The Mercy Mission

Capt Thomas Stevenson Calhoon achieved fame for a mercy mission in the winter of 1884.  The story begins with a summons to Capt Thomas Calhoon to get back to his boat, the str Katie Stockdale, which he had tied up in Cincinnati when the Ohio River stage was 16 feet.  At the time of the summons, the river was 40 feet and rising.  There was no general alarm because the Flood of 1883 had topped at 66 feet 4 inches in Cincinnati.  They joked that the flood would never match last year’s level.  When Capt Calhoon stepped aboard the Katie, the river was at 46 feet.  No doubt a major flood was coming. [1]


Preferring to be stranded at home, Capt Calhoon decided to run the 470 miles to Pittsburgh breasting the flood.  Marks showed 57 feet and rising in Cincinnati.  Although the river was full of floating ice and not another steamer was stirring, Capt Calhoon’s greatest concern was whether the Katie could get under the railroad bridge at Pt Pleasant, WV.


The Virginia passing under the Wabash Bridge note the stacks (From the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The Virginia passing under the Wabash Bridge note the stacks (From the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Even with stacks lowered, the Pt Pleasant bridge when sighted was going to take the top of the pilot house.  Capt Calhoon ordered the boat’s carpenter to take off the top of the pilot house.  When the roof was dismantled, the pilots, Billy Abrams and Halloway, aimed the str Katie Stockdale at the center of the span.  Afterwards it was told, that the pilot’s wheel raked cobwebs from the bridge’s underspan.  During the run, the pilots had counted 120 houses bobbing by.  [2]


When the str Katie Stockdale blew her landing whistle at the Point Bridge in Pittsburgh, the flood crest had passed.  The crest on 14 Feb in Cincinnati was 71 feet 12 inches. [3] The Ohio River valley from Wheeling to Cairo was a major disaster.


After the fairly risky trip up the Ohio, Capt Calhoon was summoned to the Pittsburgh Cincinnati Packet Line wharfboat for a conference.  His partner  Capt Jackman Taylor Stockdale introduced him to Col Samuel T Cushing of the US Army.  Congress had appropriated $300,000 for Ohio River relief of which $60,000 had been allocated to Col Cushing for the relief of the flood sufferers between Pittsburgh and Ironton, OH (near Huntington, WV).  The str Katie Stockdale was under orders of the US Army; the boat would be quickly loaded; and Capt Calhoon would be in command of the boat to distribute the supplies.  The Katie took aboard some 300 tons of supplies. [4]


The devastation prompted other assistance.  Non government relief groups in Pittsburgh loaded another steamer and a tug and barges with supplies and started south.


New Cumberland, WV sustained its share of misery.   One reporter of the Hancock Courier stated:  “Not a single house in that part of town escaped the fury of the flood., many of them being bodily lifted from their foundations and either swept out into the rushing torrent…  Donegan’s Orchard was the popular receptacle for those runaways, and that gentleman now is the unwilling proprietor of the most unique and lifeless village along the Ohio.”


The city government of Cincinnati turned off the gas and water delivery.  The flood had invaded a large portion of the city.  Most cisterns were flooded so residents lived in darkness and without safe drinking water.  The unrelenting river carried off houses and outhouses filling the area with filth and excrement.  At least two thousand homes were lost and fifteen thousand people were left homeless.  When the water receded, homes and streets were left with up to three feet of mud and filth.


In Louisville on 14 Feb the river was rising one inch per hour before it crested at forty-eight (48) feet.  The food stage at Louisville begins at twenty-four (24) feet.  The river exceeded the danger point for twenty-two days between 4-25 Feb.  [5]


At the trip’s conclusion, decks bare, the str Katie Stockdale steamed into Pittsburgh on George Washington’s birthday.  Mission accomplished.  The relief effort of the str Katie Stockdale was the first instance of federal purchase and distribution of relief supplies along the inland rivers. [6]


The flood of 1884 left a record which would stand until 1937.  After the 1937 flood, a flood wall was erected in Cincinnati by the Army Corp of Engineers.  Whole streets disappeared.  Replaced by a towering mound covered with grass, gone too was the view of the beautiful Ohio River.





[1]  Capt Frederick Way, Jr., Adventures in the 1884 Flood, (S&D Reflector (Mar 1973), p 37-41).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5]  David Sander and Glen Conner, Fact Sheet:  Ohio River Floods, The Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University.
[6] Capt Frederick Way, Jr., Adventures in the 1884 Flood, (S&D Reflector (Mar 1973), p 37-41).

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