The Tragedy of the Steamboat Saluda

Next Monday, April 9, 2007,  is the 155th anniversary of the sinking of the steamboat Saluda, on which approximately 40 Mormon immigrants lost their lives. This post is an attempt to honor their lives and their sacrifice.

Starting in 1848, most of the converts from Europe sailed to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi to St. Louis. The church employed agents at the St. Louis docks to help the immigrants buy passage up the Missouri river to Council Bluffs, where they would disembark and then travel overland by wagon. In early April, 1852, the Missouri river was running high and dirty, with entire trees floating in the current, along with ice floes. Many latter-day saints were anxious to begin their journey, and the owner of the Saluda was anxious to get underway, despite the hazards. The Saluda had sunk in 1847, but had been salvaged and refurbished. The captain offered a reduced rate to the LDS agent, who agreed to the price and purchased passage for approximately 90 immigrants. It should be noted that apostle Abraham O. Smoot had inspected the Saluda and advised the agent against using her, based on the condition of the boilers and the general state of repair. His advice was not heeded, and on April 2, 1852, the Saluda left the St. Louis dock with about 190 passengers, half of them Mormon converts who came mostly from Scotland and Wales.

For two days, the captain tried unsuccessfully to navigate the treacherous current sweeping around a large, horseshoe bend near Lexington, Missouri. The paddle-wheel of the boat was damaged by ice and floating debris, and the Saluda put in at Lexington for repairs. On the morning of the 9th, at 7:30, the boat cast off lines and dropped back into the current, about 30 feet from the dock. The captain was determined to make the bend and ordered the ship’s engineers to apply maximum pressure and steam. Eyewitnesses reported that the engineers had carelessly allowed the boilers to go dry, and they were glowing red hot when the pumps opened and began forcing ice cold river water into the boilers. The wheel had just finished its second revolution when the boilers exploded, destroying the boat and taking the lives of about half the passengers. We can get some idea of the force of the explosion when we consider that the ship’s safe, which weighed six hundred pounds, was found several hundred feet up the bluff on shore.

The citizens of Lexington responded swiftly to the tragedy. Some of them cared for the injured for several months, until they were able to resume their jouney. They provided ground for a cemetery where our people were buried, and which is still well cared for. In at least two cases, they took in our orphans and raised them to adulthood. The Mormon Historical Sites Foundation also has placed markers honoring those who lost their lives as well as the town which showed such kindness.

Latter-day Saints in the Kansas City area still maintain connections with the citizens of Lexington. The young women of at least one stake, as part of their camp experience, take boats down the Missouri river, re-tracing the route of Lewis and Clark. They always stop in Lexington for a day and perform an act of service as a display of gratitude.


  1. zionssuburb says:

    Living in the KC area and having just moved from the stake mentioned I can tell you of the joy in service these young women come home with from their Camp experience. I thought a post to a short documentary film regarding this incident would be in also be in order.

  2. Jon in Austin says:

    The date is wrong in the second paragraph. I believe you mean 1852 not 2007.

  3. Jon: I think you mean 1952 not 2007. Sheesh.

  4. Okay, there’s two wrong dates.

  5. Nevermind, it’s a great post.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    OK, thanks for catching the wrong date typo, Jon. It has now been edited.

    zionssuburb, an excellent suggestion. You can watch a video about the Saluda here.

  7. Jon in Austin says:

    And yes MCQ, there are two wrong dates. 1952 should be 1852. But who’s counting? ;)

  8. zioinssuburb says:

    I thought I had posted the link… not sure what happened there. Thanks Mark.

  9. woodboy says:

    Actually, there are three wrong dates as Easter Sunday 2007 is not April 9 but rather April 8.

  10. I just wanted to say thanks for the post, Mark. It’s a story I hadn’t heard before.

  11. JA Benson says:

    Wonderful Post Mark,

    Thanks for posting this story. The Saluda needs to be recounted as much as Hauns Mill Massacre. It is these acts of kindness shown toward the Mormon Pioneers (there were other incidents) that show God can and does work miracles thru others not of our faith.

  12. Good stuff, Mark. I spent my adolescence in the KC area and have a fondness for the regional history.

  13. Jon in Austin says:

    And Mark, harping on the dates doesn’t diminish the excellent story. Sorry if it seemed everyone was coming down on your calendarial skills :)

  14. Mark IV says:

    Jon, from deep in the heart of:

    Not to worry! My calendarial skillz, such as they are, certainly are lacking. Unfortunately, I am too old to blame them on ADD and too young to blame Alzheimer’s, so I am left without excuse.

    Just to be clear, I do appreciate the feedback, from you and others, that helped me to get it right. One of the great things about blogging is the very quick response.