The Rise and Fall of River and Rail transportation in Madison, Indiana.

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Bald Eagle: The Irene Dunne Connection

On November 14, 1878 there was a large gang of plankers at work on the new boat Bald Eagle at the Madison Marine Ways. The contract for painting was let to James Neal; Swormstead & Company was to furnish the paint and Walsh to furnish the shaft and set up the machinery. The other work such as sheet iron, copper and tin work, etc was to also be supplied by Madison concerns. Charles Henry, Esquire, of Madison had been contracted to provide and oversee the installation of the boilers during the construction of the boat.

On the 29th, Captain Henry Leyhe came to Madison to look things over. He and his brother, William, were owners of the Eagle Packet Company and they were very involved in every aspect of the business. They had started the business around 1861 with their first boat, Young Eagle out of Warsaw, Illinois. By 1878 the company had grown to be one of the best on the rivers. They had a fleet of “eagles” that, over the years, would include the Grey Eagle, War Eagle, Spread Eagle, Golden Eagle, Little Eagle, and the two above mentioned boats. While in town, Captain Leyhe contracted with the Marine Ways to lengthen the Little Eagle 30 feet and put on a new stern. The Little Eagle was to arrive from St. Louis within the week. The Bald Eagle was completed and went to work mostly on the St. Louis-Red River and St. Louis-Ouachita Rivers trade. She earned a good reputation on the water and served well.

On May 27, 1896, a catastrophic cyclone hit the city of St. Louis. The devastation was so extensive that it cannot be described in this short essay. Suffice it to say buildings, large and small, were toppled, communication was halted and darkness descended over a stunned and broken city. The riverfront and the boats tied up there fared no better and the Bald Eagle was one of those unhappy vessels. She was ripped from her moorings and sent crashing into the middle pier of Eads Bridge. The crew was forced to scramble onto the pier and huddle in terror until ropes could be lowered from the bridge above. They were finally hoisted to safety but, unfortunately, the watchman was lost. The battered boat floated past the bridge and sank. Only some of her machinery was salvaged and the Bald Eagle passed into history.

There is an interesting story connected with the building of the Bald Eagle. The builder and supervisor of the installation of the boilers for the Bald Eagle, the above mentioned Charles Henry, Esquire, was the grandfather of actress, Irene Dunne. After the death of her father, Joseph Dunn, Irene, her brother, Charles and her mother, Adelaide all returned to Madison to live next door to Irene’s grandfather and step-grandmother, Rose.

In 1868, Charles Henry had come from Cincinnati to Madison to engage in the trade of boiler making. His business was located on Second between Depot and Vernon Streets and he was soon well known for his superior and meticulous work. He made boilers for many of the famous steamers that plied the Ohio, Mississippi and other rivers of the country. His services were in great demand until he sold out his interests and retired at an advanced age.

Irene Dunne’s father was a steamboat inspector based in St. Louis and her first break in Hollywood was in the movie, “Showboat”. This is a great example of the influence the river and the boats on it had on the lives of individuals during the era of steamboats.

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