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Jul 7, 2013 — By Leslie McCarty
Wednesday April 7, 1886, was a day that many Owensboroans would always remember. The packet boat the Mountain Boy capsized in a gale opposite the city wharf at 1:30 p.m. The boat had just arrived from Cannelton, IN. The boat was first blown to the bank opposite Mr. John Wandling’s residence at the foot of Allen Street, with her head down stream. Her engines were then reversed and she backed out and swung around, drifting down almost upon Lewis Faith’s fish-boat. Fait called to the captain and appealed to him to start his boat forward and not crush his little craft. This was done and the Mountain Boy plowed on up the river, rubbing the bank until she was opposite Harris’ factory at the foot of Daviess Street where her wheel stopped.
The boat’s head was pointing into the river at a probable angle of 45 degrees from the bank and the wheel was again backed, the object being to throw her head into the bank. Instead, her stern drifted against the bank and two or three of the buckets were knocked off the wheel. It was then the pilot, Walter Brown, said he realized that all efforts to control the boat were futile, and he refused to get her out again. Captain John James came into the pilot house and took charge of the helm. He rang to the engineer to go forward, and the boat moved out from the bank about 125 yards, her head leeing around until it pointed direct to the Indiana shore. In this perilous position she drifted for five minutes downstream, the wheel slowly moving forward, though it was sunk so deep in the water it could not propel the boat, until she was almost opposite the head of the upper wharf-boat, when she turned completely over. Three or four persons jumped into the Ohio River. The others remained on the boat and as it turned over they climbed upon the keel and there remained until rescued by parties in skiffs. Several of the crew were saved; others drowned. Those who perished were Frank Abshire, watchman, Billy Stateler, assistant engineer and Scott Lowry, rouster. All the passengers were saved.
When the Judelle arrived from Rockport an hour after the disaster, hundreds of people flocked again to the wharf expecting to see her go down in a similar manner as she rounded to, as the wind was still high and the water rough. The crew of the Judelle were on the lookout for the Mountain Boy, it being her custom to pass her between Owensboro and Rockport, and when they saw she was not at the wharf and the great crowd of people there, they began to suspect the awful truth.
When the Judelle came within speaking distance, captain Josh Abshire, recognizing Jack Sheppard, the Mountain Boy’s engineer in the crowd on the wharf-boat, called out, “Hey, Jack, where’s the Mountain Boy?” “Sunk!” replied Jack. “Where’s my boy?” instantly shouted back the captain, and a pallor overspread his face. But Jack could not respond. Again, Capt. Abshire called to him, but he would not say the awful words. With an appealing look on his face the poor man turned to others in the crowd and asked again for Frank; but those addressed turned their heads away. When the boat touched the wharf Hogan Crosby, his old clerk, sprang forward and ascending the stairway took the captain into the cabin and tenderly broke to him the sad news. The poor man was completely prostrated.
Sam James, brother of Captain John James, was later asked about his brother’s decision. Same says he was trying to get the boat’s head to the bank, and could only do so by working his wheel, and to allow her to remain as lay meant her certain destruction, while there was a chance to save her by working her stern out and getting her head to the back. Pilot Brown and the remainder of the crew said that every reasonable effort to get the boat’s head to the bank with the assistance of the engines had been made. No disaster would have occurred had she been allowed to rest against the bank as she was and lives would have at least been lost.