The Ghost Ship Eliza Battle
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
In October 1857, British citizen Charles McKay left London for North America and an extensive tour of the U.S. and Canada. During a stop in Alabama, he saw the elegant steamship Eliza Battle moored on a landing along the Tombigbee River. Its size and grandeur made a strong impression on McKay. That's why, just days later, he was shocked to learn that the side-wheeled paddle steamer had burned, killing many passengers and crew in the inferno, or forcing them to freeze to death in the icy river water.
The Eliza Battle was built in New Albany, Indiana in 1852. She had a tonnage (carrying capacity) of 316 tons. In 1854, a reception for President Millard Fillmore was held on board the sophisticated ship and the festivities including a live band.
On a fine day the sights along the steamer's journey from Columbus, Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama were breathtaking. The Tombigbee River's banks, rich with limestone, were white and high. Long strands of white moss dangled from tree branches. Abundant clusters of mistletoe took up residence in host trees along the river, their pearly berries glittering in the sun. Early on the morning of March 1, 1858, however, the Eliza Battle would see her last voyage.
Between afternoon and evening, temperatures fell 40 degrees. A strong "norther" wind made steering the ship difficult. Nonetheless, it left Demopolis, Alabama carrying a crew of 45, 60 passengers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 bales of cotton, depending on the account. The Eliza Battle faced trouble before, even a previous fire - but the captain and crew were certain they could overcome it. Sadly, though, the steamer had run out of luck.
An hour or two after midnight, passengers heard the cry most feared: "Fire!" Most were in their nightclothes, insignificant protection against the intense cold that immediately froze water to the decks, and formed icicles on the paddlewheels. How the blaze started, no one knew or had time to ponder. What was evident was that the bales of cotton had ignited and flames were rapidly leaping from one to the next, thanks to the heavy winds.
Mothers and children moved toward the deck rails in panic. There was no accessing the life rafts - the fire had seen to that. Quick-thinking men threw as yet un-ignited cotton bales into the water, urging loved ones and strangers alike to use them as rafts.
Captain S. Graham Stone recommended the opposite course. He told passengers to remain aboard rather than brave the freezing Tombigbee River. He would, said Stone, navigate toward the river bank where they could de-board safely. But the water was high, the banks swollen, and the current swift. Stone had to fight to reach the shore. Finally, the ship came to rest at Kemp's Landing, near the modern Route 114 bridge across the Tombigbee. But there was yet another problem: the tall steamship aligned with the trees rather than the land.
Passengers and crew struggled to grasp onto any limb within reach. Hypothermia made it impossible for most to hang on for very long. Some tied themselves to branches using any means available - handkerchiefs, suspenders, belts, and cravats. Mothers bound themselves to their sons and daughters and then to branches to prevent them from falling into the river. Men, women and children hung in the trees like strange, human fruit waiting for rescue until - one by one - many died in place or dropped into the frigid depths.
Upon hearing word of the fire, local residents aided in the rescue. Many accepted these distressed strangers into their home without question or hesitation. Another steamer, Magnolia, retrieved those poor souls who had chosen to take their chances in the water.
Charles McKay, who was writing about his tour for a newspaper back in England, reported that 28 of those who took refuge in the trees perished. The actual number of deaths, on and off the ship, varies according to source. Some say 33 died in total. Others put the figure in the 40s - although this is unlikely considering the number of people on board compared to the number of survivors. Several bodies were simply never found.
Stories abound of courage and selflessness during the catastrophe. Dr. S. W. Clanton, an Alabama native and respected man in his field, tied a female friend to a tree limb and then wrapped his coats around her as further protection. He succeeded in fastening himself to a branch as well, but to no avail. Both were found frozen to death.
One husband managed to hoist a cotton bale overboard and succeeded in placing his wife and child on top of it. Not wanting to capsize them, he jumped into the river hoping they would all make it to shore. His family survived. He perished.
Captain Stone, his son Frank Singleton Stone, and other crew members were commended for their bravery in assisting passengers before being the last to leave the ship.
Today, the Eliza Battle sits in two large, decaying chunks, 28' deep on the floor of the Tombigbee. Or does she...?
Scores of witnesses tell of a burning ghost ship, desperately attempting safe landing on the Tombigbee River bank. Some have described hearing screams of terror, and pleas for rescue. Is it the crew and passengers of the Eliza Battle reliving that night of horror? Or do these events live only in the vivid imaginations of sympathetic persons who've heard the tale? We don't know. But we'll be listening and watching the next time we cross the Route 114 bridge between Pennington and Nanfalia. ☁