What is Lurking at the Bottom of Caddo Lake?
It's still one of the greatest mysteries of the Civil War era. What had begun as a routine trip from Shreveport to Jefferson, Texas ended in one of the largest inland boating accidents of all time.
Exactly what happened to the steamboat Mittie Stephens? And are any of her remains still lying on the bottom of Caddo Lake?
It was February 11, 1869 around 4 in the afternoon when the former Union sidewheel steamboat steamed out of Shreve's Port on the Red River on it's way to Jefferson, Texas, on what would be her final voyage.
As was common in America in the mid-1800's, not only was the Mittie Stephens loaded with over 100 affluent passengers and crew, she also carried government goods including $100,00 payroll for Union troops, gunpowder and a large quantity of hay.
The ship turned off the Red River, then made her way up through Twelve Mile Bayou and briefly stopped at Mooring's Port on Ferry Lake, now known as Caddo Lake. Once again steaming towards Jefferson, as the boat approached Swanson's Landing, crewmen discovered smoke rising from the hay atop the ship.
In an article from KYTX CBS 19, we learn from Ron Holloman, a Mittie Stephens historian:
It was almost midnight, but the captain wanted to make Jefferson by morning. He ordered the fire baskets lit. “These big wrought iron baskets stuck out; it lit the way, big burning torch on the front," Hollomon said. A spark ignited the bales. “The problem with this fast moving fire, combustibles on board, was at the front, captain steered it in toward the bank which was common procedure during an emergency like that, leave it under full throttle, so paddles are churning," Holloman said. “If you jumped off the sides the wheels are turning, big paddles, it was a side wheeler, people were getting pulled in that and killed, drowned." Sixty-four people died in the watery grave. “It's like the Titanic. Any disaster, loss of life, great loss of life, it appeals to people.”
And according to CaddoLakeDrawBridge.com:
Eyewitness accounts of the disaster gave a glimpse of the passengers and crew that statistics cannot furnish. Stories began to emerge of greed and heroism, of mass graves and mistaken identities. For many years, the hull of the Mittie Stephens could be seen lying in the mud. A few items were salvaged from the wreckage with the most valuable being the ship's bell, which is currently on display in a museum in nearby Jefferson, Texas.
And again from KYTX CBS 19:
Over the years, some reported seeing the Mittie Stephens' remains. "The mud we have in this area, it's best at preserving things," Hollomon said. A research team only found oil-field debris. “So much trash is down there when they tried to hunt it down there were too many anomalies.” It's a disaster that continues to spark people's imagination.