Posted Online: Feb. 01, 2013, 2:09 pm

Dead Files resurrects Jennie Gilchrist tale

Comment on this story

By Marlene Gantt

Producers from the TV Travel Channel, "The Dead Files," called me before Christmas and asked about the disaster of the Mississippi River steamboat Jennie Gilchrist in 1881.

After watching an episode of the "Dead Files," I realized that they are interested in more than one death that occurred in the past near a home or establishment they are investigating. The idea is that a death, and particularly a murder, is affecting the premises at the address of the investigation. Since investigators do not know who the specter or ghostly presence is representing, they want to check out various untimely deaths near the area under investigation.

The story of the Jennie Gilchrist takes us back to the discovery of coal in Happy Hollow near Hampton in 1869 by Thomas Tagg and William Barth.

Then they discovered a vein at Rapids City. So Taylor Williams opened a mine there and began delivering coal in 1871. Mr. H.M. Gilchrist from Wanlockhead, Scotland, and his son John worked in this mine about two years until they found a vein of even better coal nearby and opened Wanlockhead Mines in 1874, according to Walter Blair in his book, "A Rafts Pilot's Log." Gilchrist leased 100 acres, according to a Rock Island History, 1885.

Gilchrist, in order to accommodate his growing business, had a steamer built at the LeClaire boatyard. He named it Jennie Gilchrist for his only daughter, who later became Mrs. Charles Shuler, Davenport. Gilchrist also built a railroad to carry coal to the river where barges then carried the coal across the river.

At some point, the Jennie Gilchrist became a packet steamer plying between Rock Island and Port Byron. The packet boat would have carried both passengers and cargo. (I cannot find this boat listed in Ways Packet Directory -- the most authoritative list of packet steamboats.)

At 10:34 p.m. on Oct. 27, 1881 the boat and its tow of two barges started upstream for Cordova. On the way the steamboat suddenly became unmanageable and swept downstream, striking a bridge pier, according to George Wickstrom's "The Town Crier." The boat was carrying 11 passengers and a crew of 15. Nine people drowned. "Because the boat struck just aft of its boilers, steam covered the scene," wrote Wickstrom. Passengers were temporarily blinded and had to lie on the deck to avoid suffocation and scalding. A few people jumped onto one of the barges before it broke loose from the steamer and floated under the bridge.

Two women and a man, holding hands, jumped for the spot where they thought the barge was, but they landed in water. One of the women, a Mrs. Wendt, floated on a barrel for many hours until a policeman in the west end of Davenport heard her cries for help and rescued her.

Twelve people, including those who had jumped and some plucked out of the water, were found safe on the barge at the Iowa bank. Five others swam to shore. (This may have included Mrs. Wendt, if you are counting.)

Four women in the cabin of the boat were paralyzed with fear. They remained huddled in a corner as the Jennie Gilchrist drifted downstream in a cloud of steam. The boat sank in midstream, opposite 10th Street, Rock Island . (The scene of the Dead Files examination is somewhere in the vicinity of Black Hawk Road in Rock Island.) A portion of the cabin remained above water but not the part where the women were.

The next day the cabin broke loose and came to rest on the bank at Buffalo, Iowa.

On Nov. 16, 1881 a Rock Island diver, Capt. Wall, and bargemen succeeded in raising the hull. One body was found in the hull and another in the cabin at Buffalo. Seven bodies remained unaccounted for and were never found.
Rock Island Argus reporters were on the scene early and accompanied the rescue and salvage boats. The reporters insisted from the first that most of the officers and crew were intoxicated and fled for their own safety without any thought for the passengers.

During the time of the investigation, the steamer B. F. Weaver crashed into the Rock Island bridge on Nov. 10, 1881. No lives were lost.
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.