The disastrous winter exactly 100 years ago was a perfect storm involving weather, politics and war. Nowhere in the United States was it more damaging than on the Ohio River and the other navigable rivers. Steamboats, barges and other floating equipment were attacked by masses of ice the likes of which river veterans had never seen. There was destruction from West Virginia on down to Vicksburg, Miss.
Harsh winter weather hit the Upper Mississippi River in early December 1917. At some points the river had frozen over by December 5. The air temperature was 10 degrees below zero by the 14th. The severe temperature was accompanied by a strong northwest wind, plus a 4-inch snowfall.
By December 8, ice had completely blocked the Ohio River above Cincinnati. The next day a “ferocious blizzard” struck Louisville, dropping 16 inches of snow in less than 15 hours.
By December 15, the Ohio River was described as being “chock-full of ice,” and navigation was suspended. It was impossible to bring much-needed coal out of the Kanawha River down to Cincinnati or points farther downstream.
If there was ever a worst time for the worst winter on record to happen, this was it. The entire country was already experiencing a coal shortage—and almost every region used coal for heating, electrical generation and transportation. The shortage was caused in part by over-reliance on railroads over the years, and the resulting deterioration of river transportation.
But the coal shortage was caused more directly by the U.S. entry into World War I. Washington had decided that coal was needed for America’s warships and troop and supply ships, as well as to supply fuel for military operations in Europe. Congress had passed the emergency wartime Food and Fuel Control Act in August 1917, to control production, distribution and prices. A national fuel administrator and state and county administrators were appointed.
In New Orleans, the electric utility company warned that “every individual and every firm must cut the consumption of coal, gas, electricity and power down to rock-bottom to avoid bringing on an alarming situation.” Mayor Behrman went to Washington “on a mission on behalf of a coal supply for the city.” The fuel administrator told him and officials from other cities that war industries would be given first consideration; others “will have to suffer.”
But farther upriver, local and state officials were taking matters into their own hands. Some of their citizens were literally freezing. At the small town of Carrollton, Ky., population then about 2,000, two barges of Kanawha River coal brought downriver by the towboat Eugene D. Smith were confiscated by the mayor as soon as the tow landed there, at the mouth of the Kentucky River.
At Pittsburgh, a whole tow of coal barges ready to be dispatched downriver by the Diamond Coal Company was confiscated. The barges with their 7,500 tons of coal were to be unloaded “as quickly as possible” for local consumption.
In Ohio, state authorities began wholesale confiscation of coal that the federal fuel administrator had consigned to other states. A compromise was reached between Ohio and federal authorities allowing the state to take over railroad coal shipments that were tied up in rail gridlock throughout the state.
Freezing and desperation hit the East Coast, too. At Newport News, Va., hundreds of cold and desperate men, women and children were driven off by military police when they tried to seize coal shipments at the docks that were destined for the war. By the next day, the ice there at Hampton Roads became so thick that all shipping, including sorely needed coal barges, came to a halt.
In New York City, hundreds of people were standing in long lines for hours just to get a few pounds of coal for home heating. City officials pleaded with the fuel administrator for more coal, citing 54 deaths in one day from pneumonia. At the same time, there were coal barges in plain sight, stuck in the ice on the Hudson River.
Conditions on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers continued to worsen. By the third week of December, the Lower Mississippi as far south as Memphis had been closed to navigation because of ice gorges. On December 16, an ice gorge at Osceola, Ark., was about 10 miles long. Most of the steamboats in Memphis harbor were aground. The Osceola gorge upstream had the river blocked, and the gage at Memphis was registering below zero.
The Ohio River was frozen from bank to bank in several places, but a few boats were able to get barges moving. On January 3, 1918, the towboat D.T. Lane managed to break through the ice on the Kanawha River with a coal tow and head for Cincinnati. The Lane made it as far as Vanceburg, Ky., a little more than halfway to Cincinnati, but had to tie up because of the ice.
