By: Dale Cox
One of the greatest tragedies in the history of Jackson County took place on January 29, 1854, when the steamboat Eagle caught fire and sank in less than fifteen minutes near Neal’s Landing.
The Eagle was a massive paddlewheel driven vessel which was one of the finest boats in use on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers in 1854. Less than two years old, she had a gross tonnage of 200 tons and was nearly 150 feet long.
The boat left Columbus, Georgia, on January 28, 1854, en route to Apalachicola. On board was a cargo of 1,303 bales of cotton. Her cabins were filled with passengers, many of them children.
As the Eagle approached Neal’s Landing in the northeast corner of Jackson County, the crew unexpectedly discovered that a fire had broken out on board. The cause was never determined, but the flames were found to be coming from an area behind the engine room of the boat and directly below the "ladies’ cabin."
Almost before anyone could respond, the vessel was engulfed in flame. The pilot tried to ground the boat but was only partially successful. Despite the fire, the engines of the boat kept running, so she was nosed up to the bank so the crew could rescue the passengers and get them ashore.
According to one eyewitness, "The children and ladies had either to come down with ropes or be let fall from a height of 13 tiers of cotton bales into the arms of those below on the main deck, then jump to the shore."
A remarkable story of heroism was told during the week after the disaster by the father of one of the boat’s passengers, a 9-year-old girl whose name, unfortunately, has been lost. "All speak in the highest praise of the conduct of my daughter, not yet 10 years old," he wrote. "She neither cried nor screamed, but stood upon a pile of cotton, holding one of her little cousins (boys) by each hand, exhorting them not to cry or jump, nor would she leave the burning wreck until she saw them safely landed; she then, in the most self-possessed manner, asked if there was any person that would save her?"
The father went on to describe how a member of the crew, "at the risk of his life," nobly responded ‘I will.’ Leaping onto the flaming decks, the man "snatched her from the very jaws of death."
According to eyewitnesses, the Eagle completely disappeared into the waters of the Chattahoochee. Her cargo was a total loss. "In 15 minutes from the first discovery of the fire," wrote one witness, "nothing was to be seen of the Eagle or cargo but a few blackened particles of cotton. All that was done to save life was done in five minutes."
The total loss in the destruction of the Eagle was estimated at $100,000, a remarkable sum for the time. A total of four people – three men and one woman - lost their lives. All were members of the crew, but their names remain unknown.
The wreck was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Jackson County, but also gave rise to a story of heroism that lingers down through the ages.
Editor’s Note: Writer and historian Dale Cox is the author of the new book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One. To read more of his writings, please visit the "Local History" section at our web site www.jacksoncountytimes.net.