First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

Postscript Sultana – Part Three

Postscript Sultana


A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette

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The following is a postscript to the article "Who (or What) Really Dunnit?" That article addressed the possible coverup or incomplete investigation of the circumstances surrounding the explosion and fire of the steamboat SS Sultana on April 27, 1865 which took the lives of over 1700 citizens and returning Union Army former pow's following the supposed end of the Civil War. You can review that article. Parts One through Four are (1)here, (2)here, (3)here and (4)here.

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Part Three of Five
(Part One is HERE , Part Two is HERE )

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John Wimer was a busy man following his first term as mayor of St. Louis. In addition to the requirements of his office as president of Liberty Fire Company #6, Wimer was installed as St. Louis postmaster. This allowed Wimer a great deal of freedom to mold the 'local' service in his design as post offices and districts were far more autonomous in that era than they might be considered today. One of Wimer's accomplishments as postmaster was to design and issue his own stamps. These were called Postmaster Provisionals and were common throughout the country. The postmaster could design and print these stamps in various denominations and then sell them at a markup to cover the cost of printing, etc. Thus, one dollar might get you eight of the 10 cent Provisionals, and so on. John Wimer created the "Bear Provisonals" in denominations of 5, 10 and 20 cents. They were notable for the pair of bears standing as they held a plaque stating, "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" and bore the name of the St. Louis Post Office. Stamp collectors, today, highly value the Wimer Provisionals and though rare, many have sold on the collector market for as much as $170,000.

The Wimmer "Bear Provisionals"

And, as one of the forefathers of multitasking, Wimer was busy raising financing for his second love next to firefighting. John was one of the original founders of the Pacific Railroad Company in 1851 and as such, fought and politicked with the best for the massive support the new transportation technology would receive.

Construction of the Gasconade River Bridge

As construction took place with the clearing and bridge building to create the rail lines needed for the Pacific Railroad, Wimer was also soon to be named as president of the Commercial Insurance Company of St. Louis. By late 1855, the Pacific line was completed on the first leg of 125 miles to the capital at Jefferson City. As a victory send-off, the Pacific road brought in dignitaries, business people and movers and shakers from all walks to participate in the first ride of this railroad they felt destined to be the first link west to San Francisco. November 1, 1855, in a falling rain, the bands played and drinks flowed as over 600 boarded the 14 car train and rolled out of St. Louis to Jeff City. A car was added full of uniformed soldiers and a band of musicians to play as they traveled. Little did they all know, they had been invited to the worst rail disaster to ever take place in Missouri history.

The Locomotive Assigned to the Inaugural Run

When the train reached the trestle bridge spanning the Gasconade River, the train was supposed to stop for the passengers to admire the beauty of the view. But, the engineer was a little behind time and felt he had to be on time for the festivities in Jefferson City, so he poured on the coal skipping the stop and heading onto the trestle bridge. As the train rolled onto the bridge at fair speed, the eastern most pier collapsed sending the train 36 feet down into the Gasconade River. The engine and seven cars rolled right off the track into the river with the remaining cars tumbling down an embankment.

View of the Crash Site From Today's Bridge

Over 30 were killed outright and hundreds were injured. Among them, critically injured, was John Wimer. The entire region was stunned by the accident. Investigations following the disaster discovered that the contractor that built the bridge simply didn't finish the collapsed portion and instead left a simple scaffolding arrangement instead, and nobody knew. They say if the train had crawled across, it might have made it. Might have.

Remains of the Gasconade Locomotive

This major calamity slowed things down a bit for the Pacific Railroad but it didn't stop it. Nothing could stop the railroads in the 1850's and they still can't. The Pacific Railroad would survive future bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions and under different names, survives today. John Wimer recovered from his injuries and continued.

During this period, Liberty Fire Company continued as well with John Wimer at the helm or very close by. Wimer never missed a fire and it's said he possessed the ability to calmly and accurately size up a fire ground and the form of attack. But, the ongoing public rowdiness of the firefighters and the volunteer fire companies as a whole were wearing thin on the nerves of the rapid sophistication of the public.

Throughout this period of existence of the Liberty Fire Company, one Robert Louden was an active member along with Arthur McCoy, his brother-in-law. Louden had married a woman he met through the Liberty Fire Company. A woman whose husband had been killed in the Gasconade Bridge event in 1855. McCoy married her sister. Louden had used his alias, for many reasons, even in his activity with the Liberty Fire Company. Charlie Deal was his name of choice and he, or he as Charlie Deal, appears in the original membership roster of Liberty. Louden's use of an alias was known by many but went unquestioned, at least, historically.

The times, they were 'a changing.' They were changing fast. John Wimer knew it. The times were becoming extremely turbulent politically on both the national and the local level. The people wanted John Wimer back as mayor of St. Louis. Wimer felt called. The year was 1857. Yes, the times were changing fast.

Wednesday – Part Four

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