was abandoned, an attempt was made to run the boat on shore, but she struck on a sandbar, in nine feet water, and about a quarter of a mile from the nearest bank of the river, where she remained immovable, until she was burnt to the water's edge. Those passengers, and other persons belonging to the boat, who had the good fortune to escape, saved themselves by swimming, or floating on detached pieces of timber to the nearest island. It is reported to the honor of Capt. Hamilton and his crew, that they remained on the burning boat to the last possible moment, exerting themselves to the utmost to save the lives which had been entrusted to their charge.