Fire on the Mittie Stephens

The night of February 11, 1869, the Mittie Stephens, a sidewheel paddle steamer, was heading on a southerly route through the channel across Caddo Lake on its way to Jefferson, Texas.  After midnight on February 12, sparks thought to have come from a torch basket used for exterior lighting started a fire on board and the ship quickly burned down to the waterline.  There were one hundred four passengers along with the cargo and crew.  When all were accounted for, forty-two of the passengers survived though sixty-two passengers and several more crewmen perished.  This was despite the fact that the ship came to rest in shallow water.  The first thought would naturally be to wonder why many adults were unable to walk out in or swam to safety.  However, the water was cold, the river bottom was mucky and the vessel came to rest a considerable distance from the shore, such that it took a crew rowing a skiff from another vessel (the Dixie) over an hour to reach her.  It is theorized that a good many of the victims either drowned or may have been fatally injured when they were drawn into the paddle wheels on either side of the ship.

The Mittie Stephens had three decks.  The most expensive rooms were on the second deck.  The third deck was for the pilot, crew and VIPs.  The least expensive tickets went to passengers who rode on the deck with the cargo.  She was powered by steam engines and built of wood.  Steamboats of this period had a wide flat hull which supported the construction above it, so when it was reported that the Mittie Stephens burned down to the waterline, this would mean that most of the formerly visible part of the ship burned and was destroyed, leaving only the boilers and other equipment above water.


(Image credit: Library of Congress)

As far as we can tell, no photographs of the Mittie Stephens have been found, although some are known to have existed.  The above image is thought to be one the best likenesses of the Mittie Stephens, although it is not necessarily one hundred percent accurate.  It comes from an illustration for a piece of music called “The Mittie Stephens March” composed by Farringer and dedicated to a captain of the ship, A. C. Goddin.

Part owner in the Mittie Stephens was Captain Joseph Stephens and she was named after his daughter.  The ship had been built in Indiana, completed in 1863 on the Ohio River and was soon confiscated by the Union during the Civil War.  After the Confederate surrender, she was used to carry passengers and cargo on the Red River between Jefferson and New Orleans.  The Red River flowed diagonally across Louisiana until it joined the Atchafalaya River near Simmesport.   From there, it basically flowed parallel to the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The name “Atchafalaya” is a Choctaw word meaning “long river.”

The traditional site of the wreck was thought to be off of Swanson’s Landing on the south shore of Caddo Lake and roughly about 10 miles east southeast of Jefferson.  There is a Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the port.  Although it has since been discontinued with the rapid decline of commercial riverboat traffic, there was once an active port at Swanson’s Landing where trade was conducted.  Further study led to the theory that the Mittie Stephens may have instead come to rest some distance to the east at the next outcropping known as Jeter’s Point.

Almost a week before the fire, she left New Orleans on February 5, 1869 with a full load of passengers and cargo, including bales of hay, gunpowder, a shipment of corn and also gold and paper currency representing the payroll for the U. S. Army quartered at Jefferson, Texas.  After an uneventful journey of five and a half days across Louisiana on the Red River, she arrived at Shreveport for her last stop before entering Caddo Lake.  After a few hours in Shreveport, she departed around four o’clock in the afternoon.

There was a channel that ran the length of Caddo Lake just off the southern shore.  Early on the morning of February 12, 1869 and several hours after departing from Shreveport, smoke was detected on the port side of the vessel and she was turned toward the shore.  A fire alarm was sounded but the entire bow became quickly involved.  The ship soon grounded in the shallows, but the sidewheels were kept turning in an effort to keep driving the ship to safety.  In the ensuing panic, many passengers jumped from the sides of the ship, and no doubt some were drawn into the sidewheels as the entire vessel became involved with the fire.  Many were killed.  Those who survived either swam to shore or were rescued by crewmen who rowed a skiff from another steam ship to the burning Mittie Stephens.  In the days that followed, some items were recovered from the wreckage and numerous bodies washed to shore.  Eventually, though, the exact location of the wreckage was lost to time and history.

The configuration of Caddo Lake and waterways that fed into it has changed in the last 150 years.  A blockage known as the Great Raft had occurred from the aggregation of decades of trees, fallen logs and other debris.  The raft had naturally accumulated to slow the flow of water and form a floating natural dam that once extended down the Red River for 130 to 150 miles.  It has been described as a living, constantly changing phenomenon in which material would be added upstream and other material would break away downstream.  Federal funding was authorized in the 1820s to try and create a channel.  Since around 1838 it had been navigable, although it required constant maintenance to keep it so.  Finally in 1871, Congress authorized the clearing and destruction of the raft.  It was destroyed and broken up using nitroglycerin.  It took several years for the process to be completed but once the river began to flow more freely, levels of some of the lakes and waterways upstream changed “forever,” or at least for the forseeable future.

Caddo Lake and some others were exceptions, returning to something resembling their former banks before the destruction of the Great Raft once new dams were constructed.  Various studies and investigations have tried to locate the wreckage using updated technology, but at this point, it is believed that it has not yet been definitively located.

In our reading, we found a few references to people who were scheduled to board the Mittie Stephens but providentially did not, for one reason or another.  One story was a grandfather who boarded the ship at an interim stop.  He had sent his grandson back home to get a heavier coat.  The boy did not make it back in time, and he was spared from the accident after the Mittie Stephens departed without him.  Another such story was that of Fannie Marchman who was supposed to take the Mittie Stephens from New Orleans to Jefferson along with her relatives and belongings to join her husband there.  She was only about seventeen years old at the time.  She had no children of her own but was expecting what was to be the first of their three sons.  In her memoirs written when she was ninety-one years old, she noted that another child in her party became ill in New Orleans.  Rather than board the Mittie Stephens as scheduled, the group sought a doctor and left on a later stern wheeler called the Era No. 9.  She tells of coming upon the still smoldering wreckage of the Mittie Stephens after leaving Shreveport.  Officials were still in the midst of the grim victim recovery operations.  Writing about the experience over seventy years later, she was still moved by the event.

Contemporary research has produced some interesting results.  Artifacts and the location of possible burial places of the casualties have been identified.  Perhaps eventually the Mittie Stephens wreckage will be recovered and we can add an addendum to this story, but for now it remains hidden in Caddo Lake.

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