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The History of Lafayette County,
Missouri, published in 1910 by the B. F. Bowen & Company includes the
following account of an horrible disaster
EXPLOSION OF THE STEAMBOAT "SALUDA."
By Col. James Hale.
[The following was written by an eye witness to the awful scenes connected with
the blowing up of the steamboat "Saluda," with two hundred and fifty Mormon
emigrants aboard, in 1852, at Lexington.]
"The steamer 'Saluda,' a large boat, with propelling power uncommensurate with
its size, and commanded by Captain Belt, arrived at Lexington April 7, 1852,
early in the forenoon, carrying two hundred and fifty Mormons and their effects,
destined for Salt Lake City, Utah, the mecca of all Mormondom. After a brief
stop at the wharf the boat left, but at the point on the north side of the river
it encountered a very strong current, with hard, heavy running ice, and being
unable to make headway it returned to the levee and tied up for the night.
"On the morning of the 8th, the ice having run out, the boat made another effort
to round the point, but the rapidly rising river had made the current so swift
and powerful that the boat again failed and fell back to the levee, where it
remained until the morning of the 9th.
"Then the captain ordered the engineer to make all the steam possible, saying he
'would either round the point or blow the boat to h---.' About nine o'clock,
with all the steam the engineer dare carry, the boat left the wharf, and when
only about thirty feet from the shore, with the forward cabin deck crowded with
passengers, the boilers all exploded, causing a complete wreck of all that part
of the boat above the lower deck and extending back to the wheel house.
"The current caught the wrecked boat and threw it back against the levee, where
it was tied up, the bow resting against the shore, with the lower forward deck
above the water and the lower deck at the stern several feet below the surface.
"As the writer ran down the hill the first thing he saw was the boat's safe
lying in the road, back of what is now the waterworks power house. The safe was
intact, and chained to it was a dead yellow spotted pointer dog. This was about
seventy yards from where the explosion occurred.
"In the flat just west of the power house was the dead body of a large man,
lying with his face downward and limbs extended as if he had sailed through the
air like a blue rock. Every thread of clothing had been blown off his body. A
sheet was soon spread over him and he was identified as Captain Belt, commander
of the boat.
"In a short time almost the entire male population of the town was on the levee
and the removal of the dead bodies from the wreck was commenced. Mattresses were
placed on the ground and twenty-two large, healthy-looking Englishmen were laid
on them, their faces perfectly red from severe scalds. They were suffering
greatly and the air was hideous with their agonizing moans. I passed this place
thirty minutes later and twelve of them were dead, caused by internal burning
through inhaling steam.
"A large brick house at the upper end of the levee was improvised as a hospital,
and all the injured were given quarters there. Every physician in Lexington was
soon at the scene of the disaster and did all they could to relieve the distress
of the victims.
"While passing along the levee I saw what appeared to be several yards of blue
calico, spread upon the ground, with a pile of long black hair in its center.
This I soon discovered to be the remains of a woman, who had probably been blown
very high and had fallen upon the rocks. Her head was mashed nearly as thin as
my hand and her face could not have been recognized as the countenance of a
"George W. Gaunt, who was on the bluffs just west of the Emily Aull Seminary,
looking at the boat when the explosion occurred, informed the writer that the
pilot house, with two men in it, went higher than he was and fell back into the
river and sank. Charles La Barge, chief pilot, and his assistant were the men in
the pilot house. Mr. La Barge was of the old French family of that name, of St.
Louis, who were among the first steamboat men to navigate the Missouri river. A
daughter of Pilot La Barge died a few months ago in St. Louis. Only a small
number of those lost were found, a great majority of them having been blown into
the river and carried down stream by the swift current. On the day after the
explosion all the then dead, numbering about thirty, were buried in a long
trench in that part of Macpelah cemetery known as the Potter's field. Others
were buried there who died later or were found. Including the crew, there must
have been on the boat at the time of the explosion nearly three hundred people,
two hundred of whom were never accounted for. It was one of the most destructive
steamboat disasters that ever occurred on a western river. The second clerk was
the only officer who escaped.
"A cottonwood log house on the levee, owned by J. H. Graham, was struck by the
boiler from the boat, which passed through entirely, knocking out one end of the
logs. Those above dropped down and occupied the same places, and the house stood
looking as if nothing had disturbed it."
"The above is a correct statement concerning this accident, notwithstanding the
fanciful story that was published not long since in one of our popular, cheap
magazines, by a man born long since the accident, and who sought to make capital
for the teachings of the Mormon religious faith by weaving into his account a
statement that before the explosion fifty or more of the Mormons were warned by
their minister that the sad accident would happen, and that by this revelation
they did not go aboard the steamer, hence were all saved from the horrible fate
of the others. There is not one single fact to support this statement of
"It may be added that several of the small children whose parents were killed by
the disaster were kindly adopted in and near Lexington, and proved to be stanch
manly and womanly characters in their after years."
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