River Tragedies: A Brief History Of Cape Girardeau And Unlucky Steamboats


The third “Cape Girardeau” steamboat. Photo courtesy of Keith Norrington and the Howard Steamboat Museum.

Cape Girardeau is the largest city with a port between St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately, tragedy has befallen steamboats traveling by Cape Girardeau. The city also has had three unlucky steamboats carry the city’s namesake, all of which have sank.

1. In the early morning of Nov. 19, 1847, the steamboats Talisman and Tempest collided near Cape Girardeau. The Talisman suffered severe damage and sank soon after the collision. The Tempest attempted to aid the Talisman’s crew and passengers, but 51 passengers are known to have drowned.

2. In January 1848, the steamboat Sea Bird exploded on the Cape Girardeau waterfront. Reports vary, but the ship was probably carrying between 1,200-1,500 barrels of gunpowder. The boat was on its way to St. Louis, but encountered impassable conditions on the Mississippi River. The crew docked the boat at Cape Girardeau for the night. At about 3 a.m. that morning, the ship caught on fire. Attempts to suppress the fire were unsuccessful and the ship exploded about an hour later. The explosion reportedly shattered many windows in the area.

3. In October 1886, the steamboat La Mascotte exploded at Neely’s Ridge north of Cape Girardeau. The boat was traveling south from St. Louis and had been involved in a previous accident. This apparently caused its boilers to explode and is responsible for at least 18 deaths and many injuries. Among the dead was the presiding judge of the Cape Girardeau County Court William Hagar and his wife.

4. The River Queen was originally the third ship with the namesake “Cape Girardeau.” The first “Cape Girardeau” steamboat was built in 1889 and sank in 1910 near Chester, Ill. The second Cape Girardeau steamboat was built in 1893 and it also sank near Chester in 1916. The third Cape Girardeau steamboat was dedicated on the Cape riverfront. After being sold and renamed twice, the River Queen became a restaurant that traveled to various cities. It also sank north of the Eads Bridge that connects St. Louis to East St. Louis, Ill.


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