Depending on the season, there is a quiet resting spot at the top of the hill in the Hermann City Cemetery. It’s a good spot to catch a gentle breeze in the warm months. There is a rough granite column with a copper seal on top that marks the burial site of those that perished in the Big Hatchie steamboat explosion in July of 1845.
The inscription pays homage to those passengers and crew members that lost their lives on that tragic day.
The local Brush and Palette Club knew of this catastrophe that is part of Hermann’s history and wanted to commemorate the spot on the hill in the City Cemetery where there are two mass graves for the perished.
“They wanted to acknowledge the event reported in nationwide newspapers,” said Historic Hermann Museum Docent Steve Mueller.
The mass grave is in two separate segments because the accident happened in the summertime and many of the bodies were buried the next day.
“Unfortunately, there were a number badly burned, but they were given the chance to survive and some of them didn’t make it.” “This was the group buried in a second wave of mass burials.”
Steve said one of the people at the Historic Hermann Museum came up with the idea to acknowledge the location on the Missouri River where the explosion occurred. In attempting to find the right location, he discovered a number of conflicting newspaper reports of the day or even year of the tragedy.
“This thing got completely blown out of proportion,” he said.
The original story stated that those on the riverboat that day were Germans arriving to settle in the region, but that wasn’t true.
“These were normal travelers,” he said. “Fortunately, we found the cemetery’s sexton’s handwritten account of the burials.
He said they located a handwritten report to a St. Louis newspaper from one of the crew members of the steamboat who survived. He added the crew member still has relatives living in Hermann.
“We had a list of the people—at least the one’s that were retrieved in the St. Louis paper, with all the details.”
He said all the names, with the exception of one, were not Germans—they were English-speaking people and in many cases gave their professions or circumstances for traveling. They were farmers, business people and some traveling to visit relatives.
“They were just normal travelers you would find on the river at that time,” he noted.
The boat was not docking—it was leaving and had barely gotten under steam when it blew up.
There was one saving grace. It was a warm night and many passengers were sleeping on the left side of the boat to catch the river breeze. These passengers were somewhat protected from the blast because the engine room was stacked high with lumber and it absorbed the full force of the blast, shielding those passengers and crew members on the other side.
Steve said the most valuable parts of a steamboat in the 1800’s was the boiler, the wheel and the whistle.
“These were the pieces that were re-used over and over (so they required diligent maintenance).The estimated lifespan of a boat was three to five years, provided it was maintained. The river and what floated hidden in the river made the boat a target of the elements and fast moving submerged tree trunks.
Steve’s take on steamboat boiler tragedies is that people at that time didn’t understand the physics and the technology to control the energy provided by steam under pressure. He said there were hundreds of thousands of steamboats on rivers all over the country before the railroads and not enough experts of steam-operated vessels that knew what they were doing.
The Brush and Palette Club has ordered a replacement monument that corrects the history of the tragic event.
“It will acknowledge the truth that we’ve now discovered,” said Steve.
He said this project was originally done in good faith by people who were truly interested in preserving and promoting the rightful history of Hermann, but they didn’t have access to the archives.
“Who in the world knows where this handwritten sexton’s diary was at that time?” questions Steve. “That was the real key that led us to the handwritten report to the newspaper in St. Louis—it ties it all together.”
The Brush and Palette Club is looking to replace the current granite marker in the City Cemetery with the new monument with the corrected historical record sometime this fall.