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The River: Passing chilly winter day pursuing mystery related to 1871 steamboat explosion. . .


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

What started as a simple inquiry on one of the many steamboat social media pages I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing during these chilly winter days when it’s too cold to do anything productive aboard my paddlewheeler Rafter CLYDE, turned into a search for a Northern Kentucky man lost in a steamboat explosion in 1871.

What started as a simple inquiry, turned into a search for a Northern Kentucky man lost in a steamboat explosion in 1871.

Don Seifert of Cold Spring, Campbell County, asked: “Has anyone heard of the steamboat named W. R. ARTHUR, which was destroyed by its boilers exploding in 1871 near Memphis Tennessee?”Don, a new member of the group, “Steamboats of the United States,” was told by another subscriber to “ try the Memphis newspaper because there will be something written about it.”

My suggestion was somewhat facetious. “Or try something on your computer called GOOGLE.”

Don assured me he used the Google search engine as had I when discovering, according to a Memphis newspaper account, that on January 28, 1871, “a cold, disagreeable, rainy night with flakes of snow, the steamer W.R. ARTHUR, from New Orleans for Louisville, which left here late last night, exploded her boilers fourteen miles above this city at one, this morning, tearing away the forward part of the cabin and Texas. The boat then took fire and burned until the bow sunk.”

The Memphis paper’s headline screamed:

Don Seifert of Cold Spring, Campbell County


“ANOTHER HORROR – The Most Shocking Marine Disaster Since the Burning of the SULTANA. LOSS OF NEARLY ONE HUNDRED LIVES. Men & Women Hurled Into the River in Midnight Darkness to Find Water Graves!”

The venerable New York Times added:

“STEAMBOAT DISASTER; Another Terrible Scene of Death on the Mississippi. The W.R. ARTHUR Blown Up and Set on Fire Near Memphis. Sixty Persons Believed Lost and Others Badly Injured. Particulars of the Disaster as Given by the Officers and Passengers Names of the Saved and Some of the Lost Intense Suffering of the Injured Fearful Scenes. The Owners of the W.R. ARTHUR Losses and Insurance Her Boilers and Safety Appliances Supposed to be Good.”

Don Seifert immediately tied this century-and-a-half steamboat disaster to the beginning of the third decade of the 21st Century by posting:

“Thank you so much. My great-grandfather, Miller Allen, the ARTHUR’s First Mate, from Newport, Kentucky, was lost in the disaster.”

The sidewheel packet, W. R. ARTHUR, known in its time as “one of the finest and best-appointed steamers on the river.”


The sidewheel packet, W. R. ARTHUR, known in its time as “one of the finest and best-appointed steamers on the river,” had its wooden hull constructed in Shousetown, PA and the rest of the boat completed in Louisville, KY in 1864 for the St. Louis & New Orleans Packet Company. The hull was initially 260-feet in length, and 42-feet wide, but was enlarged in 1868 to measure 296 x 53-feet. In the winter of 1869-’70, the ARTHUR, according to Captain Fredrick Way, Jr., “got new boilers, six in all, 48” by 28-feet, with five flues each.” She also received new, more powerful engines and her side paddlewheels, enlarged to 33-feet 8-inch diameters with 14’ 8” buckets (paddles), were about five feet wider than the stern paddlewheel of the DELTA QUEEN.

In its entirety, the W. R. ARTHUR was virtually a new boat, especially the boilers and propulsion machinery when everyone aboard that fateful night considered her to be “a staunch boat and …believed in her superiority as a river craft,” or so the Memphis press reported after the fact.

Don Seifert’s great-grandfather, Miller Allen, the ARTHUR’s First Mate, from Newport, was lost in the disaster.”

After leaving Memphis past eleven pm on a dismal Friday night, the ARTHUR had aboard 1,000 tons of molasses and sugar, 1,066 bales of cotton, 75 cabin passengers, and 20 more on deck. Most likely, a large number of rivermen and women crewed the vessel. The first crewmember reported lost in the news account was Miller Allen, First Mate. Others lost were John Bowman, First Clerk, ten of the Cabin Crew, 30 on the deck gang, six firemen, 15 of 20 deck passengers, and several cabin passengers.

