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Sixty-one die as steamboat burns

February
12
1869

On this day in 1869, sixty-one men, women, and children died when the sidewheel steamboat Mittie Stephens caught fire on Caddo Lake during a run from New Orleans to Jefferson, Texas. The boat had been plying the New Orleans-Red River route since 1866. At that time Jefferson was the head of navigation via Caddo Lake due to the great log raft that obstructed traffic on the Red River. The Mittie Stephens had left New Orleans on February 5 with 107 passengers and crew and a cargo that included 274 bales of hay. On the night of the twelfth, a breeze blew a spark to the hay from the torch baskets that lighted the bows of the boat, and the resulting fire could not be contained. The boat headed for the shore, 300 yards away, but grounded in three feet of water near Swanson's Landing. The pilot and the engineer kept the wheels running in an attempt to force the boat to shore; the action of the wheels pulled the people struggling in the water into them and killed most of them. The Mittie Stephens burned to the water line, and parts of the wreck could be seen above the water until the early twentieth century. Jefferson remained the principal riverport of Texas until the logjam was removed in 1874.

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