The Ice of 1856

On the Ohio and Licking rivers an immense destruction of property followed the breaking up of the ice, on the 25th, at Cincinnati. Then was a perceptible change in the river; the water was rising rapidly, and the mass of ice was becoming completely detached from the shore.

Above Jamestown [Dayton, Ky.], there has been all through the winter a large gap in the ice, where the water continued unfrozen. At an early hour, however, the ice above moved down so as to close up the void. At six o'clock, there was another movement of the ice, which stopped at the rolling mill. The Licking river also got into motion, and in the course of the morning the water rushed out in a torrent as rapid and troubled as the whirling of the waters below a cataract. The rolling waves carried down with them masses of broken ice which were dashed along with resistless power.

After 11 a. m., the ice in the Ohio began to move in a compact body. Of course, such an occurrence had been foreseen, and as far as possible provided for. A canal had been cut in the ice in the rear of the boats, in order that the ice in the center might float down, leaving that at the side, to which the boats were attached, undisturbed. The condition of the Licking unhappily rendered this provision, in a great measure, futile ; for, as soon as the floating mass came within the influence of the sirone current of that river, it was turned towards the Ohio shore, and thrown directly upon such boats as lay opposite to and below the Licking. The consequence of so mighty a force acting upon a steamboat may readily be imagined. The vessels were instantly crushed in the hull by the ice, and jammed completely into each other, so as to produce total ruin. No less than seven boats were made complete wrecks, and others were materially damaged.

After floating a short time, the ice would become gorged below, and, breaking away, float on again. Amid so many occurrences, many accidents fatal or otherwise — must necessarily have occurred, but how many it was impossible to determine, in the excitement that prevailed. Many rumors were afloat. It was very generally asserted that several persons were wounded and missing— some in the water, others in the holds or sterns of partially sunken boats. Boys [African-Americans] were very numerous about the boats, and several probably suffered. One was carried off who had been thrown from the Medona upon the ice; his cheek was cut completely open. Another, it was strongly asserted, was struck on the head by the rebounding part of a chain cable that was broken, and instantly killed.

As we write this, at 10 o'clock, the ice still continues quiet; it is not impossible but that it may do so for some time yet. The swift running out of the Licking appears to have been the principal cause of what has occurred. When the next ice comes down, the Licking current will have lost its impetuosity, and, consequently, it will be less likely to throw the ice on this side. We may, therefore, hope the worst is over, but it is impossible to say what may yet happen, especially if large fields of ice, stretching like those yesterday, from shore to shore, should come down in the night time.


from the Sacramento Daily Union, March 31, 1856, and almost certainly reprinting an item from a Cincinnati paper.