Apalachicola River
Explosion of the steamboat John C. Calhoun at Bristol, Florida

Bristol Landing in Liberty County, Florida. The paddlewheel steamer John C. Calhoun exploded near here in 1860.

The glamour of the paddlewheel steamboats that once churned their way up and down the Apalachicola River makes it easy to forget that these beautiful and elegant “floating palaces” could also be quite dangerous. Consider the case of the river steamer John C. Calhoun:

The steamboat “John C. Calhoun” plying between Apalachicola and Bainbridge, on Flint river, exploded her boilers while while lying at Ridleyville landing on the 28th of April [1860], by which the captain and seven of the crew lost their lives. (1)

The Calhoun, named for South Carolina political leader and former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, was only one-year old when she went down at Ridleyville Landing. Powered by a stern-wheel, the boat had been built at West Brownsville in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, in 1859. She had a wooden hull and was rated at 165 tons.

Ridleysville is shown on this 1855 map of Florida.

Ridleyville – usually spelled Ridleysville – was at present-day Bristol in Liberty County, Florida. When Dr. John Clark Ridley settled there in 1850 it was still part of Gadsden County. He only lived on the Apalachicola for a few years and by 1856 was in Texas where he spent the rest of his life, but the landing bore his name well into the 1870s when it was replaced on the map by Bristol.

The community was an important mail stop during the 1850s. The U.S. Postal Service then contracted for the delivery of mail from Tallahassee to Ridleyville, where it was transferred to a U.S. Mail steamer for passage down to Apalachicola or up to Bainbridge, Georgia. The John C. Calhoun was the U.S. Mail steamer in 186o and likely was at Ridleyville Landing to pick up a mail delivery. It is interesting to note that these secure shipments often included money – both paper and gold or silver coin.

The Apalachicola River at the site of the steamboat explosion. The landing is at left and the bridge that connects Blountstown and Bristol can be seen in the far distance.

The explosion of the Calhoun was investigated by the U.S. Supervising Inspector, who blamed it on human error. “The explosion was caused,” he wrote, “solely by the imprudence and negligence of the first and second engineers.” The licenses of the two men to operate their trade were revoked by the government.

The mail aboard the steamer was completely lost when she burned and sank into the Apalachicola. If she was carrying any money – including gold and silver – it went down with her and has never been recovered.

The captain of the boat – Leander M. Crawford – died in the explosion and his body was carried down to Apalachicola for burial. He rests today in historic Chestnut Cemetery. The steamboat company placed a monument over his grave and it can still be seen there today.

The other victims of the disaster were probably buried at Ridleyville where their graves have been lost to time.

You can view the general site of the explosion from Bristol Landing. The wreck of the John C. Calhoun is in the river in that general vicinity. Use this map as a reference:

(1) Report of O.A. Pittfield, Supervising Inspector, 4th District, in House Documents, 13th Congress, 2nd Session – 49th Congress, 1st Session, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., 1861, Page 344.

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