Some boats had begun “railroading” their tows—pulling astern instead of pushing ahead. With the barges strung out single-file on a string, the steamboat at the head acted as an icebreaker. These paddlewheel towboats had lightweight wooden hulls, though, so this only worked for a while. The ice was getting worse.
At Fairmont, W.Va., where the West Fork River feeds into the Monongahela, one chunk of ice was measured at 26 inches thick. At some spots on the shallow West Fork, the water was frozen solid to the river bottom.
By the second week of January, more than 200 miles of gorged ice blocked the Ohio River. Ice on the Ohio tends to be thinner than on the Upper Mississippi, but that means that a sheet of ice can cut through a wooden hull like a knife through butter.
That’s what started to happen up and down the river as ice floes tumbled downstream, collided, and shoved each other—and vessels—against the banks. Where the ice bunched up in a bottleneck, it formed a gorge that not only stopped traffic, but stopped up the river’s flow as well.
In Cincinnati, by the third week of January, there were at least 59 barges strung out in the ice gorge there and partly wrecked. The big sidewheel packet City of Cincinnati was sunk partly out on shore with a 30-foot-long hole in the hull. The Hattie Brown was out in the middle of the river in the gorge and the steamers Lucinda and Corker, a ferryboat and a wharf boat were all partly out on the bank at the city wharf.
In Evansville, where the snowfall was especially heavy, the Ohio River froze so hard that pedestrians and wagons were walking or rolling right across.
By this time, the Mississippi River at St. Louis was also blocked and frozen, with ice piling up. There were several gorges between St. Louis and Cairo. The Ohio and Mississippi both were gorged at Cairo.
So much ice was flowing out of the upper rivers that steamboating on the Lower Mississippi was curtailed. With the streams’ flow plugged up, several steamboats were grounded at Cairo, including the Sprague. Two small steamboats were sunk by the ice at Memphis. The river at Vicksburg froze on January 24. Low water caused by the upstream gorges was shutting down some riverfront businesses.
The Ice Breaks
The situation began to change toward the end of January, with slightly warmer temperatures and rain. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than an ice-clogged river is when the ice starts breaking loose and careening downstream. That’s what started to happen as snowmelt and rain freed up the ice gorges.
The afternoon of January 28, the frozen Monongahela River at Fairmont, W.Va., began to rise. Around 10 p.m. that night, the rise freed up the ice and it slowly began to move. Shortly after midnight, a gorge downriver gave way, and the ice floes floated on down, causing little damage. The Monongahela had been iced up at that point for 52 days.
Also on the 28th, the ice broke at Point Pleasant at around 6 p.m., and “all boats and hands were in readiness to fight it.” Almost all the boats in port had steam up, and “the entire populace of Point Pleasant” came out in the cold to see the break. An old codger named Capt. Ed Burnside was in charge of one of the fleets, and “for once the old-time steamboatman was ‘stumped’—he had to admit it was the worst he ever saw in his day.” About 20 barges were lost to the ice at Point Pleasant.
In the wee hours the next day, down toward the lower end of the Ohio, the people of Paducah woke to the deafening roar of ice shooting downriver. The noise could be heard 25 miles away in Mayfield, Ky. Ice also began moving out of the Monongahela River that same day, January 29. This was critical because of the large amount of coal that had been ready for shipment for a month.
The following morning, January 30, the ice finally broke at Cincinnati, running wild for five hours and leaving the harbor a veritable graveyard of passenger steamers, coal barges and other vessels.
The ice stopped flowing past Cincinnati at around 4 p.m. when it all ran into gorges downstream at Fernbank, Delhi and Medoc Bar. These were not just thin sheets of ice. A gorge just a few more miles downriver at North Bend was piled up 30 to 40 feet high. These blockages caused water to back up a full 90 miles on the Licking River, opposite Cincinnati.
Just minutes before midnight on the 30th, the downriver gorges “broke with a crash,” sending a wall of water down to Fernbank Dam, causing a rise there of 4 feet in 15 minutes. The breaking of those gorges swept a fleet of 50 coal barges off their moorings. This also started ice flowing past Cincinnati again.
