Do You Know The Truth About This Horrific Tragedy On Caddo Lake?
It's a true story that surprisingly has never made its way to Hollywood, and I have yet to understand why.
Maybe it's never appeared on the big screen because of its amazing similarity to that of Titanic.
All the elements to make it an incredible production are there. Fear, fire, horror, death, sadness, grief and joy. There are moments of heroism, greed and ultimately a treasure hunt that didn't conclude until over 120 years later.
And to make this even more insulting is the fact that a number of movies have been filmed on or around Caddo Lake and yet none of those filmmakers ever took the time to do any research on this legendary body of water and totally missed the opportunity to create a timeless classic.
Caddo Lake Has Been Legendary From It's Beginning
Caddo Lake just lends itself to legend. From its very start Caddo became legendary to those living around its shores that straddle the Louisiana/Texas border.
Named for the native Americans, the Caddoans, legend has it that Caddo Lake was formed in the 1700's by an earthquake. Supposedly it was the same earthquake that caused the great Red River log jam.
But, the mystery that those filmmakers need to read about centers around the old Union sidewheel steamboat, Mittie Stephens and her tragic final trip on Caddo Lake.
During some of the darkest days in American history, our story dates back to the Civil War era. What had begun as a routine trip from Shreveport to Jefferson, Texas ended in one of the largest inland boating accidents of all time.
It's The Mysterious Story of the Mittie Stephens
It was February 11, 1869 around 4:00 in the afternoon when the former Union sidewheel steamboat, Mittie Stephens, steamed out of Shreve's Port on the Red River on it's way to Jefferson, Texas, on what would be her final voyage.
As was common in America in the mid-1800's, not only was the Mittie Stephens loaded with over 100 affluent passengers and crew, she also carried government goods including the $100,000 payroll for Union troops, gunpowder and a large quantity of hay.
The ship turned off the Red River, then made her way up through Twelve Mile Bayou and briefly stopped at Mooring's Port on Ferry Lake, now known as Caddo Lake. Once again steaming towards Jefferson, as the boat approached Swanson's Landing, crewmen discovered smoke rising from the hay atop the ship.
Overlooking A Simple Hazard Caused The Deaths Of So Many
In an article from KYTX CBS 19, we learn from Ron Holloman, a Mittie Stephens historian that the ultimate demise of the boat originated to the over 200 bales of hay aboard:
It was almost midnight, but the captain wanted to make Jefferson by morning. He ordered the fire baskets lit. “These big wrought iron baskets stuck out; it lit the way, big burning torch on the front," Hollomon said. A spark ignited the bales.
After the boat was engulfed in flames, Holloman goes on to say that standard operating procedure at this time, in emergencies like this, was to steer the ship towards the bank under full throttle.
Unfortunately, this is what caused the death of so many souls. As they jumped off the ship, they were immediately sucked into the side paddles and drowned. The total number lost was sixty four and this still stands as an infamous record of one of the deadliest inland boating accidents of all time.
According to CaddoLakeDrawBridge.com:
Eyewitness accounts of the disaster gave a glimpse of the passengers and crew that statistics cannot furnish. Stories began to emerge of greed and heroism, of mass graves and mistaken identities. For many years, the hull of the Mittie Stephens could be seen lying in the mud. A few items were salvaged from the wreckage with the most valuable being the ship's bell, which is currently on display in a museum in nearby Jefferson, Texas.
Soon after the wreck, stories abound of onlookers pillaging the ship's remains, but over time, the exact location of the wreckage was lost; until the 1990's.
124 Years After The Shipwreck, The Mittie Stephens Was Found
In an article from txgenwebcounties.org, we learn that due to the log jam in Red River, the level of Caddo Lake was much higher at the time of the wreck than present day.
Researcher Jacques Bagur, compared a map of the lake drawn in the 1860's prior to the shipwreck, to a more modern map, and determined that the ship's wreckage would actually be on dry land, but very near the water's edge.
Shreveport physician, Dr. David Nave, encouraged Bagur to continue his research and in 1993, just a couple miles from Swanson's Landing, they found it.
On Feb. 20, 1993, Nave and others accompanied Bagur to the exact spot shown on the old map to be the elusive steamer's final resting place. What they found in the top soil along the riverbank was nothing less than what would have been on an 1860's steamboat: broken china, crockery, glass, old iron spikes and pipe fittings, the flange of a cast iron stove, and all showing signs of being in a fire and all confirmed by a local historian and archaeologist to be mid 1800's vintage. Even fused window panes, believed to be part of the cargo surfaced frequently as if to confirm, "This is it."
Now, if that wouldn't make an incredible movie? Hey, it would certainly be better than Rhinestone, that movie with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, so maybe there's still hope.