Steamboat Disaster of 1868

After the end of the Civil War, the Ohio River near Warsaw was the scene of one of the worst steamboat accidents in history. On December 4, 1868, at 11:30 p. m., two passenger steamers, the America and the United States, collided. The United States, captained by Richard Wade, carried a cargo of barrels of kerosene, which caught fire, and soon both boats were in flames. The estimated death toll reached 162. The United States was coming down river toward Louisville, while the America, captained by David Whitten, was headed up river toward Cincinnati. Just opposite Rayl's Landing, one mile above Warsaw, Kentucky, the two steamers collided. The United States hitting the America on the starboard bow. The United States was enveloped in flames and sunk but not before causing the America to catch fire also. Both steamers carried highly flammable materials which were the ultimate cause of the conflagration. Loss of life was highest on the United States United States, the estimate of deaths is varied but may have been as many as 170 people. Of the 75 known passengers on the United States, 25 were women. The America purportedly lost only two to four passengers. Even in flames, she made the Kentucky side of the river bank before sinking. Of those who survived, many were able to swim the river to the banks above Warsaw where residents of the county tried to help the victims with first aid and comfort.

Rayl's Landing juts out some distance into the river and the channel follows it closely. This twisted river bend was the reason they did not see each otherís lights. The America followed maritime law when her pilot, Napoleon Jenkins, twice sounded the whistle, which was a warning to any other boat that might be rounding the bend. J. Reemelin, in the pilothouse of the United States, failed to hear the warning whistle above the din of the rising wind and did not answer her whistle. Apparently, a high wind, accompanied by total darkness, rain and spitting snow were the contributors. Rayl's Landing was also the site of the Steamer Norman colliding with the Lady Walton, and the Telegraph ramming and sinking the Kentucky Home, fortunately with no loss of life. Later, a lighthouse was erected at Rayl's Landing near the disaster site, misnamed "Rail's" Light by the Coast Guard's lighthouse service.


Several written accounts of this disaster have been published:

"Steamboat Disaster on the Ohio River," Harper's Weekly, A Journal of Civilization, New York, Saturday, 26 December 1868, Vol. XII, No. 626, p. 817

"Thrills on the Historic Ohio River," a book by Frank Grayson, Jr., in 1930. Mr. Grayson was a writer for the Post-Times Star in Cincinnati.

For a more in-depth accounts and a sketch of the two steamers colliding, check here;

Copyright © 2004 by Christopher H. Wynkoop, All Rights Reserved

And here;