The Burning of the Kate Adams 1

Taken from the St. Paul Daily Globe on December 24, 1888

Memphis, TN December 23: The elegant passenger steamer Kate Adams, running as a semi-weekly packet, between Memphis and Arkansas City, burned this morning near Commerce, Mississippi 40 miles south of this city.  She was en route to Memphis and had about 200 people aboard, including her deck and cabin crew of 80, and 25 cabin and 60 deck passengers, and 25 African American passengers.  The fire, which caught in some cotton near the forward end of the boilers, was discovered about 8 o’clock.  The passengers were at breakfast, and when the alarm was given, they all made a rush for the forward deck. At the time, the steamer was about 300 years from the Mississippi side of the river and her bow(front) was at once headed for the shore.  Pilot Joe Barton was on watch and he remained heroically at his post until she was safely landed.  Harry Best, the second clerk, who was seated at the table when the alarm was given and brought all the ladies and children forward and assisted them ashore.  Captain Mark R. Cheek, who was on the hurricane deck, remained there, giving his commands until the stage plank was safely lowered.  The fire, by this time, had spread all through the cabin and he was compelled to retreat to the rear and climbed over the rails and descended to the cabin.  Here he found Chief clerk W.C. Blanker, who had made an effort to save the money and papers of the steamer, which were in the safe.  He managed to grab the money but was cut off from the bow and forced back into the cabin.  As he was groping his way aft (rear of the boat), he stumbled and fell over some chairs and lost all the valuables he had secured, and it was with great difficulty that he succeeded in reaching the rear through the blinding smoke and flame, which had filled the cabin.  Captain Cheek seized a life preserver and placing it on Chief clerk Blanker, helped him overboard into the water.  He floated down about 3 miles before he was rescued by parties who had walked ashore and followed him downriver.


Captain Cheek assisted several others in securing life preservers, and when it was no longer possible for him to remain without being burned, he too jumped into the river and swam ashore.  There were about 25 African American cabin passengers who were saved along with the white passengers.  On the lower deck, however, a fearful panic seized the crew and deck passengers.  Those who were cut off from escape from the bow, were compelled to jump overboard to save their lives.  The stern of the burning steamer had swung out into the river and in the effort to launch the yawl(smaller boat on board), it was capsized by the crowd that filled it and many of it’s occupants drowned.  They were mostly African American men, but there were three of four women in the crowd.  The loss so far as can be learned are as follows:

George Corbett- 3rd Clerk, aged 39, who had launched the yawl, and was trying to save the African American women on the lower deck.  He leaves a wife , who resides in St. Louis.

Joe Porter, Andrew Rees, Monroe Jackson, Jim Nelson

Senator Coleman and Hilliard Horten, of the cabin crew

Lee Finley and Frank Wells,  roustabouts ( worked in the boiler room )

In addition, about 15 deck passengers, 4 of whom were white men, were also drowned.  In this list of unknown were 3 African American women and 2 children.  They were coming to Memphis to spend the holidays.  The whites had been working on the levee and their names and destination are unknown.

The burning steamer drifted away after lying at the bank for 20 minutes and floating down the river, her hull sinking at the head of Peter’s Island 4 miles below Commerce.  The Kate Adams was owned by the Memphis & Vicksburg Packet Company, of which Major John D. Adams of Little Rock, is President; Captain Mark R. Cheek, superintendent, and John M. Peters, secretary and treasurer.  She was built by James Rees and Sons of Pittsburg in 1882 and cost $102,000.  She was the finest and fastest steamer of her type and her owners this summer spent $20,000 in repairing her at Paducah.  She was insured for $33,750 in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and other foreign offices.  This would have been the completion of her 602nd trip in the Memphis and Arkansas City trade.  Her officers were: Mark R. Cheek, captain; W.C. Blanker, Harry Best, George Corbett, and William Donahue, clerks; Billy Hodges and Joseph Barton, pilots; Lou Bolto and Dick Young, engineers; Tom Allen and Frank Brady, mates; Jerry Matzen, steward.  Her cargo consisted of 1,161 bales of cotton, 1900 stacks of cotton seed, 87 bags of seed and a good list of sundries.  The cotton was consigned to Memphis merchants and fully insured in their own policies.  Fader, Fink & Company; Hill, Fontaine & Company; and Thomas H. Allen & Company were the largest consignees.

