Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mystery remains over missing Orline St. John steamboat gold

This coming Sunday – March 5 – will mark the 167th anniversary of the worst disaster in Wilcox County history – and the beginning of one of its most enduring mysteries.

It was on the evening of March 5, 1850 that the Orline St. John, a 349-ton side-wheel steamboat, overloaded with over 120 passengers and crew and tons of valuable cargo, caught fire and burned on the Alabama River, about three miles north of Bridgeport Landing, not far from Camden. This ill-fated steamboat, which was built in Louisville, Ky. in 1847, was on its way from Mobile to Montgomery when it burst into flames after sparks, most likely from the ship’s boilers, ignited its cargo of highly flammable, resin-soaked pine logs. In a matter of minutes, this “floating tinderbox” was engulfed in flames.

Capt. Timothy Meaher
The ship’s crew, led by Capt. Timothy Meaher, a native of Maine who moved to Mobile in the late 1830s, ran the ship aground, but not before many aboard burned alive or drowned after jumping into the cold, muddy waters of the Alabama River. In all, at least 40 people lost their lives on the final voyage of the Orline St. John, including every woman and child aboard. In the aftermath, some bodies were found weeks later as far as 75 miles downriver.

On the fateful evening of March 5, the ship was loaded with a wide variety of passengers from all walks of life, and its first-class cabins were filled with members of high society. Those on board included Camden co-founder Dr. John Daniel Caldwell, Mobile bookseller F.H. Brooks, prominent planter Joseph Addison Cammack, Mrs. John Hall of Georgia, the beautiful Miss Laura Hall of St. Louis, Judge George F. Lindsay of Mobile, the wealthy Col. J.W. Preston of South Carolina and printer Thomas Stephen as well as an untold number of slaves.

Also on board were a number of California gold-diggers, including Preston Noland and Edward Maul, and Rodman M. Price, a purser for the U.S. Navy. Sources say that Price, who became governor of New Jersey in 1854, was traveling on the Orline St. John with $250,000 in government gold while Noland and Maul were on their way home from the California “gold rush” with bags of gold dust inside a strongbox. Sources say that Noland’s loss amounted to $10,000 and there’s no telling how much gold the other miners were transporting.

Rodman M. Price
The ship, baggage and cargo were almost entirely destroyed as the burned wreckage of the Orline St. John sank below the deep, dark waters of the Alabama River. Adjusted for inflation, $250,000 in 1850 government gold would be worth more than $7.5 million today, while $10,000 in gold dust would be worth more than $300,000. These figures don’t take into account the other unknown amounts of gold and the other valuables that sources say were aboard the Orline St. John when it burned and sank.

Fast forward to the late summer of 1954 when a drought caused the river to fall, and two local fishermen, including the late William Harris of Possum Bend, discovered the lost ship’s hull near the muddy riverbank. What ensued was the first of multiple salvage attempts, and while a number of interesting artifacts were found, sources say that the lost gold was never recovered. Objects that were found included silver coins, a gold watch, pocket knives, door knobs and china emblazoned with the name of the boat.

Today, the most visible remnant of the Orline St. John disaster can be found in the historic Camden Cemetery. Just a short walk from the Fall Street entrance to the graveyard, you’ll find a pile of old bricks over what is said to be a mass grave where the victims of the Orline St. John riverboat tragedy were laid to rest. In recent years, a new marker has been erected over this gravesite, providing visitors with information about the worst – and most mysterious – disaster in Wilcox County history.

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