Steamboats were the main means of transportation in the 19th century and hundreds of them made their trips filled with passengers and goods up and down the Mississippi River. One of the most grand of these steamers was the Kate Adams. The ship was owned by the Memphis & Vicksburg Packet Company. John D. Adams of Little Rock was president, Captain Mark R. Cheek was superintendent and John M. Peters was secretary and treasurer. The Kate Adams had been built in 1882 at a cost of $102,000 by the James Rees & Sons Company of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
All was well on board the elegant Kate Adams as it churned up the mighty river near Commerce, Mississippi in Tunica County. There wasn’t much to see there anymore, but just one of the tiny hamlets that the ship passed on its regular route between Memphis and Arkansas City. The date was December 23, 1888 and most people were looking forward to Christmas. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning. The crew were busy at work and most passengers were just settling down to breakfast. Captain Mark R. Cheek was at his post. There were about two hundred people on board consisting of about eighty members of the crew, twenty five cabin passengers and eighty five deck passengers. It was just a normal day on the Mississippi River.
Meanings of certain words:
bow – forward part of boat. stern – back or aft-most part of boat. yawl – small boat with a sail.
Decks of a steamboat:
Hurricane Deck – the deck above the boiler deck, usually the uppermost full deck on the boat. The pilot house is often located on the hurricane deck.
Boiler Deck – the deck above the boilers and the main deck, where most passenger accommodations are located – cabins, saloons, etc.
Main Deck – the lowest full deck of a steamboat, the one closest to the water. The main deck is where the boilers, engines and most machinery is located. This was where the cotton and other goods were mainly stored at.
Map of Tunica County – Note where Commerce located:
The Kate Adams was known as the finest and fastest passenger liner on the Mississippi River and had made this trip many times. In fact this was her 602nd trip between Arkansas City and Memphis. Arkansas City was a vibrant river town with a population of over fiver hundred people then and seat of government for Desha County. Memphis was a thriving city and attracted many visitors from the surrounding country. It was also home to many of the largest cotton selling businesses in the United States.
That peaceful morning described above all changed quickly as alarm bells rang. Cotton stored near the forward end of the boilers had caught fire. Since the steamer was about three hundred yards from the Mississippi side of the river, the pilot Joe Barton headed her for land. He heroically remained at his post until the ship safely landed and the plank put onshore. Passengers who were eating breakfast rushed toward the forward deck. They were assisted by Second Clerk Harry Best who had been dining with them.
Up on the hurricane deck stood Captain Mark R. Cheek who was bellowing orders and making sure the stage plank was successfully lowered. Soon he realized he was in trouble as he looked around. The fire was spreading quickly through the cabin below and he was forced to retreat toward the rear of the boat and over the rail down to the cabin deck. Here he found Chief Clerk W.C. Blanker who was making an effort to save the money and papers from the ship safe. Blanker had achieved his mission but was cut off from the bow like everybody else still on board. Fire had engulfed the entire front of the boat. As he was groping his way to the aft, Blanker stumbled and fell over some chairs losing all the valuables he had secured. Captain Cheek, quickly appraising the situation, grabbed a life preserver and placed it on Blanker. He then helped him overboard into the water. Blanker would float down the river three miles before being rescued. Back on board the captain was passing out more preservers and helping people into the river. As the fire closed in though, he realized it was time for him to depart his fallen ship. Cheek jumped into the river and swam ashore. Through his and the crew’s heroic efforts, most of the cabin passengers were saved.
On the lower deck however, a fearful panic seized the crew and deck passengers. Those who couldn’t make it to the bow of the ship were trapped by flames and smoke. They began to leap into the river. The stern of the burning steamer suddenly began to swing out from shore which caused the yawl, filled with passengers and crew, to turn over. Among those who lost their life when this happened was Third Clerk George Corbett who had launched the tiny boat trying to save a number of women from the lower deck. He left a wife in St. Louis. Other crew members killed were Andrew Reese-cabin watchman, Monroe Jackson- burner tender, James Nelson – Texas tender, Senator Coleman – second pantryman, Andrew Mays – third pantryman, Hilliard Horton – barber, Joe Porter – roustabout, Lee Finley – roustabout and Frank Wells – roustabout. In addition, about fifteen deck passengers drowned including three women and two children who had been going to Memphis for the holidays. Most of the men had been working on the levee.
