It’s March 1, 1858, and it’s a dark and stormy night. You are riding down the Tombigbee River in Alabama on a luxurious riverboat that has hosted dignitaries from all over the United States. She’s called the Eliza Battle and she is a side-wheeler steamboat, weighing in at a mere 315 tons.
Now, you’re a little nervous because the Eliza Battle had a fire on board, but she survived. And the lawsuits pending against her, well, that’s nothing to concern yourself with – right?
She was fully loaded, carrying fifty-six passengers and an additional forty-five members of the crew. Her storage compartment was also overfilled with more than 1200 bales of cotton, so some of the bales were stacked on the main deck.
It was after midnight, but the music was still playing in the lounge and many of the passengers were still enjoying the gaieties aboard this luxurious vessel. The wind had picked up, a strong north wind, and the temperature rapidly decreased by 40 degrees in just two hours. The normal cool spring waters of the river were now freezing cold. And, to make matters worse, the river waters were at spring flood stage.
At 2:00 a.m. the Eliza was near Beckley’s Landing when it was discovered that several cotton bales on the main deck were on fire. The strong winds spread the fire rapidly and soon the entire steamboat was on fire. Trying to save as many lives as possible, the crew forced the passengers off the boat and into the icy waters of the Tombigbee River.
Some survived by hanging on to cotton bales floating in the water. Some survivors actually found refuge in treetops that were surrounded by flood waters. But when the light of dawn appeared on the morning of March 2, they found that twenty-six people had perished.
Some blame the start of the fire on a robber, but the most likely scenario was that sparks from a passing steamboat had ignited the cotton bales.
Today, if you live near the Tombigbee River, you can often hear music drifting toward you from the water. But, if you wait and listen for a while, the music is suddenly accompanied by shouts for help and screams of despair. Some people have even seen the ghost of the steamship, fully engulfed in flames, floating down the middle of the river on its way to Mobile.
One comment on the Seeksghosts blog sums it up pretty well: “I run a tug that transits the area of this disaster. I always get a strange feeling when I’m passing through this part of the river. Have been told by several other boats that they have heard music in this area. One guy told me he has seen people in the treetops on the river banks at night waving for help.”