On the ways at Cincinnati was the steamer Greenland, the only sidewheel packet left on the upper Ohio River, built 15 years earlier and just finishing up a three-month overhaul. The master was Capt. Mary B. Greene of the Greene Line. She had commanded the Greenland for several years and had made the boat her summer home. She had raised her children on board until they were old enough to go off to school.
When the gorges broke and the river rose, fresh chunks of ice actually knocked the Greenland off the ways, sending the unfinished boat into the channel and sinking it. Nearby, an Ohio River steamboat master with a half century of experience said he had never seen such a thing. The Greenland was described as the pride of its company fleet and “one of the best boats on the Ohio.” It was a total loss.
The Army Engineers’ steamboat Ottawa put up a “heroic fight” to protect the wharves and vessels at Cincinnati’s public landing. The government boat was moored to the wharf with a steel-hull flat on the bow to break oncoming ice. Before the hours-long ordeal was over, all the paddles were torn off the Ottawa’s sternwheel, but by then the wreck of the packet steamer City of Louisville was lodged at an angle across the head of the dock, helping to divert the ice.
Two miles downriver at Ludlow, the Island Creek Coal Company lost its entire fleet, including 40 empty coal barges.
Damage at Cincinnati alone was estimated at $300,000.
At Maysville, Ky., the river rose rapidly that same day because of the gorge at Fernbank Dam, about 75 miles downriver. The river at Maysville crested at 44 feet just before noon, then began receding when the gorge downriver broke. The moving ice caused a spectacle, carrying all kinds of river craft, about 75 in total passing by Maysville. Among them was the Point Pleasant drydock, which kept floating at least past Cincinnati. Because of the current, the government boats at Maysville kept up full steam to relieve tension on their mooring lines.
Upriver, the contractor building Dam 31, between present-day Greenup and Meldahl locks, lost all its floating equipment when the gorge broke—a sternwheeler, three pump boats, four dredge boats, 10 barges, two sand and gravel diggers and several launches. River interests at Cairo had been nervously awaiting the break of the ice gorge at Columbus, Ky., about 25 miles downstream. It broke about noon on January 30, sending numerous derrick boats, barges, and so on either to the bottom or to points south. The river had risen very rapidly that day, but after the gorge at Columbus broke there was a rapid fall of about 10 feet in four hours.
At Carrollton, Ky., several steamboats were wintering in the mouth of the Kentucky River, usually a safe harbor, but they were sunk by the ice, and coal barges were broken loose and in some cases sunk.
Down at Paducah, a gorge in the Tennessee River broke and wrought havoc, destroying the steamboats Alton, Grey Eagle, Spread Eagle and Peoria, among others. Steamboatmen had used the mouth of the Tennessee River for decades as a safe winter harbor—the Duck’s Nest, as they called it—so the disaster there came as a surprise.
Way upriver on February 1 at Wheeling, W.Va., there was panic when the Ohio River, at 14 feet and falling, suddenly started rising at the rate of 18 inches per hour. An ice blockage about 30 miles downriver was the culprit, causing the river to rise 7 feet in just a few hours. The local flood bureau warned that the stage could reach 30 or 40 feet, but instead the gorge broke that night. The river flowed, and a major flood at Wheeling was averted, but not without the loss of the steamer Ruth. The Ruth was one of the oldest and largest packet steamboats on the Upper Ohio. It had been tied up at McMechen below Wheeling for several days, and was crushed and sunk by the ice shortly before the gorge broke.
On the night of February 8, the ice gorges broke at Stewart Island, 18 miles above Paducah. The next day, the greatest stretch of ice ever seen at Paducah was passing downstream. The gorge that had done thousands of dollars’ worth of damage upstream reached Paducah at about 4 p.m. on the February 9. Vessels in the harbor hurried into the Tennessee River for protection.