The burning steamer drifted south with the current after lying near the bank for twenty minutes. Finally her hull sank at the head of Peter’s Island about four miles from Commerce. In addition to loss of life, the Kate Adams lost a lot of cargo. The fire consumed 1,161 bales of cotton, 1,900 sacks of cotton seed, 87 bags of seed and a list of sundries. The cotton was consigned to Memphis merchants and fully insured. Fader, Fink & Company; Hill, Fontaine & Company; and Thomas H. Allen & Company were the largest consignees. There were also twenty two mail packages destroyed.
The Kate Adams had left Arkansas City headed north with a veteran crew. 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. The other men were deck hands, crew mates and roustabouts who worked in the boiler room. The owners had just spent $20,000 in the summer making any needed repairs at Paducah. They were looking to get their money back on these types of cargo and passenger trips.
Like most ships of the period, records for cabin passengers were better kept than those of deck passengers. Many of the deck passengers were never identified. The known cabin passengers who were on board were:
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas McLeemore with two children of Bolivar County, Mississippi
Mrs. Maggie Fields of Memphis, Tennessee
Mrs. John Quehn with five children of Rosedale, Mississippi
Mr. Harris and wife of Laconia, Arkansas
Captain T.C. Gloster, Assistant Engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board
John Woods Harris of Memphis, Tennessee
Captain Elisha Evans of Memphis
W.P. Jackman, Agent of the American Cotton Seed Oil Trust Company
The safe contained about $5,000 of which $2,000 belonged to passengers who had given it to the clerk for safe keeping. The passengers and crew lost all their clothing and effects. In fact some of the hapless men and women had lost even what they were wearing in their efforts to get ashore. The water was very cold, which numbed many of the swimming passengers after jumping overboard. All those saved though bragged on the Captain and crew for their conduct. They also were thankful to the people of Commerce who quickly got to the scene with wagons and help. By December 24th most of the passengers and crew had arrived safely in Memphis by taking the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas railroad from Robinsonville. All told, one hundred and sixty seven passengers and crew were transported to Memphis with Captain Cheek paying all their expenses.
Newspapers interviewed a number of these men and women. Most were cabin passengers identified above.
John Woods Harris jumped from the stage plank before it had been lowered and was internally injured. Mrs. Harris sustained a sprained ankle by falling from a cotton bale in descending from the cabin to the lower deck. Captain Elisha Evans, an old steam boat pilot, was actually in the pilot house with Joe Barton when the fire started. He came down and assisted Clerk Harry Best with the women and children. Two of the cabin passengers were missing. They were W.A. Covington, a planter from Bolivar County, Mississippi and Samuel Robinson, a saloon keeper from Friar’s Point.
The Disaster as seen by Mrs. Maggie Fields. Memphis, Tennessee.
Mrs. Maggie Fields, one of the passengers, said she boarded the steamer at Friars Point, Mississippi 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 a.m. 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 of the steamer, which by this time had touched the bank, and tried to jump ashore. She failed and fell to the lower deck. A 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 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 and providing himself with a life preserver, jumped overboard. While swimming to 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.”
Because the Kate Adams had been so popular, a new steamer was built and named the Kate Adams II. In fact there would be three ships named the Kate Adams who sailed up and down the mighty Mississippi River.
“Memphis Avalanche” Memphis, TN. Monday. December 24, 1888. Page 1
“Memphis Avalance” Memphis, TN. Sunday. December 30, 1888. Page 1
“Public Ledger” Memphis, TN. Monday. December 24, 1888
Annual Report of the Postmaster General. United States. Post Office Department. 1889.
Walks through History – Arkansas Historic Preservation
Picture of the Kate Adams I from the James E. York Post Card Collection (1)