Built for the United States Mail Line in 1882, the sidewheeler City of Madison was constructed at its namesake city on the Ohio River in southern Indiana.
The wooden hull measured 265 feet in length by 42.6 feet in width, with a depth of 6.3 feet. Four boilers provided steam to engines having 24.5-inch cylinders with a 7-foot stroke.
The boat ran in the Cincinnati-Madison trade and had a singular demise. On June 18, 1894, while returning from a charter trip to Memphis with a bicycle club aboard, the City of Madison was bound for Cincinnati. Pilot watches were changed just below the shipyard at Madison. Moments later, at 4:15 a.m., the steamboat struck the dike, which jutted out almost to mid-river from the Kentucky shore, and was wrecked. The pilot on watch, Capt. Wheeler Collier, was a resident of Madison, bearing out the tradition that the most dangerous stretch of river is the one in front of a pilot’s hometown.
There were no injuries in the sinking, and the cyclists were transferred to the next upbound steamer. The snagboat E.A. Woodruff later removed the wreckage.
Capt. Fred Way once wrote that when he first rode the packet Tell City in 1917, a framed poem hung in the cabin. The setting of the poem is Madison, and the steamers involved are the City of Madison and Fleetwood. Penned by Bessie Woolford, copies of the rhyme were displayed aboard all of the Louisville & Cincinnati Packet Company boats, as well as the riverboats operated by Greene Line Steamers.
When the Beautiful Steamers
I stood on the shore in the moonlight
No longer than last Sunday night,
When just as the Fleetwood had whistled
The Madison rounded in sight.
Oh, the river was smooth as a mirror,
And over the hills wooded crest,
The moon, newly risen in splendor
Threw a broad bridge of light o’er its breast.
From the band of the graceful Fleetwood came
The strains of “The Sailor Boy at Sea.”
While softly and sweetly the Madison played
A song …“Then You’ll Remember Me.”
Slowly the boats moved into the shore
Where the glancing moonbeams quiver,
Of “Annie Laurie,” the Madison sang.
And the Fleetwood, “Suwanee River.”
I stood on the deck of the Fleetwood,
As it proudly drew out in the stream,
And the music came over the water,
Like the melody heard in a dream.
Further and further apart they drift—
Then one song arises grand and free,
And the strains that boat is playing now,
Is “Nearer My God to Thee.”
There are many sweet things in this life friends
Apart from its sorrow and pain,
There are times when we turn from this world friends
And forget all our greed for its gain.
For in the soft hours of the evening
We dream the old dreams of yore,
And long for the friends who have left us,
Alone on the moonlighted shore.
And we think of a world far beyond us,
A world free from sorrow and sin,
Where we know that the loved ones are waiting
To welcome us when we come in.
Caption for photo: The City of Madison, after sinking at its namesake city on June 18, 1894. (Keith Norrington collection)