Steamboat Belle Explosion Of 1856


By James Donahue


The boiler explosion that destroyed the steamboat Belle in 1856 is still counted among California’s worst ship disasters. It left an estimated 30 people dead or severely wounded and demolished the wooden-hulled vessel shortly after it steamed north from Sacramento.


The Belle, under the command of Captain Charles H. Houston, of Mobile, Alabama, had a crew of about 20 men and another 40 passengers aboard when it weighed anchor the morning of Feb. 5. She also was carrying a cargo of “treasure” and dry goods for Wines and Co. and Pacific Co. Express.


The steamer was late getting away that morning because Houston waited over 20 minutes for a heavy fog to start to lift. He told first engineer W. J. Eirick to get up steam at 7:22 a.m. Eirick ordered the fireman, William Green, to fire up and instructed the second engineer to carry only 80 pounds of steam because the ship would be running in fog and would probably be holding down her speed.


Eirick, who survived the blast, said he had his breakfast and then returned to find that the steam gauge registered 86 pounds. He said he had just stepped out on the guard to key up a crank pin when the boiler exploded.


The blast was so powerful it broke the ship’s keel, tore up the main deck and superstructure, ripped through the main saloon, demolished the pilot house and instantly killed Captain Houston, the deck officers with him, and the engine room crew including Fireman Green. One of the two large side wheels was broken off and was lying by its side in the water.


One report said the forward portion of the ship sank quickly, while the stern section remained afloat. The floor of the main saloon and hurricane deck were both torn open in the center. “Dirty blood-clotted furniture, goods and wearing apparel was scattered about. There were snapped timbers, broken lamps, curled and twisted iron bars and human brains dashed together in strange confusion,” one writer wrote.


Another account stated that “nothing was left of the Belle but the sides of the upper works and they were hanging bent and torn in every direction. The sides of the hull, from the engine forward, were blown clear out of her.”


They said that all that remained of the pilot house was the flag and steering staff and the wheel.


A Doctor Reddick, who owned a ranch along the Sacramento River, said he heard the explosion and ran to the bank where he saw the steamer sinking, and passengers clinging to floating spars and other pieces of the wreck. He put his personal boat in the water and was the first person to reach the wreck. He said he pulled as many people as possible into his vessel.


The steamer General Reddington arrived at the scene at about noon with police and media. The Reddington towed the wreck to shore where it was tied to the bank about a half mile below Big Mound. The steamer then returned to Sacramento carrying some of the Belle’s dead and wounded.


The steamer Gem arrived at the scene at about 1 p.m. with drag hooks and other tools used in searching for bodies. The Gem also salvaged all of the “treasure,” believed to be gold coins, belonging to Wines and Co. and Pacific Co.


Also participating in the search for bodies was the vessel Cleopatra and many small local boats.


There were stories of miraculous survival. The ship’s bartender was standing with a number of passengers when the explosion ripped through the vessel. Everyone around him was killed and the bartender walked off without a scratch. They said it was such a close call for him that a portion of the rim of his hat was severed by a flying piece of iron, and the leg of one of his boots was torn.


A passenger said that only moments before the explosion he was asked by one of the ship’s stewards to leave his cabin so it could be cleaned. He said he was in the hall when the force of the blast destroyed his room. He escaped unharmed.


The steward, Mr. Hyland, said he was walking through the main cabin aft when the flying debris sliced the hat on his head in two, but he was not hurt.


The investigation that went on after the disaster failed to determine the cause of the explosion. It was learned that the ship’s boiler had been inspected only months earlier and tested 120 pounds to the inch. The engine-room workers died that day and could not be questioned, but testimony given by First Engineer Eirick, stating that the pressure gage showed only 86 pounds of steam just moments before the blast, suggested that either the gauge was malfunctioning, the boiler was low on water or there was a defect in the iron boiler.


There was never a final determination.





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