The Explosion of the Moselle

We are now about to relate the particulars of an event which seemed for a time to shroud the whole country in mourning; an event which is still believed to be almost without parallel in the annals of steamboat calamities.  The Moselle was regarded as the very paragon of western steam boats; she was perfect in form and construction, elegant and superb in all her equipments, and enjoyed a reputation for speed which admitted of no rivalship.  Her commander and proprietor, Capt. Perrin, was a young gentleman of great ambition and enterprise, who prided himself, above all things, in that celebrity which his boat had acquired, and who resolved to maintain, at all hazards, the character of the Moselle as "the swiftest steamboat in America."  This character she unquestionably deserved; for her "quick trips" were without competition at the time, and are rarely equaled at the present day.  To give two examples: - her first voyage from Portsmouth to Cincinnati, and distance of one hundred and ten miles, was made in seven hours and fifty-five minutes; and her last trip, from St. Louis to Cincinnati, seven hundred and fifty-miles, was performed in two days and sixteen hours; the quickest trip, by several hours, that had ever been made between the two places.  On the afternoon of April 25, 1838, between four and five o'clock, the Moselle left the landing at Cincinnati, bound for St. Louis, with an unusually large number of passengers, supposed to be not less than two hundred and eighty, or, according to some accounts, three hundred.  It was a pleasant afternoon, and all on board probably anticipated a delightful voyage.  Passengers continued to crowd in up to the moment of departure, for the superior accommodations of this steamer, and her renown as the finest and swiftest boat on the river, were great attractions for the traveling public, which whom safety is too often but a secondary consideration.  The Moselle proceeded about a mile up the river to take on some German immigrants. At this time, it was observed by an experienced engineer on board that steam had been raised to an unusual height; and when the boat stopped  for the purposed just mentioned, it was reported that one man, who was apprehensive of danger, went ashore, after protesting the injudicious management of the steam apparatus.  Then the object for which the Moselle had landed was accomplished, the bow of the boat was shoved from the shore, and at that instant the explosion took place.  The whole of the vessel forward of the wheel was blown to splinters; every timber, (as an eyewitness declares,) "appeared to be twisted, as trees sometimes are when struck by lightening."  As soon as the accident occurred, the boat floated down the stream for about a hundred yards, where she sank, leaving the upper part of the cabin out of the water, and the baggage, together with many struggling human beings, floating on the surface of the river.  It was remarked that the force of the explosion was unprecedented in the history of steam; it's effect was like that of a mine of gunpowder.  All the boilers, four in number, burst simultaneously; the deck was blown into the air, and human beings who crowded it were doomed to instant destruction.  Fragments of the boiler and of human bodies were thrown both to the Kentucky and Ohio shores, although the distance of the former was a quarter of a mile.  Captain Perrin, master of the Moselle, at the time of the accident was standing on the deck, above the boiler, in conversation with another person.  He was thrown to considerable height on the steep embankment of the river and killed, while his companion was merely prostrated on the deck, and escaped without injury.  Another person was blown to the distance of a hundred yards, with such force, according to the report of a reliable witness, that his head and part of his body penetrated the roof of a house. Some of the passengers who were in the after part of the boat, and who were non-injured by the explosion, jumped overboard.  An eye-witness says that he saw sixty of seventy in the water at one time, of whom not a dozen reached the shore.  It happened , unfortunately, that the large number of passengers were collected on the upper deck., to which the balmy air and delicious weather seemed to invite them to expose them to more certain destruction.  It was understood, too, that the captain of this ill-fated steamer had expressed his determination to outstrip an opposition boat which had just started; the people on the shore were cheering the Moselle in anticipation of her success in the race, and the passengers and the crew on the upper deck responded to these acclamations, which were soon changed to sounds of mourning and distress.  Intelligence of the awful calamity spread rapidly through the city; thousands rushed to the spot, and the most benevolent aid was promptly extended to the sufferers, or, as we should rather say, to such as were within the reach of human assistance, for the majority had perished.  A gentleman who was among those who hastened to the wreck, declares that he witnessed a scene so sad and distressing that no language can depict it with fidelity.  On the shore lay twenty or thirty mangled and still bleeding corpses; while many persons were engaged in dragging others of the dead and wounded from the wreck or the water.  But, says the same witness, the survivors presented the most touching objects of distress, as their mental anguish seemed more insupportable than the most intense bodily suffering.  Death had torn asunder the most tender ties; but the rupture had been so sudden and violent that none knew certainly who had been taken or who had been spared.  Fathers were distractedly inquiring for children, children for parents, husbands and wives for each other.  One man had saved a son, but lost a wife and five children.  A father, partially demented by grief, lay with a wounded child on one side, a dead daughter on the other, and his expiring wife at his feet.  One gentleman sought his wife and children, who were eagerly seeking him in the same crowd.  They met, and were re-united!  A female deck passenger who had been saved, seemed inconsolable for the loss of her relatives.  Her constant exclamations we, "Oh, my father! My mother! My sisters!"  A little boy, about five years old, whose head was much bruised, appeared to be regardless of his wounds, and cried continuously for his lost father; while another lad, a little older, was weeping for his whole family.  One venerable looking man wept for the loss of his wife and five children.  Another was bereft of his whole family, consisting of nine persons.  A touching display of maternal affection was evinced by a lady, who, on being brought to shore, clasped her hands, and exclaimed, "Thank God, I am safe," but instantly recollecting herself, she ejaculated in a voice of piercing agony, "Where is my child?"  The infant, which had also been saved, was brought to her, and she fainted at the sight of it.  Many of the passengers WHO ENTERED THE BOAT AT Cincinnati had not registered their names; but the lowest estimated number of persons on board was two hundred and eighty; of these, eighty one were known to be killed, fifty-five were missing, and thirteen badly wounded.    [Omitted here is a list of the killed, wounded and missing] 

The Moselle was built in Cincinnati, and she reflected great credit on the mechanical genius of that city, as she was truly a superior boat, and, under more favorable auspices, might have been the pride of the waters for many years.  She was quite a new boat, having been begun on the first of December, 1838, and finished on the 31st of March, less than one month before the time of her destruction.


from James Lloyd's Steamboat Directory and Disasters on the Western Waters, 1856.