The Legend of the Mittie Stephens
Sidewheel Steamboat

The Mittie Stephens was built in Madison, Indiana as a troop and transport boat for the Federal forces in 1862. Originally built for use on the lower Missouri River, was converted into a passenger and cargo vessel after the War Between the States. During the War, the Mittie Stephens was illegally seized by the Union Forces and served to carry dispatches, troops, and supplies in the Red River campaign.

In peacetime, she plied the Mississippi before becoming a New Orleans-to-Jefferson packet. It operated between New Orleans, Shreve's Port, Mooring's Port, Louisiana and Jefferson, Texas. On February 11, 1869 at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the Mittie Stephens left Shreve's Port chartered by John K. Rives, which resulted in being its final voyage. Carrying passengers and a government consignment of hay, gunpowder, and a $100,000 payroll for troops stationed in Jefferson, she steamed upriver to Twelve Mile Bayou into Ferry Lake (now named Caddo Lake in tribute to the Caddo Indians) stopping at Mooring's Port on its way to Jefferson, Texas. After leaving Mooring's Port approaching Swanson's Landing around midnight, a crewman discovered smoke rising from some hay. The alarm was given and the crew headed the vessel to the nearest shore. The fire spread rapidly and the passengers were trapped. A lifeboat was launched but became overloaded and overturned where most of those aboard drowned. Those passengers remaining aboard the Mittie Stephens had little chance but to jump into the chilly water or be burned. Over sixty people lost their lives in a well-documented scene of chaos and pandemonium. Eyewitness accounts of the disaster gave a glimpse of the passengers and crew that statistics cannot furnish. Stories began to emerge of greed and heroism, of mass graves and mistaken identities. Data accumulated in the investigation allowed previously unknown details of construction of the Mittie Stephens to emerge, and helped to paint a clearer picture of steamboats of the era.

For many years, the hull of the Mittie Stephens could be seen lying in the mud. A few items were salvaged from the wreckage with the most valuable being the ship's bell, which is currently on display in a museum in nearby Jefferson, Texas. Once the head of Red River navigation, Jefferson, Texas has long been conscious of its historical heritage and its early dependence of river traffic. The Mittie Stephens Foundation was established there to research the history of the boat, and to locate, excavate and subsequently display her remains.

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