Mate Allen, “formerly of the steamer CLARKSVILLE,” reported the Memphis press, “had his leg horribly crushed by the falling-in of the roof and pilothouse.” Miller Allen died from his injuries, but according to his great-grandson Don Seifert, the whereabouts of Allen’s remains, remains a mystery. Both Mr. Seifert’s efforts and my research into the Northern Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee records for the steamboatman’s burial have, so far, turned up nothing.

Going back into Miller Allen’s records before his demise in the explosion of the W. R. ARTHUR, I found he was born in Virginia around 1829 and was married and living on 9th Street in St. Louis as recorded the Union Draft Registration for the Civil War, 1863 to 1865. When asked what Mate Allen did during the Civil War, Don Seifert said he did not know. My guess is, he probably stayed employed aboard a steamboat ferrying men and material for the Yankee armies. We’ll probably never know, just like I would like to know what my 2nd-great-grandfather, William Sanders, did during “The War” that remains a mystery in spite of my numerous inquiries. When, and why Miller and his family moved to Newport also remains an unanswered question.

No sooner had Don pondered his illustrious ancestor’s Civil War draft registration, was when he tossed me this bomb of a comment:

The clipping: Miller Allen, Mate of the Steamer SOUTH WESTER, was yesterday put upon preliminary examination in the police court for the alleged murder of Edmund Magner.


“I found a clipping from 1865 accusing my great-grandpa of murder.”

“WOW! What became of the charge,” I responded, “can you send me a copy?”

A clipping from the Missouri Democrat newspaper announced:

“Miller Allen, Mate of the Steamer SOUTH WESTER, was yesterday put upon preliminary examination in the police court for the alleged murder of Edmund Magner. Messrs. Claiborne and Cady appeared as the defendant’s counsel and Mr. Dailey for the State.

Another undated clipping stated that “Edmund Magner, the young man stabbed on the steamer SOUTH WESTER Wednesday night, died at 2 o’clock Thursday morning. An order was issued for the re-arrest of Miller Allen, a mate on the SOUTH WESTER, who is alleged to have inflicted the wound.”

The paper described the deceased as a “young man, unmarried, and brother of Jno. Magner, saloonkeeper on the levee near Morgan Street. Thos. Craig testified that on board the steamer SOUTH WESTER, he and Magner were, without provocation, attacked by the mate, Miller Allen, who inflicted the wounds of which the deceased died.”

Unlike Cincinnati, which obliterated all traces of the colorful, original steamboat-familiar community, once known as “the Bottoms,” St. Louis preserved a neighborhood the Magner Brothers and steamboat mate Miller Allen would instantly recognize.  

Another witness testifying at the hearing swore that the victim, Magner, stated that “the mate had killed him.” The jury found that Magner died of chest wounds inflicted with a knife by “one Miller Allen.” Despite the findings of the inquiring panel, the Mate was not re-arrested by the time the newspaper went to press. Miller Allen, another clipping disclosed, “pleaded not guilty for murder in the first degree.”

John Magner, saloonkeeper, the older brother of the victim of the knifing aboard the steamboat SOUTH WESTER, allegedly committed by Miller Allen, was, according to “Kennedy’s St. Louis City Directory for the Year 1857, “the proprietor of a saloon at #21 Morgan Street,” near the levee on the Mississippi River. Today, the Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard covers the site of Magner’s Saloon. Still, just a block further up Morgan Street, many of the historical buildings of the era of our subjects are preserved and continue a useful life 150 years later into the present time. Unlike Cincinnati, which obliterated all traces of the colorful, original steamboat-familiar community, once known as “the Bottoms,” St. Louis preserved a neighborhood the Magner Brothers and steamboat mate Miller Allen would instantly recognize.

Now, everyone is on the edge of their seats, wondering what happened to Mate Miller Allen. If he was tried and found guilty for killing the Manger lad aboard the steamer SOUTH WESTER, a sidewheeler that ran on the Missouri Rivers and occasionally from St. Louis to New Orleans before ice badly mauled it during the early winter of 1865; I hate to say that I, nor Mr. Seifert, have a clue. Miller was aboard the W. R. ARTHUR just a few years later, but what happened in the interim is yet to be discovered. If Don Seifert or I uncover the answers, you, my faithful readers, will be the first to know.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.


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2 Comments

  1. Charlie Rafferty says:

    Wow. Life, and Death, on the Mississippi.

  2. Mary Kanian says:

    LOVE READING THESE STORIES !!!!

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