By Dale Cox
Neals Landing – The disaster aboard the steamboat Eagle was one of the greatest tragedies of the paddlewheel steamboat era on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. In addition to the multiple deaths and injuries, a massive cash shipment went to the bottom with her.
The Eagle was a massive paddlewheel boat. Nearly 150 feet long and rated at 200 tons, she was one of the finest vessels in use on the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint river system. She was less than two years old when she left Columbus, Georgia, on her way down to Apalachicola, Florida, on the morning of January 28, 1854.
The cargo o the vessel included 1,303 bales of cotton and her cabins were filled with passengers, many of them children. Additional cargo and passengers were taken aboard as she made her way downstream making stops at such points as Eufaula, Fort Gaines and Saffold. The cotton buying season was at an end and she also carried hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold being sent from cotton merchants in Columbus and planters along the river to banks in New York.
Disaster struck as the boat approached Neals Landing (then spelled Neal’s Landing) in the northeast corner of Jackson County, Florida. The landing was an important port facility for farmers and planters in Jackson County and adjacent areas of Southeast Alabama and Southwest Georgia. Operated by the Neel/Neal family since the 1830s, it offered a warehouse, hotel, stores, sawmill, cotton gin, ferry crossing and more.
The Eagle rounded the last bend north of the landing and began her slow approach by reducing speed and moving closer to the west bank near the mouth of Irwin’s Mill Creek. The crew was focused on bringing the boat safely up to the landing when someone suddenly cried out that there was a fire on board.
The cause of the blaze was never determined, but the captain and mate quickly discovered that flames were roaring from an area on the lower deck behind the engine room and directly below the “ladies’ cabin.” The paint and lacquer that made the boat so beautiful also made it a death trap in the event of fire. Faster than anyone could have imagined, the entire vessel burst into flame.
The pilot tried to ground the boat so the passengers and crew could get off but was only successful in steering her in the right direction before the fire drove him from the pilot house. Fortunately for some, the engines kept running even as the engine room was engulfed in flames. The Eagle nosed herself up to the bank and the crew rescued as many people as they could.
One eyewitness wrote that “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 shore.”
One remarkable story of heroism was told during the week after the disaster by the father of one of the boat’s passengers. His daughter, only 9 years old, remained calm and saved her small cousins before thinking of herself:
All speak in the highest praise of the conduct of my daughter, not 10 years old. She neither cried nor screamed, but stood upon a pile of cotton, holding one of her little cousins (boys) by each hand, exorting 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?
A member of the crew, “at the risk of his life,” responded that he would and leaped from safety onto the flaming decks and climbed up to where the little girl remained calmly even though she was surrounded by fire. The unidentified crewman ran through a wall of flame, reached the young woman, and “snatched her from the very jaws of death.”
Other witnesses described how the Eagle completely disappeared into the waters of the Chattahoochee River in less than 15 minutes. Her cargo was a total loss. One survivor told newspaper editors that when he reached shore, “nothing was to be seen of the Eagle or cargo but a few blackened particles of cotton.”
Four people died in the disaster, three men and one woman. All were members of the crew who sacrificed their own lives to save their passengers. “All that was done to save life,” reported an eyewitness, “was done in five minutes.”
The financial loss from the destruction of the Eagle was estimated at $100,000 in gold, a remarkable sum for the time. In modern terms,by comparing the $10 per ounce price of gold in 1954 to today’s $1,200 per ounce price, the loss equals around $6 million. And that was just the beginning.
Carried somewhere on board the Eagle was an estimated $200,000 in gold deposits being sent to northern banks by cotton merchants and planters. Using the same formula as applied in the paragraph above, the modern value of this shipment is roughly $12 million.
So what happened to the gold? No one really knows. An effort was made to find and salvage it after the wreck but Columbus newspapers of the time were silent on the results of the expedition, a likely indication that the project failed. If so, then somewhere on the bottom of the Chattahoochee River near Neals landing, an unbelievable treasure of some $12 million in cold lies buried in the mud along with the charred wreckage of the steamboat Eagle.
Neals Landing is now a pretty park area on the banks of the Chattahoochee River just off State Road 2 in Jackson County, Florida. The recreation area offers a boat ramp, fishing, picnicking and camping and is managed by Jackson County Parks & Recycling. An interpretive kiosk near the boat ramp tells some of the history of the site. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions.
This free video will show you what a paddlewheel riverboat looks like. This is the Samuel Floyd, a beautifully restored vessel now owned by the Apalachicola Maritime Museum: