Rise of the regulatory state: It all began with exploding riverboats


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The Moselle isn't remembered for being one of the fastest steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, even though it was. Instead, it is usually remembered for its cataclysmic demise, a product of speed and shoddy construction, and especially for what followed.

The sudden and violent end of the Moselle, combined with other highly publicized riverboat explosions, prompted the creation of the first federal agency responsible for regulating American private industry.

On April 25, 1838, the Moselle pushed upstream from the Cincinnati wharf to pick up two families of German immigrants. While the passengers ambled aboard the craft, the engineer kept the steam pressure high so that the boat could dart away from the shore at high speed.

This was a common, but dangerous, practice: When the engineer engaged the paddlewheels, a sudden influx of steam pushed against the boiler walls and could be so intense that if it exploited a crack, weak spot or seam in the boiler wall, the boiler could detonate.

The Moselle's paddlewheels turned twice before an explosion shredded the boat. All four boilers burst simultaneously in a deafening roar that one witness thought sounded like a "mine of gunpowder." Chunks of flesh, splintered wood and twisted metal shot into the air, then splashed into the river. One of the boilers instantly decapitated the engineer while the explosion's force threw the captain against the prow of another steamer, his body a bloody pulp that slid into the water.

The macabre scene almost defied description. One man had a huge splinter shoved through his head, from ear to ear. Another flew 100 yards in the air and crashed into the roof of a house. When one of the immigrants tried to remove his clothes, he peeled the skin off his body. At least 80 people perished that day and an additional 35 went missing, probably blown to bits.

Although exceptionally gruesome, the Moselle's demise was hardly the only such tragedy. From 1816 to 1848, a total of 1,433 people died in steamboat accidents along the western rivers, then defined as any waterway in the Mississippi Valley. The fatality rate on these boats has been estimated at 155 deaths per 1 million passengers, a figure 1,000 times higher than travel on modern jet aircraft. While many of these could be blamed on ordinary collisions and fires, exploding boilers claimed many victims and soon became notorious in the public imagination.

The rash of explosions lay partly in the era's emphasis on speed and winning races. Captains knew that fast boats made headlines in newspapers and generated talk in taverns, stores, levees and parlors. The editor of the Louisville Daily Democrat even speculated that a vessel called the A.L. Shotwell started racing "with the view of proving her speed and capacity as a matter of business reputation."

Speed became an obsession and the boat with the fastest time between two towns held the horns: Trophies, usually deer antlers, were coveted items on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The A.L. Shotwell proudly displayed a silver plate hanging from a set of gilded deer horns. Its inscription dared competitors to "Take us if you can."

Steamboat races were usually impromptu contests that tested the crew to their limits and excited the passengers. One participant thought the sensation produced by a steamboat race was "the most powerful that can be conceived."

Passengers cheered on the firemen (who threw wood into the furnaces and tended the flames) and taunted their counterparts on the other boat. Crewmembers broke open barrels of oil, turpentine or tar and threw the contents into the roaring infernos. The boats seemed to almost come to life during a race. The pounding of the piston rod caused the vessels to throb up and down, popping nails loose and cracking seams. The boats roared and snorted "like angry hippopotami," wrote one observer.

The prospect of danger in such races, at least in the early days, only added to the thrill.

Steamboats of the era might sound like a personal-injury lawyer's dream, but the government was slow to regulate either their construction or operation. Sporadic calls for federal oversight in the early 19th century were met with stiff opposition from owners. In 1824, the captain of the Rob Roy argued that so few people were killed in steamboat explosions that there was no need for safety valves on boilers. Laissez-faire assumptions about government regulation, social inertia and ignorance further forestalled oversight.

But after the Moselle and other notable explosions, Congress felt compelled to act.

The result was the 1838 Steamboat Act, the first federal regulation of a private industry. Under the new law, all steamboats had to be licensed and agree to regular inspections of their hulls, boilers and machinery. When boats were stopped, engineers had to open the safety valve and keep the steam pressure low. Tiller ropes were replaced with chains or rods. Captains and crew could be fined or imprisoned for disobeying the law while owners could be sued for negligence.

Other legislation went even further. Most notable was the creation of the Steamboat Inspection Service, the first federal regulatory agency. It granted and revoked boat licenses, required that all boilers be checked regularly and licensed pilots and engineers. When combined with industry self-correction, such as nighttime running lights, life preservers, fire hoses and the "doctor" (a small pump that brought water into boilers when the paddlewheels weren't turning), steamboat travel became reasonably safe by the mid-1850s.

The explosion of the Moselle and other steamboats forced Americans to consider the degree to which unregulated private industry could endanger lives and property. Although many people were wary of government interference in private industry, the Steamboat Inspection Service became the model for later regulatory agencies, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Such was the enduring power of a steamboat explosion in 1838.

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Robert Gudmestad teaches history at Colorado State University and is the author of "Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom." He wrote this for Bloomberg View.


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