I’ve noticed an unusual traffic bump on the stories I’ve done about Neely’s Landing and the horrific steamboat The Stonewall disaster that occurred in 1869. That prompted me to post an update that is more speculation than fact.
Oct. 27, 1869, the steamboatThe Stonewall, heavily laden with about 300 passengers, tons of cargo and 200 head of livestock was southbound on the Mississippi River near Neely’s Landing, bound for Cape Girardeau, Memphis and New Orleans. The river was low and the boat was running “slow wheel.”
A candle or lantern overturned or a passenger dropped a spark onto hay on the lower deck, which caught fire. Before the blaze was discovered, it had gained considerable headway.
The captain tried to beach the boat, but it struck a sandbar and turned in the wind and current until the flames fully engulfed the vessel. Nobody knows exactly how many people burned, drowned or died of exposure because the passenger list burned with the steamboat. Estimates place the toll between 209 to 300.
Some 60 or 70 unidentified or unclaimed victims were buried in a mass grave on the Cotter Farm.
A hunt for the grave site
I spent quite a bit of time driving around Neely’s Landing searching for the grave site, but there’s not much left of what was once a thriving town. Mississippi River floods erased many buildings, much like they washed away Smelterville and Wittenberg. The Proctor & Gamble plant gobbled up even more of it.
I thought a cemetery high on a hill overlooking the landing might be a possibility, but I quickly dismissed it.
Amateur historian Dick McClard and I started trading ideas. He has forgotten more about that area than I ever knew because of his research into the McClard family and its many offshoots.
He thought that the old Cotter Farm and grave site might be on Proctor and Gamble’s property in the general vicinity of the X. It was on the Neely’s Landing side of Indian Creek; the ground was fairly flat and the soil was soft.
Dick was a former P&G employee, so he knew the right ears to blow into to get us an escorted visit to our target area.
We struck out
The security guard who was our ride and guide was on a tight schedule, so we didn’t get much time to nose around. I had time to shoot a nearly 360-degree panorama of the general area that didn’t show anything particularly interesting. The left side of the photo is looking north, then it swings to the right until we are looking approximately north-northwest.
You’ll have to click on the photo to make it large enough to make out anything.
Dick thinks that any markers that might have existed were moved or covered over when the railroad cut through the area to carry visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Decades of Mississippi River and Indian Creek floods probably scoured the area, plus it has been farmed.
We’re going to give it another shot, but timing is critical. It’ll help if we get there before the brush, snakes and bugs start showing up after wintertime. The best we can hope for would be some discarded stones or markers that have been pushed off to the edges of the property, but I doubt there was much around to set the graves off from the surrounding farmland.
Class of ’66 buddy Dick McClard and I were driving around after trying to locate the mass grave from the steamboat The Stonewall near Neely’s Landing this spring. We think we’re getting close, but it’s going to take some more looking.
Anyway, he suggested we go see Fred McLard’s log cabin. (That’s not a typo: those folks never could get the spelling of their names right. They answer to McClard, McLard, McLaird and MacLaird, among other things.) Dick’s on the left, Fred’s on the right.
Cabin lives inside barn
At some point long ago, a barn was built around the log cabin. The farm is across the street from the New Bethel Church, close to the intersection of County Roads 532 and 525. It’s on private property, but Fred’s a nice guy and would probably give you permission to take a look if you knocked on his door.
The view across the fields from his house is just short of spectacular, too.
Here are some detail shots of the cabin. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move around.
Coming back through Neely’s Landing, I slowed down to see if there was any trace of a cemetery I had heard was on the top of one of the hills, but I didn’t see one nor any way to get up there. I’m still curious about the mass grave for the victims of the fire aboard the steamboat The Stonewallthat killed between 200 and 300 passengers in 1869. When I got to the curve behind Proctor & Gamble, I turned around and cruised back north.
I spotted a couple – Roger and Rebecca – in front of a mobile home jacked way up on concrete blocks. Rebecca was walking a pit bull sporting what looked like a logging chain. I was a little uncomfortable for a bit, because I figured an animal that required a chain that big would have been able to drag the young woman like a cartoon character. The dog was either friendly or figured I wasn’t worth eating, because he didn’t appear aggressive.
Roger and I chatted a bit about how high the last flood got – “It came all the way up to the bottom of the trailer. When a barge would go by out on the river, the wave would lap up against the bottom of the floor. We had to take a boat to go all the way around the curve to where we were parked.”
I could cut through his lot
I asked about the cemetery. He said there was a road going up to it, but it was blocked off by a gate. I was welcome to cut through the back of his lot to get to it. “Is that your wife in the car?” he asked.
“Nope, that’s my mother. She turned 91 last week.”
“I don’t think she’ll be able to make it.”
Cemetery popped into view
“I’m not sure I can make it, but I wouldn’t bet against her.”
The road WAS fairly steep, but in decent condition. It had seen chat at some time in the past and it wasn’t too rutted. Just about the time I ran out of hill and breath, the cemetery popped into view.
Tree cut down
A storm must have taken down a big tree recently, based on the fresh sawdust around the stump. It damaged a few tombstones, but the cemetery was fairly well maintained.
Quiet and peaceful
The late afternoon sun made the east-facing tombstones hard to shoot, but I like the play of light anyway.
How old was Louisa Ross?
I couldn’t be sure if Louisa M. Ross was 100 years, one month old when she died or if she was a baby one month old. It’s hard to make out if she was born in 1802 and died in 1902 or if she was born and died in 1902. When I shot the photo, I was pretty sure it was 1802 and 1902.
FindAGrave.com lists 74 interments in the cemetery. There are two with the name Ross: Baby Girl Ross, daughter of S.H. and S.J. Ross, born and died June 12,1900, and Sarah J. Ross, wife of S.H. Ross, who was born Feb. 6, 1893, and who died Aug. 25, 1904. The Louisa M. marker is prominent enough and old enough that I would have thought it would have made the listing.
Not the Stonewall cemetery
I don’t think The Stonewall’s mass grave is up there..
There’s not a lot of flat ground in the cemetery that would lend itself to a mass grave
It’s a steep climb up the hill.
It didn’t look like it would be easy digging.
The locals would figure the steamboat victims were strangers, so they would probably not want to take up the limited space where their families were going to be buried.
A spot closer to the river would be easier to reach and easier to dig.
A view of the Mississippi
Here’s a view of the river looking to the south from Neely’s Landing. If I knew exactly where The Stonewall went aground, I might poke around while the river is low. Newspaper reports pieces of broken queensware, coal, nails, bits of iron and even bones were still being found on the Stonewall Bar 67 years after the disaster.
Photo gallery of Neely’s Landing Cemetery
Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.