The Sinking of the Orline St. John

The Orline St. John, a 349 ton side-wheel steamboat ended its short life on March 4, 1850, near Bridgeport Landing, north of Camden, taking the lives of 40 passengers and crew. Sparks, likely from her own boilers, set fire to her cargo of highly flammable pine logs. The captain steered for the western shore of the river as passengers leapt into the cold, muddy waters to escape the flames. Many drowned or were burned by the fire that sank the ship a short time later. In 1954, in the late summer and during a dry period that caused the water level of the river to fall, local fisherman spotted a section of the boat’s hull protruding from the waters of the river. They eventually recovered many artifacts from the sunken vessel. Though it is thought that millions in gold may have gone down with the steamer, more than one salvage operation has failed to produce any valuables.

From a maritime newspaper article:

Details of the Burning of the St. John:

The following narrative of the disaster to the steamer Orline St. John was communicated to the Herald by Mr. Bass, of the Astor-place theatre, who was a passenger on board at the time of the fire: The Orline St. John steamboat left Mobile on Monday, the 4th inst., at 5P.M., for Montgomery, Alabama. The boat ran well, averaging about fifteen miles against the current til half past four o’clock P.M., on the 5th inst., when the startling cry of “fire!” aroused nearly every one on board to a sense of the perilous situation of the boat and all on board. The large quantities of pitch pine wood, about fifty cords, stowed near the boilers, and on the boiler deck had ignited, and in the course of two minutes has enveloped the cabin portion of the boat above the boilers.

The consternation was general, and it was only by the caution of those who escaped that their lives were preserved. Many leaped into the stream, and were swept under the boat, and down by the current, almost instantaneously losing their lives by this dreadful casualty, and their anxiety to preserve their lives. Others saved themselves by catching floating fragment thrown from the deck, with which they were bouyed down the stream, and finally, to safety. Mr. Bass hoped to save Mrs. Hall and daughter, a beautiful girl of ten years of age, but Mrs. Hall returned to the cabin to assist another lady and the whole party, except Mr. Bass, were lost, the flames flashed upon every part of the boat, and adding terrors to the scene, already awfully painful from the sacrifices of valuable lives.

It is supposed that there was not a living being in the boat after the lapse of two minutes from the alarm, though many had jumped into the water and some were clinging to the rudder. In this short space of time, human energy was exerted to its utmost, both by the officers of the boat and the engineers. Captain Meaher and his brother, the first mate, exerted themselves to the utmost to save the lives of the passengers. Mr. Benjamin Pearce, the pilot, stood at the wheel till the vessel was run ashore on the Western bank of the river.

The engineers with remarkable presence of mind, attended to the boilers, and opened all the valves in an instant, and thereby prevented the loss of life that might have resulted from an explosion. The prompitude of Mr. Pearce, who ran the boat ashore while she was about the distance of four lengths off, is highly commended, as he was only enabled to escape from the wheel by leaping into the water through a sheet of fire. When the boat struck, she ploughed into the shore about four feet deep, and thus those on the bow were preserved. For those on the rudder, who were cut off by the flames from this means of escape, there was still great danger.

The flames were over their heads, and they were driven down to hold by the rudder till they could be assisted. Among these was Capt. Shaw, who was ultimately saved by a boat, manned by Capt. Meaher and his brother, whose noble conduct will long be remembered. Capt. S., just before the fire broke out, had retired to his state room and had fallen to sleep. He was awakened by unusual noise, and in his night clothes only, succeeded in reaching the rudder, whence he was finally rescued by Capt. M. Many who jumped into the river at the first alarm, were lost. Among these was Judge Lindsley, of Mobile, who was hurled under the boat by the current, and probably crushed by the force. Some of those who floated down upon coops, spare plank and the like, were found safe at a distance of six or seven miles from the scene of disaster.

Every article on board was consumed, except a trunk belonging to Col. Preston, of South Carolina, who generously opened it to supply the wants of his fellow sufferers. It was to his gallant generosity that many passengers were indebted for the immediate means of returning to their homes. The necessities of the sufferers, many of whom were only in possession of their night garments, were abundantly supplied, also by Judge Bridges, of Wilcox County, Mr. W. McRae, of Bridgeport, and by those generous planters, Messrs. Pettiwey, Roach, Estis and J.J. Cook, of Camden. The ladies remained at the stern of the boat until their clothing was nearly consumed, and were then forced to spring into the river.

The total loss is estimated at $600,000. The boat was heavily laden with dry goods on which, it is reported, a considerable insurance had been effected in this city. The boat itself cost about $35,000, on which there was an insurance of about half that sum. Capt. Shaw lost about $29,000, chiefly in papers, most of which he hopes to be able to repair. Mr. Bass lost his valuable wardrobe, and the peculiar properties of his profession, the accumulation of years; also all his papers and engagements. Mr. Neland lost $10,000.