In the 1800’s the Ohio River was a bustling thoroughfare linking towns and growing cities all along the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela.

Beginning at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers nesr Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Ohio River runs southwest, ending at the Mississippi River on the Illinois and Missouri borders. It is (980 miles) (1,557 km) in length.


Because the Ohio River flowed westwardly, it became a convenient means of westward movement by pioneers traveling from western Pennsylvania. After reaching the mouth of the Ohio, settlers would travel north on the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Missouri. There, some continued on up the Missouri River, some up the Mississippi, and some further west over land routes.

Trading boats and ships traveled south on the Mississippi to New Orleans, and sometimes beyond to the Gulf of Mexico and other ports in the Americas and Europe. This provided a much-needed export route for goods from the west, since the trek east over the Appalachian Mountains was long and arduous. The need for access to the port of New Orleans by settlers in the Ohio Valley led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

From the early 1800s to the early twentieth century steamboats were a major catalyst to the opening of the American West. Possessing the ability to inexpensively and swiftly deliver goods to the frontier, steamboats fueled the economy and led to the establishment of plantations, farms, towns, and cities.

The Vance family of Pennsylvania moved to Cincinnati sometime in the 1800’s.  Charles and Lewis became involved in the business of steamboat construction. Alexander and Charles are listed together in a Cincinnati directory. Alexander is a “potter” and Charles is a “ship’s carpenter” . “engineer”, and lumber merchant. It is not clear what role Lewis had, it may have been in design.”Mrs.Margaret E Vance is Charles’ and Lewis’ mother.

Vance, Alexander-Pa-potter, r near Gordon’s Yard

Vance, Charles-Pa-ship carpenter at Hazen’s yard

Vance, Margaret E Mrs-Md-r near Gordon’s Yard

1840 Fulton City Directory

Hamilton County, Ohio

My grandmother Josephine Schoene Vance, told my mother, Marjorie Vance, stories of Charles and Lewis building steamboats. She says there are plans of “their” boats  in one of the museums in Cincinnati. And although I haven’t been able to verify it, she said the brothers were involved in the construction of two steamboats in particular: The America and The United States.

“On December 4, 1868, the majestic packet steamer, the United States, the pride of the U.S. Mail Line, cast off from a wharf at the foot of Vine Street in Cincinnati, Ohio.”

(above, wharf in 1867, Cincinnati)

(below, the United States at a lock)

(two pictures below, steamer America)


“Captain Richard Wade, one of the skilled navigators of the two rivers, was her master, J. Reemelin was at the wheel.

“Dinner had been served. The great cabin was bathed in the rosy glow in the beams of the crystal chandeliers with crimson shades, which swung from the paneled and frescoed ceiling.”

“Two hours out it began to rain. It froze on the decks as fast as it fell. The upper works were covered in a mantle of ice that aptly gave the United States the appearance of a ghost ship. Pilot Reemelin was having a bit of trouble with her because of the prankish wind, which had increased in violence. She had a tendency to yaw and get out of the channel. Capt. Wade went up into the pilot house to stand watch with him and John Hamilton, the other pilot, was also standing by as a matter of precaution. It was a bad night on the river, but the passengers were unconscious of that fact.”

“Two miles this side of Warsaw, Kentucky is situated Rayl’s Landing. It juts some distance out into the stream. The channel follows it closely. This bend was the barrier from seeing each other’s lights. The America followed maritime law when her pilot twice sounded the whistle, which was a warning to any other boat that might be rounding the bend. Reemlin, in the pilothouse of the United States, failed to hear the warning whistle above the din of the rising wind. Hence no answering whistle from her. Again, Jenkins blew the whistle. This time, the United States responded, but the boats by this time were dreadfully close to each other. As the United States roared around the bend it was seen by the watchers on board both boats that a collision was inevitable.”

“In the circumstances, both pilots acted promptly. The engines were stopped and the America’s wheels were set to backing. but the momentum of the boats carried them on to swift and certain destruction. The prow of the America rammed the United States on the starboard side, just forward of the steps.”

“The boats were virtually locked together for a brief time, but the America backed away, but not in time to prevent the leaping flames, spurred into ferocity by the high wind, from communicating to her upper works.”

“To add to the terror of the situation, the surface of the river was covered with burning oil, and both shores were illuminated and teeming with fantastic silhouettes. The villagers of Warsaw heard the sound of the crash and saw the ruddy reflection in the sky. The church bells were rung. Carriages and wagons were commandeered and rescuers were on the way within minutes after the collision.”

“Both boats started for the Indiana shore, in the hope of landing and discharging passengers before the fire had complete control, but the perverse wind balked that attempt.”

“Driven from refuge to refuge by the heat, the billowing smoke, and the searing flames, the passengers on the United States finally turned to the river as their only hope of sanctuary, but this hope was in vain, as the burning oil on the water, swept along buy the current, overwhelmed those who dared to leap into the river. The old river never presented a more dreadful spectacle of death than it staged at that midnight hour. It was all over quickly.”

“There the America burned to the water’s edge. The survivors were taken to neighboring farm houses, where they were given primitive first aid for injuries. Very few of them escaped without being hurt more or less severely. The farm wives ripped up their pillow cases and sheets to be utilized as bandages. Couriers on horseback were sent in every direction to summon doctors. In one farmhouse alone there were twelve injured persons, lying side by side on the parlor floor. The true extent of this disaster never was revealed. The bodies of some of those who perished by drowning never were recovered. The nearest estimate to the number of dead was eighty, largely on the United States. Others say 170 perished. The America escaped with three fatalities. The news of this catastrophe did not reach Cincinnati until two days later, and then only when a rescuing steamer put in, having aboard the dead, the injured and numerous survivors who had not been harmed.”

The available list of dead shows these names: “Mrs. R.A. Jones and daughter, Pensacola, Fla.; Miss Mary Johnson, Louisville; Mrs. C. M. Hayes, Nashville; H.H. Burkholder, banker, Louisville; the Rev. Robert Parvin, Philadelphia; a Mr. Elfers; the Rev. F.S. Rising, New York; a Mr. Hammers; Mrs. Clarke, Lexington, Ind.; Messrs. Ferris and Briggs; Mrs. Commodore Thompson and woman friend; Harry Brunswick, Cincinnati; Mr. Garvin, Louisville; Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Crawford, Dayton, O.; O.B. Sappington, Madison, Ind.; Lew Vance, Madison, Ind.” (list is longer and there are significantly conflicting reports of the number of people who died)

“The America was built about a year before she was destroyed and the United States three years before.”

“The trial trip of the America took place on April 27, 1867, with the start from the foot of Vine Street. Two hundred persons were the guests of the Mail Line Company and the occasion was embellished with a superb feast spread in the commodious cabin. She had a gallery cabin over the main cabin and was equipped with 144 staterooms. She was 313 feet long, with a beam of forty-one feet, seven-foot hold, and had thirty-eight-foot wheels. She could make thirty miles an hour downstream and twenty miles an hour against the current. So could the United States.”

(above, the collision from an article in Haper’s Weekly 1868)

(above, United States after the collision/fire)

Lew Vance is listed in a couple of sources as among the missing and presumed dead. My grandmother ended her telling of the fiery endto the United States and America by recounting: “They found his pinky finger….they knew it was his because of the ring still on it. That was all they found of him.”

Excerpts from “Thrills on the Historic Ohio River,” by Frank Grayson, Jr., in 1930. Mr.Grayson was a writer for the Post-Times Star in Cincinnati.

photos http://www.nkyviews.com


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