Before airplanes, trucks, cars or even railroads brought people and supplies, steamboats paddled up and down the Tombigbee River to connect Columbus with the rest of the world. During this time, the Eliza Battle ruled the river, until the river claimed the Eliza Battle.
Local historian Rufus Ward Jr., author of several books about the early days of Columbus and the surrounding area, shared the story of the Eliza Battle with the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday. The story is featured prominently in his forthcoming book about steamboats: “Rollodores, Dead-Heads & Side-Wheelers.”
He began with an admission that prior to his six years of research on the topic, even he had no idea the impact that steamboats had on Columbus in the 1800s. And the Eliza Battle was no exception.
Of the 200 or so boats that ran the line from Mobile, Ala., to Columbus and back through the years, the Eliza Battle was not only the most glamorous, but the most interesting.
It gained an early reputation as a lucky charm by surviving a fire on one occasion when the 2,000 bales of cotton it was hauling caught fire, and on other occasions offloaded its cargo only to find out the warehouse where the load had been transferred burned down.
“It was charmed. Several times it had emerged unscathed,” said Ward.
But in February 1858, the Eliza Battle”s luck ran out.
The ship was again carrying a full load of cotton, along with approximately 100 guests and crew, on a calm, warm February day. But as the ship stopped to pick up a passenger in Pickensville, the weather took a turn for the worse, dropping 40 degrees in two hours.
While the guests remained warm near stoves in their quarters, icicles began to form on the ship”s exterior and water splashing on the decks from the river froze almost instantly.
As the Eliza Battle passed another steamship, the Warrior, sparks from the passing vessel”s smokestack landed amongst the Eliza Battle”s cotton bales and slowly caught fire.
Soon, crew members were running from room to room warning passengers of the fire, but they had nowhere to go when the lone lifeboat caught fire.
The ship”s captain ordered the boat be steered toward the bank, but it could only veer east because the west bank was too steep to climb.
As the boat attempted to steer toward the east bank, which had flooded with the rising river when the weather turned, the crew discovered the ship”s control ropes had burned through and they no longer had control.
The Eliza Battle would have careened down river if it hadn”t run into a large oak tree, which passengers frantically climbed to escape the burning ship.
Ward says several families in Columbus still tell stories of an ancestor who survived in the tree, although many did not.
The story of the Eliza Battle made headlines as far north as The New York Times. But a story in the Gainesville Independent, which Ward read aloud, chronicled that harrowing night through interviews conducted with survivors.
In the story, survivors recalled the splashing sound of frozen bodies falling into the river as the night wore on.
Some papers reported as many as 100 crew and passengers died that night, but Ward says The New York Times” estimate of 33 is likely closer to the truth. Among the documented victims of the Eliza Battle are one Columbus citizen and two from West Point.
The following morning, survivors were plucked from the tree and the river by local citizens and slaves.
A subsequent congressional review of the incident concluded the ship should have been equipped with more lifeboats. Ward theorized the investigation into the ship”s sinking would have turned out differently if it happened in modern times.
“There were no lawsuits. In fact, the people thanked the crew,” he said.
Ward says the story of the Eliza Battle, now immortalized as a ghost story, is “probably one of the most horrific things to happen in this region.”
Ward, a seasoned historian and researcher, plans to offer a lecture at Mississippi University for Women explaining how to conduct historical research with local resources.
Through local documents, shipping logs, in particular, Ward discovered a direct link between Columbus and Europe. Those records, he says, show more shipping routes from Mobile to and from Liverpool, England and Glasgow, Scotland, than to Boston. Which, he suggests, means European products and styles found their way to Columbus as quickly as they did the East Coast.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.