If you are like me, when I think of steamboats I imagine slowly going down the Ohio or Mississippi River listening to Mark Twain read to me from his classic book Tom Sawyer. After all, Tom Sawyer was an adventurer and being on a steamboat fills my mind of adventure. As I am stepping out on the wide deck outside, I smell and hear the sounds of the water around me. Seeing the riverbank while looking at all the beautiful trees growing along the shore mesmerizes me as well as the thick riverfront vegetation.
Jump forward to our current times, I learn of the many deadly accidents that occurred due to these beautiful steamers. It was so bad that at times 1000’s of folks died from the dangers of steamboats. In due time, the government began to regulate the steamboat business. This helped , but there were still many accidents and deaths. In fact, I imagine that steamboat I am on and Mark Twain is reading to me and suddenly a fire starts onboard near the engines. In front of my eyes, Mark Twain takes off his reading glasses and author’s hat to put on a different sort of hat. It was a riverboat captain’s hat. Mr. Twain was the captain that needed to put that fire out and save us.
Now to the facts. Yes, Mark Twain actually was a steamboat captain. No, he never read to me his story Tom Sawyer. But one thing you might not know is that Mark Twain watched his brother Henry die from a riverboat accident. Today’s installment relives through the newsclippings of The Gleaner in Henderson, Kentucky the death of one of my ancestors in 1917 due to a steamer called the Enterprise made in Louisville, Kentucky.
This story’s details did not come easy to myself. I had been working with Nancy Towns a family researcher on common lines of interest. The line of interest that had captivated both of us was my ancestor Laura Jenkins’s husband who was Robert W. Nichols. He was a victim of a steamboat drowning accident. The body was never recovered.
After months of wondering about if we would ever get to the truth, it became apparent that this was a road block that we may not be able to overcome. Out of faith, I shared with Nancy that I thought we would one day get to the truth of this story. That one day arrived in the form of an email from my brother Donnie Jenkins. He had information about other researchers in the family. One of those contacts was a cousin named Judy Jenkins. Judy and I began discussing our common family lines and I found out she was just as interested in this story as Nancy and myself. Nancy in particular was doing the study for her brother-in-law Jim Nichols who as of late has been ill. Jim is a great, great grandson of Robert Nichols. Judy offered to get closure for Jim on his long lost ancestor. Today we can say we know what happened to Jim’s ancestor Robert Nichols, Laura Jenkins’s husband and we thank Judy Jenkins for helping in this matter. These news clippings are sobering, yet the legend can now be validated with the truth in these articles. May Robert Nichols and all the others who died in the vast rivers of America rest in peace:
As you read through these news writeups of the incident, you understand how important the newspaper was in those days. It was the only form of communication the townspeople had unless it was by word of mouth. Below I want to share a photo of Robert Nichol’s descendant and his family. This is Jim Nichols taken over 40 years ago. He now knows what happened to his great, great grandfather in 1917. The sorrow he knows that his great, great grandmother Laura Jenkins Nichols had to suffer is indescribable.
This next photo is my friend Nancy who inspires me with her own genealogy work:
What better way to finish off this story as we learn the truth of our ancestors by a quote from Mark Twain: ” Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”