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

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Tom Jasper

During the first week of April 1867 Captain Frank Burnett closed a contract with the steamer “Sherman” to transport from Cairo to Madison the machinery for a new St. Louis and Quincy steamboat to be built at the Madison Marine and Railways boatyard. A few days later Captain Burnett resigned his command of the “Mollie McPike” (built in Madison in 1864) and on April 9th Captain Burnett arrived in Madison to personally superintend the building of the boat. Ten thousand feet of pine and oak had been rafted to the boatyard and stood ready for the carpenters to begin their work. By the 11th the “Sherman” was underway with seventy tons of machinery. Among this cargo were the old boilers from the “Eclipse” of 1852. Madison mechanics were to rework and fit them up for installation in Burnett’s new boat. On May the 8th John C. Crosley commenced work on the cabin and on the 10th the Courier mentioned that Captain Lew Vance was out in the woods “selecting a couple of large oak trees from which to manufacture the cylinder timber for Captain Burnett’s new boat. He found them in the same forest from which the Richmond’s timbers were taken.”

As June began, work had progressed on the boat to the point that she would soon be turned over to the painters. The shafts were installed on the 5th of June and on the 13th Captain Burnett officially bestowed the name “Tom Jasper” on the new boat. The “Tom Jasper” was launched from the boatyard on June 24th, minus her machinery. The Ohio River was falling rapidly and she was to be taken below the falls to receive her machinery and finishing touches for fear the river would get too low for her to get over the falls and she was too large to go through the canal.

On July 31, 1867 the Daily Courier stated, “The steamer Tom Jasper, now approaching completion at New Albany is intended for the St. Louis and Quincy trade, and is, in many respects, superior to any steamer in the line, as she is provided with all the modern improvements. The Jasper was built for Capt. Frank Burnett by Vance & Armstron, at Madison, Indiana and was taken to New Albany in an unfinished state for completion. Length of hull, 250 feet; breadth of beam, 41 feet; floor, 36 feet; depth of hold, 6 ½ feet. The cylinders are each 26 inches in diameter, and 7 feet stroke, and are supplied by 6 five-flued boilers, 86 inches in diameter and 24 feet long.”

On August 9th there was some excitement on the “Tom Jasper” while lying at the wharf in New Albany. It seems a prepared supper had been placed on the steam table in the pantry and the engineer had been ordered to turn on the steam to keep it warm. The table had never been tested and to the surprise of everyone there was a small explosion, breaking the heavy iron plate in two and sending food in every direction. Steaks, chops and fried cakes were adhered to the ceiling and broken china littered the area. It was surmised some malfunction of the pipes had occurred causing an explosion and a delayed supper.

The “Tom Jasper” was completed and ready to proceed but low water kept her at New Albany for several more days.

However, on August 24th the Madison Daily Courier reported,

“The steamer Tom Jasper, built at this city by Vance & Armstrong, has just taken her place in the St. Louis and Keokuk packet trade. The Louisiana Republican and Quincy (Ill.) Herald contain glowing accounts of the Jasper’s reception all along the route, and pay high compliments to her builders, Vance & Armstrong, and to John C. Crosley, the architect and builder of her cabin. Peddie & Neill, of this city, her painters, also come in for a share of praise, and G. P. Mellen for the superior quality of her plated ware.”

The St. Louis Dispatch of the 17th stated,

“The first trip of the new Quincy packet Tom Jasper created a perfect furore at every point between St. Louis and Quincy. The people at every town flocked on board and gave her such a welcome as to dispel doubts as to her success. Everybody expressed themselves delighted, and passed high encorniums on every department, but more especially on her outfit, which was acknowledged to be superior to any thing on the Upper Mississippi. The furnitures, carpets, chandeliers, and mirrors attracted much attention. Large delegations of citizens at Louisiana and Hannibal flocked to the landing on her approach, and as she touched the wharf, band of music commenced playing. Captain Burnett was called out at every point and speeches full of hope and promise for the success of the new enterprise were showered in a manner that leaves no doubt that the people between here and Keokuk are with him heart and hand in his new enterprise. At Quincy there was a perfect jam. Men, women and children, from every quarter, rushed aboard, and extended the right hand of fellowship to Captain Barnett, which made his hart dilate with joy. He had little thought that the sympathies of the people were so much enlisted in his cause.”

The accolades and applause may have been a bit premature as the “Tom Jasper: never quite lived up to such great expectations. It seems the boilers from the old “Eclipse” were not powerful enough for her 27” cylinders and as a result she was one of the slower large Upper Mississippi packets. On November 27, 1871 the “Tom Jasper” sank below Cairo, Illinois, but was raised. She returned to Cairo on November 25th for repairs but her freight was considerably damaged.

She was sold to the St. Louis and St. Paul Packet Company for far less than her original price of about $70,000. The hull was reconfigured and a new power plant was installed and was, at last, making money for her owners. She now carried the name “Centennial” but her success was short lived because in February of 1879 she was caught in the ice at on the Mississippi and was destroyed, or was she? See our article on the CENTENNIAL to find out what really happened.

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