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.
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.