kate adams flyer

The cabin passengers who were on board were: Mr. and Mrs. Thomas McLeemore and 2 children of Bolivar County, MS; Mrs. Maggie Fields of Memphis; Mrs John Quehn and 5 children of Rosedale; Mr. Harris and wife of Laconia; Captain T.C. Gloster, assistant engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board; John Woods Harris of Memphis, Captain Elisha Evans of Memphis; and W.P. Jackman, agent of the American Cotton Seed Oil Trust Company.  There were several other male passengers, but their names could not be learned.  The safe contained about $5,000, about $2,000 belonging to passengers who had given it to the clerk for safe keeping.  All the passengers and crew arrived at Memphis this afternoon at 6 o’clock having taken the Louisville, New Orleans, & Texas railroad from Robinsonville, which station is 8 miles distant in the interior from where the disaster occurred.  The citizens of Commerce rendered the passengers and crew every assistance in reaching Robinsonville, conveying them in wagons and every conceivable vehicle that could be secured.  There were 167 form the ill fated steamer that came to Memphis, Captain Cheek defraying the expense of all those who did not have the funds.

The passengers and crew lost all their clothing and effects, and some made their escape to the shore from the burning steamer in dishabille (state of being only partly or scantily clothed), but were provided with clothes by the kind citizens of Commerce.  Three of the African American cabin crew, who were rescued from the water, died afterwards.  Their names appear in the list already given.  The water was very cold, which benumbed the limbs of those who jumped overboard, and to this is attributed the greatest loss of life.  All speak in the highest terms of the coolness and bravery displayed by the officers.  The captain, clerks, pilots, and engineers all remained at their posts until the last, and it was through their efforts and courage that all the lady cabin passengers were safely taken ashore.

John Woods Harris, who was a passenger, jumped form the stage plank before it had been lowered, and was internally injured.  Mrs. Dr. Harris, of Laconia, also sustained a sprained ankle by falling from a cotton bale in descending from the cabin to the lower deck. Captain Elisha Evans, who is an old steam boat pilot, was a passenger on the steamer.  He was in the pilot house with Joe Barton when the fire was discovered and aided in safely landing the steamer.  He then came down and assisted clerk Harry Best in getting the women and children ashore.  John D. Adams, the principal owner of the steamer, arrived early this morning from Little Rock.  He was on the bluff about noon looking for the boat to arrive when informed that she had burned at Commerce.

kate adams at night

Told by a Passenger: The Disaster as seen by Mrs Harry Fields, Memphis, TN December 23, 1888

Mrs Harry Field, one of the passengers, said she boarded the steamer at Friars Point, MS about 2 o’clock in the morning, and instructed the chamber maid to awaken her at 10 o’clock.  Instead, she was aroused at 7:30 am and was seated at the breakfast table when the cry of fire was heard.  She paid very little attention to it at first, but when she saw smoke filling the cabin, she ran to the bow(front)  of the steamer, which by this time had touched the bank, and tried to jump ashore.  She failed and fell to the lower deck.  An African American man, who was close behind her, followed her example and like her failed to reach the shore, but fell near her.  The fire was scorching hot where they were, but the he gathered her in his arms and carried her to the bank and thus saved her from being burned to death, as she was unable to move after having fallen from the boiler deck.  Mrs. Fields is positive that W.A. Covington, a planter and merchant of Rosedale, perished in the flames.  She thinks he must have been suffocated in the stateroom, as he was aboard and nothing has been seen or heard of him since the disaster.  Billy Hodges, one of the pilots was in the barbershop getting shaved when the alarm was sounded.  He rushed to the stern( rear of boat), and providing himself with a life preserver, jumped overboard.  While swimming to the shore, he found Samuel Robinson, a passenger struggling in the water and assisted him to safety.  It is reported that a murderer, who was being brought back for trial, perished on board the steamer.  He was handcuffed and the officer in charge made his escape and left him in his helpless condition and he was burned to death.  The greatest excitement prevailed in Memphis when the first news of the disaster was received here.  It came about noon in the shape of a private telegram from Robinsonville and said 150 lives had been lost. Later accounts were more reassuring and a large crowd of citizens were at the depot when the train arrived bringing those who had succeeded in escaping.  It is impossible to definitely ascertain how many lives were really lost, but a conservative estimate places the number at 38.  It may probably reach 50.




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