Subchapter M Is The Latest In A Series Of Marine Regulatory Systems

This year’s implementation of Subchapter M towing vessel regulations is a major milestone, but it’s not the first time that regulatory agencies, Congress and the marine industry have hashed out historic changes. In fact, the introduction of steam power on the waterways in the early 1800s—and the too-frequent fatal boiler explosions on steamboats—are what prompted the federal government’s very first forays into regulation of industry in the interest of public safety.

Not long after Fulton’s steamboat New Orleans first transited the Ohio and Lower Mississippi rivers in 1811, scientists and other “technically knowledgeable members of society” began calling on Congress to institute regulations and inspections to reduce the carnage on the waterways caused mostly by exploding boilers.

Between 1825 and 1830, there were 42 boiler explosions, killing more than 270 people. In 1830, the disaster on the steamer Helen McGregor near Memphis killed at least 50 people. Congress found this disturbing enough to ask the secretary of the Treasury to investigate the boiler accidents.

The secretary’s inquiries elicited many possible causes of boiler explosions, as well as the simple fact that steamboat trips from New Orleans to Louisville had been shortened from 25 to 12 days, without any increase in the strength of the boilers. More than one respondent complained that the engineers in charge of the boilers were “ignorant, careless and usually drunk.”

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President Andrew Jackson was concerned enough about the situation that he said in his 1833 State of the Nation address to Congress, “The many distressing accidents which have of late occurred in that portion of our navigation carried on by the use of steam power deserve the immediate and unremitting attention of the constituted authorities of the country. The fact that the number of those fatal disasters is constantly increasing … shows very clearly that they are in a great degree the result of criminal negligence.”

Members of the scientific community on their own investigated the steamboat accidents and proposed legislation to prevent them. But for decades, Congress was hesitant to take action. Between 1831 and 1838, four members of Congress were killed in steamboat explosions, yet Congress was still reluctant to act.

The major reason for this inaction was that there was no precedent for it. The United States was (or “were,” as they said back then) a new nation, and the federal government was supposed to be limited in its powers.

In 1838, several tragedies finally provoked Congress to act. On April 21, the steamer Oronoko stopped to pick up passengers at Princeton, Miss., about 30 miles downriver from Greenville. A flue collapsed, sending jets of steam the whole length of the main deck. Passengers, crew and deck cargo were blasted overboard. Some of the people were scalded to death. More than 100 passengers were killed.

Four days later, the steamer Moselle, with at least 235 passengers and a crew of 30, got underway at Cincinnati. Just off the dock, Moselle’s boilers exploded with such intensity that bodies were flung onto the roofs of nearby houses. A total of 136 people died.

On June 18, the boilers exploded aboard the steamboat Pulaski, running between Baltimore and Charleston. Again, more than 100 passengers were killed.

The 1838 Law

Less than a month later, on July 7, 1838, Congress finally passed first-of-its-kind legislation to protect “the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.” Owners or masters were required to employ “experienced and skillful” engineers, to have the hulls of their vessels inspected every 12 months and the boilers every six months, and to provide lifeboats, signal lights, fire pumps and hose, and other equipment. A license certificate had to be procured and kept on board before passengers could be carried.

There were a number of problems with this first law. There was no definition of “experienced and skillful,” there was no licensing of mariners, and there were no standards for boiler construction or operating pressures. Plus, under the law the government did not employ inspectors in the field. Instead, a vessel owner would go to a federal judge and ask him to send a “knowledgeable and qualified” individual to inspect his vessel, although the law provided no inspection criteria. The vessel owner would pay said inspector $5 for each hull and $5 for each boiler inspected. This inspector would then provide a license certificate to be kept on board.

The 1838 law set a precedent for the concept of federal regulation, but it proved ineffective. From 1841 to 1848, there were at least 70 marine explosions that killed more than 600 people. Only 18 prosecutions were made in 10 years under the manslaughter section of the law. There were nine convictions, but the penalties were mostly limited to fines.

The Steamboat Act Of 1852

More than 700 people were killed in steamboat disasters in the years between 1847 and 1852, and Congress acted again. The Steamboat Act, passed on August 30, 1852, created the framework for a Steamboat Inspection Service, whose authority would be steadily strengthened by subsequent acts of Congress.

Under the 1852 law, the maximum working pressure allowed for any boiler was set at 110 psi., and every boiler had to be tested annually at 1.5 times its working pressure. Boilers had to be fabricated from specified quality iron plates, stamped with the manufacturer’s name. At least two safety valves were required—one of them in a locked grating to prevent tampering. The penalty for loading or tampering with a safety valve included 18 months imprisonment.

Engineers were to be licensed by the federal inspectors. Boards of inspectors were to investigate infractions and accidents, with the right to summon witnesses and to examine them under oath.

Above these local inspectors were nine supervising inspectors appointed by the president of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate.

President Millard Fillmore was the first to appoint steamboat inspectors.

Although changes and improvements would follow, the Steamboat Act was effective. In the eight years following passage, steamboat fatalities dropped to 65 percent of the total from the preceding period. After 30 years, deaths on steamboats decreased from one in 55,174 people carried to one in 1.7 million.

Over the years, the scope of the federal government’s vessel inspection authority continued to grow. An act of 1871 more permanently established the Steamboat Inspection Service (SIS) as an office within the Treasury Department, headed by a supervisory inspector general. The law gave the service jurisdiction over all steam-powered vessels (not just passenger vessels), required licenses for masters and chief mates, and authorized the service to write nautical Rules of the Road.

In 1884, a separate Treasury agency, the Bureau of Navigation, was created to deal with construction, inspection and documentation of merchant ships, and to license merchant seamen.

In 1903, the SIS and the Bureau of Navigation were transferred to the new Department of Commerce and Labor. Ten years later they would stay as part of the separate Department of Commerce.

As part of a government-wide, cost-saving effort in 1932, the two agencies were combined to become the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection. Four years later, another reorganization renamed the agency the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, with added authority to investigate marine casualties.

In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt by executive order transferred the bureau from Treasury to the Coast Guard, which itself was then under wartime Navy control. At the end of World War II, the bureau’s functions became a permanent part of the Coast Guard.

Thus, after about 100 years, all of the responsibilities associated with maritime safety were subsumed by the Coast Guard—but it was the Steamboat Inspection Service and the groundbreaking laws of 1838 and 1852 that set the precedent for federal regulation in the pursuit of public safety and worker protection.

Editor’s note: Daniel Hubbell is a writer and historian living in Berkeley, Calif.