Civil War Steamer Mittie Stephens May Be the Mystery at the Bottom of Caddo Lake near Shreveport
First off, it's the largest Cypress forest in the world. And who knew that Cypress trees are some of the oldest species still in existence and they can live over three thousand years?
The lake is also home to paddlefish (we can them spoon-billed catfish) and these little rascals have been around three hundred to four hundred MILLION years. Even longer than dinosaurs existed.
Even the very beginning of Caddo Lake sparks the imagination of those historical minds. 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 many have yet to hear, 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.
The mystery centers around the steamboat, Mittie Stephens, and what became of her. And are any of her remains still lying on the bottom of Caddo Lake?
It was February 11, 1869 around 4:00 in the afternoon when the former Union sidewheel steamboat steamed out of Shreve's Port on the Red River on its 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.
In an article from KYTX CBS 19, we learn from Ron Holloman, a Mittie Stephens historian:
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.
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.
Ultimately, this is what caused the death of many of the souls lost as they jumped off the ship and were sucked into the side paddles and drowned. The total number lost was sixty-four and this still stands as an infamous record as 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.
Because of the muddy sediment at Caddo Lake's bottom, the Mittie Stephens has never been able to be fully recovered and the stories of its demise are still a facet of curiosity to many.