An Eye on the Lower Muskingum: Surviving items from Buckeye Belle

It was a dark, cold afternoon on November 12, 1852, when the side-wheel steamer Buckeye Belle came up the Muskingum River on her way to Zanesville. About 5 p.m., while the boat was turning slightly to steer into the guard locks in the upper end of the Beverly canal, there was a terrible explosion that shook the recently incorporated little village of Beverly.

The event happened at a time when transportation was at a turning point. Mail along the Muskingum River was still delivered by stagecoach. Railroads had been built other places, but it would be nearly two years before the Central Ohio Railroad from Wheeling to Zanesville was finished. The Buckeye Belle had been recently built in Marietta and the Dan Converse in Pennsylvania with hopes that they would provide faster and more reliable mail service. Steamboats continued for years, but more people supported the construction of railroads after this calamity. Eventually railroads won, but in time, when it came to carrying the mail, they were replaced too.

Survivors of the Buckeye Belle later stated that the boilers had unknowingly overheated and that they contained too much steam and not enough water. Newspaper accounts give varying accounts of the causalities. One printed in the Zanesville Signal on November 12 and 13, 1885 (and reprinted in The McConnelsville Herald on November 18, 1892), is an account by a survivor, Pius J. Padgitt (1836-1894). He was blown at least seventy-five feet to the end of the boat and was scalded by steam from the top of his head to his boots. He states: “Forty persons in all were killed or wounded. Twenty were killed instantly or died during the night, and six died afterwards from wounds, making twenty-six deaths. Thirteen bodies, if I recollect right, of unknown persons were buried side by side in the Beverly graveyard. Portions of human bodies were found lying scattered about in various directions along the shore, and these were gathered and placed in a large rough box and buried.” A plaque is mounted on a large stone in the oldest part of the Beverly Cemetery which describes this terrible catastrophe.

Captain Harry Stull, an old river man, was one of the owners of the boat. The officers were James Hahn, captain; Cal R. Stull, pilot; Milt Whissen, chief clerk; William Stull, second clerk; and William Barrell, fireman.

Pius Padgitt describes the scene after he regained conscious-ness, ” . . . there arose the most piercing, heart rending cries and groans that ever fell upon mortal ear. Even after the lapse of years I can hear the agonizing screams and expiring groans of those suffering, dying men.” Padgitt says that the summer after the accident, large fragments of the boilers, each weighing over five hundred pounds, were recovered just below the dam. They had been blown at least one hundred yards.

Four items, believed to be artifacts from the Buckeye Belle or have an association with the ill-faded boat, are owned by the Lower Muskingum Historical Society and displayed at the Oliver Tucker Museum in Beverly. One cannot be considered more important than the others, since each is so unique. There is a wooden frame name plate containing the faded words “Memory of the Buckeye Belle” written on old, brown parchment-like paper, which is covered by broken glass. On the top are two eye hooks that were used to hang it. The name plate was reportedly found across the river nearly one quarter mile away on what was later the George and William Nixon farm. The word “Memory of . . .” on this item adds mystery to its true origin.

Another item is the rolling pin from the kitchen of the Buckeye Belle. It is 23 inches long and 3 1/2 inches in diameter in the center. Lindsey M. Leget found it along the canal the day of the explosion. It is so well made that it remains nearly in perfect condition.

The Museum also owns a very primitive looking life preserver. It is described as “1850’s” and “from Beverly.” Newspapers previously stated that it came from the Buckeye Belle. It is made entirely of wood and measures 42 inches long, 17 inches wide and 1 inches thick. A steamboat safety act was passed by Congress early in 1852. The act required life preservers and other safety equipment on steamboats, which seems to support that this life preserver could have been on the Buckeye Belle.

There is also a railing that was once part of the boat. Since there are no known pictures or descriptions of items on the Buckeye Belle, the authenticity of all these items depends completely on the statements given by the donors.

There is a historical marker that describes the event about one half mile from the Museum and near the Beverly canal where the explosion occurred. The Buckeye Bell, at 164 feet long and 35 feet wide, was the largest side-wheel boat to ply the waters of the Muskingum River. The tragedy is considered the worst in the history of navigation on this river. After reading about the Buckeye Belle, viewing and even touching the four heirlooms at the Museum, people today will have a better understanding of this disaster.

Phillip L. Crane, a Waterford resident and Marietta history teacher for 32 years, will share stories of historical events that occurred in the Lower Muskingum Valley. His column will appear every other week.