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Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Lafayette’s Perilous Journey to Marietta

The steamboat MECHANIC chugged along at full throttle up the Ohio River below Louisville on the evening of May 8, 1825. The weather was pleasant; it had been a beautiful day. On board was Revolutionary War hero, French nobleman (General) Marquis de Lafayette, who was on a tour of America. The governors of Tennessee and Illinois, distinguished guests, and a company of voluntary infantry were also on board. Guests socialized in the fading daylight. 

Portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, ca. 1822, attributed to Ary Scheffer, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the John Hay Whitney Collection.

Commemorative engraving of Lafayette’s arrival in New York, August 16, 1824, by Frances Scott King, Library of Congress CLICK TO ENLARGE

Total darkness enveloped the boat that night. Lafayette’s son George remarked to his father, "I am surprised that in a night so dark our captain does not make a stop or at least abate his speed." Yet the MECHANIC pressed on. 

The steamboat MECHANIC had a Marietta connection: It was built by John Mitchell on the Little Muskingum River, near Rose’s Mill. It was 96 feet long and 18 feet wide - small compared to later steamboats - but well equipped with “ample power.” There were several Marietta owners, including Wyllys Hall, who was captain on the voyage with Lafayette. The boat operated near Marietta, but was hired for a trip to Nashville, Tennessee. 

While there, the MECHANIC was selected to transport General Lafayette to a tour stop in Nashville and then in Louisville. It was quite an honor - and responsibility. Lafayette was greeted at Nashville with celebratory cannon fire, a military escort, and cheers from large crowds. Capt. Hall met with General Andrew Jackson who himself piloted the MECHANIC up the Cumberland River to his estate, The Hermitage, where he hosted a dinner for Lafayette. From Nashville, Lafayette and his retinue continued on the MECHANIC to Louisville. 

Around midnight on May 8, all was quiet. Passengers slept. Only the puffing of steam engine could be heard. Suddenly, the MECHANIC shook violently and lurched to a stop. Passengers were jolted awake in shock. The boat rocked violently in the current and began to list. A log had punctured the hull; remarkably it was forced upward into the main deck, rousting out a crew member who was sleeping below. Captain Hall peered below deck with a torch. Water flooded in. The boat was doomed. Captain Hall sprang into action, untying a rowboat from the MECHANIC’s stern. It would be the rescue vessel. He shouted repeatedly, “Bring Lafayette to (the rowboat)!” 

George Lafayette rushed to his father’s cabin. Lafayette, half dressed, calmly asked, “what’s up”? We have to evacuate - right now! General Lafayette, in no hurry, said he wanted to finish dressing. George shot back - paraphrasing here - Are you kidding?!! He and Lafayette’s secretary hurried the General down to the rowboat. Capt. Hall rowed Lafayette to shore. Hall and Governor Carroll of Tennessee rowed people to safety on the riverbank. Others swam or waded to shore. 

Lafayette became frantic when he realized his son George was not present. “George! George!,” he called out, pacing nervously along the shore. Minutes ticked by; more people were rescued. But George remained unaccounted for. At the partially sunken MECHANIC rescuers were shouting out his name. “Here I am,” George calmly replied from a perch on the boat’s stern. Soon he was safely on shore. He had stayed behind to help passengers, remaining until all were rescued. Passengers commended him for his courageous assistance. 

The displaced “refugees” built a fire, dried out clothing, and shared scant bits of food retrieved from the wreck. Daylight revealed a forlorn scene. Yet they were thankful to be alive. They picked up scattered belongings and visited the sunken boat to retrieve belongings. They even found humor at their disheveled appearance; many were only partially clothed or still in sleep wear.

The next morning the steamboat PARAGON passed by and rescued them. Passengers encouraged Capt. Hall to join them. He refused, greatly distressed by the accident, “My countrymen will never forgive me for exposing Lafayette to so much danger last night.” The passengers consoled him and even wrote out a testimonial citing his exemplary conduct in helping passengers and stating that the accident was unavoidable. It acknowledged Hall’s financial loss from the boat sinking and of $1300 in personal funds (more than $40,000 in today’s dollars). Lafayette added a personal addendum praising Capt. Hall’s conduct and “acknowledging my personal obligations to him." But Capt. Wyllys Hall and some crew stayed behind with the MECHANIC.

Lafayette proceeded up river to other tour stops. The original plan was for him to travel north through the interior of Ohio. But because of time limits he continued upriver. That was fortuitous for Marietta which had not expected to see him. His boat approached Marietta on the morning of May 23, 1825. A cannon fired to announce his arrival. Soon throngs of residents crowded the waterfront to greet him. Bells rang and children were let out of school.

Nahum Ward, a wealthy Marietta landowner, had visited Lafayette in Paris a few years earlier. He hosted Lafayette in his magnificent home located on Putnam Street. Long lines of people gathered there; Lafayette greeted each personally. A list of Revolutionary War officers who settled at Marietta was read to Lafayette.  He responded, “I know them all. I saw them at Brandywine, Yorktown and Rhode Island. They were the bravest of the brave." 
Photo of Nahum Ward mansion by Harry Fischer, courtesy Marietta College Special Collections, 
edited by author

Lafayette reluctantly returned to his boat after a short visit. Crowds followed. There was cannon fire and cheering as Lafayette’s boat left.

The steamboat MECHANIC? Like an aquatic phoenix of legend, it rose from the depths, was repaired and returned to service, a witness to Marietta’s growing reputation for boatbuilding. It continued running for a few more years.*

*Stories about MECHANIC’s final disposition vary. Two of the other owners of the boat reportedly operated it on the Mississippi River. One source says it was lost in a flood while in dry dock; another says it sank near St. Louis in 1827. Another curious version is suggested by a Mississippi River landmark called “Mechanic’s Rock,” near Montrose, Iowa. It was so named because a boat named MECHANIC is said to have struck it and sank. Was that boat “our” MECHANIC or a different one with the same name? Sometimes history does not give us clear answers.


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