- The Scioto Disaster
At 6:30 a.m. on July 4, 1882, Thomas and Mary Garner and three of their children boarded the steamboat Scioto for a holiday excursion from East Liverpool, Ohio, to Moundsville, West Virginia. At 8:30 p.m., on the return trip, the Garner family suddenly found itself fighting for life as the Scioto sank in the Ohio River.1 What should have been a routine holiday trip turned to tragedy and over seventy people drowned (see appendix for a list of the victims) when the Scioto and another steamboat, the John Lomas, collided near Mingo Island. The Scioto sank almost immediately, but there was only slight damage to the John Lomas. Eighty-seven years after the “Scioto Disaster,” Augusta Garner Todd recalled the day vividly. She was just short of her seventh birthday on July 4, 1882, and was excited to be taking a steamboat trip with her family. After enjoying a day of sightseeing and musical entertainment, the Garner family was in their state room on the Scioto when Augusta wanted a drink of water. Her father took her to the main deck to get a drink when the collision occurred, sinking the Scioto in less than sixty seconds in fifteen feet of water. Thomas Garner left Augusta on the deck while he tried to get to the remainder of his family. He was unable to find them, returned, and, it is supposed, he and Augusta were part of the group saved by the John Lomas. The rest of the Garner family survived because “somebody broke a transom in the ceiling of the stateroom to help them onto the deck above. A man reached through the opening to help my mother. He shouted to her: ‘Let the children go and save yourself,’ but she told him to take the children out first. She stood with one foot on the doorknob and one foot on the berth to hand my brother and sister up through the transom. Then the man pulled her up through the opening.”2 How Mary Garner and her children made it to shore was not explained.
After the collision, in the midst of terror and confusion, local authorities launched a massive rescue effort. Almost as quickly, there was an effort to assign blame for the accident. The disaster led to civil and criminal trials extending until 1884, a “gag” order on the press, an extraordinary charge to the jury from Judge John Jay Jackson, and challenges to the rules for [End Page 49] piloting boats on “western” waters. Though there was a large loss of life, it proved difficult to convict the boat officers or owners of negligence.
Boiler explosions and collisions plagued the steamboat industry from its beginning. By the 1820s, several states, concerned by the lack of oversight of boiler and boat construction, passed laws designed to protect passengers by inspecting and otherwise controlling steamboats in their waters. Fearing a patchwork of conflicting rules and regulations, and, after much opposition to government regulation, Congress gave the federal government authority to inspect steamboats and later to license pilots and captains (possibly the first instance of federal intervention in private enterprise). The law, enacted in 1838, included a provision to punish ships’ officers whose negligent acts caused loss of life. However, by 1990, there had been only “eight major prosecutions” for negligence under federal statutes. As in the Scioto case, prosecutions tended to focus on the boat pilots or captains, but glossed over or ignored culpability of owners, corporations, or others.3 When the Scioto pilot was put on trial, there had been much public discussion, which no doubt influenced the first jury, that he was being singled out for punishment while others were not being held responsible for their actions. The Steamboat Inspection Service, the agency in charge, had issued new rules for pilots to follow when passing other boats just before the Scioto and John Lomas collided, further complicating federal efforts to prosecute those deemed responsible for the accident.
Though the exact number of passengers on the Scioto was never determined (there was no requirement for a passenger manifest to be created), it is estimated that...