Burning of the James Lee October 4, 1893

The JAMES LEE had survived two previous fire episodes one while undergoing repairs to her pilot house while tied up at the Memphis river front, the other when a near by steamer caught fire.   Capt. James Lee Sr. who lived aboard his namesake prevented her from being pushed into the river when the fire was discovered, this fire was the first fire encounter.   During the pilot house fire, he forbade the steamer being pushed into the river.  Standard procedure was to push a burning steamer into the river so as to avoid burning nearby moored steamers.  He was carried ashore by brawny mate Tom Claggett who lifted 300 pound Capt. Jim in his hickory chair and proceeded down the gang plank all the while Capt. Jim bellowed in protest.  Mate Claggett later became a Lee Line captain.  The second fire encounter occurred when a Lee Line steamer ignited when a careless night watchman dropped a match while lighting his lantern.  Again, brawny mate Tom Claggett was able to secure the JAMES LEE when he sparred the steamer into the river allowing her to escape the conflagration.   She was caught by a harbor tug and returned to shore since her boilers were cold.

Capt. Tippitt gave a detailed account of the arson fire that burned the JAMES LEE from the Memphis Appeal and the Commercial Appeal.

Appeal Oct. 4, 1893; “The JAMES LEE was burned last night at her mooring at Hopefield Bend, just 3 ½ miles above the City on Arkansas shore. The fire occurred shortly before 11 o’clock, its origin is a mystery, she had been out of service for a year on account of the dull times. During this period she has lain in the bend.

Capt. Peter Lee, Mr. Lowe, the steamboat agent secured the tug of the Pittsburg Coal Co., and ran up to the scene. On arrival there was nothing but a mass of roaring flames, the GAYOSO tied up just above the JAMES LEE was not damaged.

The JAMES LEE, a four boiler boat was built at Pittsburg by James Rees & Sons in 1878 at a cost of $60,000 by Capt. James Lee, Sr., for whom the boat was named and her first commander, then Capt. S. Stacker Lee was in command and he made several record runs with her. She was always in the Friars Point trade going down one day and up the next.”

Commercial Appeal reported; “The JAMES LEE took fire last night at 10:30 pm and burned to the waters’ edge. She was lying up 3 miles north of Memphis on Arkansas side. The fire was incendiary origin no doubt, organized and set by a bunch of fire bugs operating on the river. For several months it has been laid up and was just put into condition to return to operation.

Our reporter was returning from the fire at 2:15 am, this morning in a skiff when a blaze of flame shot across the river side of deck of the C.B. BRYAN, we were within 100 yards of scene and hasten to the burning boat, as we approached an oil can wrapped in sack and an empty skiff was passed, the boat man Wm. T. Thompson was left to secure the skiff and oil can. On the BRYAN watchman T.A. Murray, J.S. Gillespie and Vic Johnson were setting on the head of the boat when they heard a crash in deck room and immediately flames arose, they went to work and quickly extinguished the flames.

Our reporter on approaching the scene of burning JIM LEE found the GAYOSO a short distance above, approaching her he was stopped by two men on the GAYOSO who threatened to shoot him if he came any closer, no information about the JAMES LEE could be secured from them.”

Commercial Appeal Oct. 5, 1893; “It is now thought that Joe Williams, a colored ferryman, who has been a habitué of the river front and whose body was found under the wheel of the BRYAN is the fire bug. His sister stated that he left home Tuesday night with a can of gasoline or coal oil, the skiff found was rented by him at Golden Gate earlier in the evening.

The watchman on the JAMES LEE, Dennie Thomas and W. Jones state the fire broke out on shore side, the only fire on the boat was on the other side in cook house, and they discovered the blaze too late to save the boat. She was insured for $25,000.

The MARY ANN was moored just above the JAMES LEE and burned at the same time; she was valued at $1500 and not insured, owned by the Lee Line and used in Upper St. Francis River as feeder boat and during low water. “


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