Shown is an 1857 engraving of the Steamer Magnolia. She was the first steamboat to arrive at the site of the Eliza Battle disaster, helped in the rescue efforts and carried the survivors to Mobile. Photo by: Courtesy photo
Shown is a 1908 postcard from the Steamer American at Gainesville, Alabama, (about 50 miles south of Columbus) near where the W.H. Gardner burned in 1887. The American was built just 15 years after the Gardner burned and would have looked like the Gardner as she was the same size and style Tombigbee steamboat.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
February 24, 2018 9:59:40 PM
As I write this column on the last Saturday in February with a weather watch for severe storms approaching, I cannot help but think of the Tombigbee steamboat the Eliza Battle. I've written about her before. As the grandest of the mid 1800s steamboats in the Columbus-Mobile river trade, she was called "a floating palace."
Sunday, Feb. 28, 1858, started out at Columbus as a warm rainy day with the Tombigbee River overflowing its banks from recent rains, but it would soon change. On that day the Eliza Battle left Columbus for Mobile on her weekly return trip. She would stop at other towns and landings including Pickensville, Fairfield, Warsaw, and Gainesville and probably Demopolis as she steamed south. As the Eliza Battle had passed Gainesville, about 60 miles south of Columbus, on Sunday afternoon, a bitter cold north wind had begun to blow accompanied by thunderstorms and hail. After passing Demopolis, she carried 55 to 60 passengers, a crew of about 45 and 1,400 bales of cotton.
By Sunday night the temperature dropped 40 degrees in only two hours and the rain turned to sleet. The cold increased and ice coated the trees along the river banks. Soon ice had formed wherever water splashed onto the boat and large icicles hung from the boat's sides.
About 1 a.m. the Eliza Battle passed the steamer Warrior, out of whose smoke stacks not only smoke but also sparks were flying. Apparently sparks fell on cotton bales at the Battle's stern, and at about 2 a.m. her stern was discovered to be on fire. The almost gale force north wind fanned the flames, rapidly spreading them through out the boat. The river was flooded and out of its banks, leaving no place to land the boat. That left the crew and passengers with no choice but to face death in the flames or in the freezing river water.
A week after the disaster the Gainesville newspaper ran an account based on local survivor's stories and said: "Husbands seize their trembling wives and mothers their helpless children. With piteous cries for succor, they rush to the forepart of the vessel, and clinging wildly to bales of cotton, trunks, planks, or anything which comes to hand, they cast themselves upon the mercy of the dark, swift stream. Oh! That long weary, bitter night! How much suffering did its darkness conceal. ... They had escaped the burning flames, but the cold fetters which the implacable Ice King threw around their hearts could not be broken. God have mercy on the poor sufferers!"
The first assistance did not arrive for three or four hours and was local residents from down river who had been alerted by survivors floating down on cotton bales. It was hours later when the steamer Magnolia arrived and rendered help. Of about 100 people on board, 29 died. All but one of them had died by exposure in the freezing river.
One of the heroes was F.S. Stone, the 19-year-old second clerk, who was the son of the Eliza Battle's captain, S.G. Stone. He had saved the lives of several women and children making repeated swims to the burning boat and then swimming with them to safety.
In one of those strange occurrences of history on March 1, 1887, exactly 29 years after the burning of the Eliza Battle, the Tombigbee steamer W.H. Gardner caught fire and burned on her way from Columbus to Mobile. Her captain was non other than F.S. Stone.
On her fateful trip, the W.H. Gardner was steaming down river from Columbus toward Mobile, crowded with passengers and with 464 bales of cotton from the Columbus Compress Company. On the afternoon of March 1, the Gardner was passing Howard's Bar, three miles south of Gainesville, when Capt. Stone discovered a cotton bale to be on fire. A deck-hand attempted to quell the flames by throwing buckets of water on them but got too close and his clothes caught fire. He panicked and took off running through the boat spreading flames everywhere. The cause of the fire was unknown but there were reports that the Gardner may have been racing with the Steamer Tally that was also traveling from Columbus to Mobile.
The steamer was in mid-steam and at full-steam when the fire broke out. The pilot, W.A. Wilson, tried to make for the shore but the flames had quickly driven the engineers from their post and no one responded to the pilot's orders. The rapidly spreading fire soon drove Wilson from the pilothouse, and the boat drifted downstream out of control until it lodged in a flooded forest across the river from bank where the pilot had attempted to land.
At the time the Gardner was found to be on fire, the steamer Tally was right behind and trying to pass her. The Tally steered near the Gardner but found the heat and flames to be too intense and threatening, so she backed away but not before she lowered her lifeboats and sent them to rescue those on the Gardner. The Tally also threw cotton bales, planks and anything else that would float into the water around the Gardner to help save those jumping from the burning boat into the water. The screams of those poor souls were described as "heart-wrenching." In all, 22 people, including a Mr. Blackman of Columbus, lost their lives.
One of the Tally's crew became the hero of the disaster and his story appeared in papers across the country, even being carried by that famed paper of the old West the "Tombstone Epitaph." The accounts included this fitting tribute: "There is still plenty of the stuff of which heroes are made among the American people, black as well as white, and it only needs the emergency to develop it. It is worthy of mention that at the burning of the steamer Gardner last week down in Alabama, a colored boy, Beebee McCaw, saved five lives by swimming ashore with those who precipitated themselves into the water from the burning vessel." Unlike the Black men who, though heroes of the Eliza Battle, are unknown, McCaw received the recognition he deserved.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]
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