At Paducah itself, the ice broke at 2:15 a.m. Capt. Floyd Burris, master of the Josh Cook, said he had never in all of his life heard such a crashing of timbers. The Josh Cook was carried away and sank just below Joppa, Ill.
Capts. Harry and “Buck” Leyhe and the crew of the steamboat Peoria had narrow escapes with their lives when the ice broke the Peoria from its moorings. The roof of the boat was covered with sleet, and the Leyhes had to crawl on hands and knees. The crew eventually waded through ice and frigid water to telephone for help.
The steamer American of Chattanooga was in drydock at Paducah when the ice carried it away. The drydock with the American on board were carried through the Metropolis and Cairo bridges, and were not seen for days.
There was such a parade of breakaways knocking and banging and careening downriver, men stood on bridges near Cairo just counting and trying to identify steamboats and barges and everything else as it all flew by.
A thaw finally set in, and by mid-February, steamboat traffic was able to resume in earnest for the first time in two months. The J.T. Hatfield passed Gallipolis, Ohio, downbound on February 8 with 21 barges of Kanawha coal for Cincinnati, the first shipment in weeks. The steamer Dakota left St. Louis for Baton Rouge on February 16, running two days in heavy ice until it got below Cairo.
Altogether, the ice disaster on the Ohio sank at least nine packet boats, six towboats and seven ferryboats. Some of the lost steamers had only recently been repaired or refurbished. The Princess, for example, wrecked by the ice at Carrollton, had been rebuilt the previous year at a cost of $30,000.
The damage extended well downstream. At Memphis, the ice sank the packet steamers Georgia Brown and DeSoto. The ice floes got as far as Helena, Ark., sinking the steamer Ed Meyer there.
Also lost were many wharf boats—what passed for docking and storage facilities in river towns back then. As The Waterways Journal put it at the time, “The ice has seemingly had a particular spite against wharf boats this winter. The following wharf boats have been reported sunk: Marietta, Steubenville, Catlettsburg, Ashland, Manchester and Charleston.” By the time the ice disaster had done its work, there were only five wharf boats left on the Ohio between Point Pleasant and Cincinnati, making for delays right when the packet steamers were ready to start running again.
Only four coal tipples out of a total of 14 escaped damage of any kind in the ice gorge in the fifth pool of the Monongahela River. It would be months before coal could be shipped from the mines there.
For weeks, The Waterways Journal was carrying ads from upriver interests asking folks downriver to notify them if their missing equipment was found.
The drydock that had broken away from Paducah—with the steamer American on board—was found at Fulton, Tenn., having landed intact just as it had started.
That had been a trip of more than 200 miles.
That was by no means the longest breakaway journey. At the mouth of the Green River just above Evansville, Ind., the steamer H.P. Fletcher intercepted and secured a large section of the Enterprise Docks from Point Pleasant, with a utility wharf boat still perched atop the floating docks. The ice had broken the docks loose from near the mouth of the Kanawha River. Over a period of five or six weeks, the runaway flotilla managed to run all the locks, bridges and islands from Point Pleasant on down, and even over the Louisville Falls, in all a distance of more than 500 miles.
By the middle of March, the weather and the fuel shortage had moderated. Coal restrictions were temporarily abated. Attention turned to the fiasco of overburdened and gridlocked railroad facilities. Because of a shortage of train cars, 131 coal mines in West Virginia and 11,000 miners had been idle. More than 100 ships loaded with munitions and supplies for the war in Europe had been sitting in New York harbor for more than a month, lacking bunker coal to get underway.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Ransdell of Louisiana argued that there had been in reality no shortage of coal, but only a failure of transportation, and “if the waterways of the United States had been improved and utilized, as they should have been, all this suffering might have been avoided.”
The Great War eventually ended with the armistice signed in November 1918. Americans didn’t have to struggle to survive another winter with their heating fuel diverted to Europe, and the river trade was able to get to work rebuilding and improving.
Editor’s note: Daniel Hubbell is a writer and historian living in Berkeley, Calif.