SS Iron Mountain
by Jeff Wagg
We’re all familiar with ship disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Though many say they’re the result of some supernatural force, it’s far more likely that each incident is a case of a big, stormy ocean taking its toll on small, poorly-maintained, or simply unlucky craft. But when a ship disappears without a trace from a river, it’s harder to imagine an explanation. And the legend of the SS Iron Mountain is difficult to explain away.
Here is how her story is usually told. This is an excerpt of the version on paranormal.about.com, complete with the picture that’s most often associated with the SS Iron Mountain:
Some versions go on to say that ghostly voices can be heard near the site screaming “They’re trying to hurt me! Help!"
As with most legends, there is some truth and some fiction. Let’s see if we can separate the two.
The Mississippi River was and is the most important naviagble river in the country. In parts it’s over a mile wide and plenty deep enough to swallow a steam ship. Near the region in question, the present day river is about ¾ of a mile across, but 150 years ago she may have been much wider, especially during flood season. It is conceivable that a ship could have sunk rapidly with no one on shore noticing, especially in a time before radio. It would be unusual for no wreckage or debris to be found. Nearly every part of the ship and its cargo was buoyant. The river was a highway, and one of the dozens of other ships also on the river should have seen wreckage or cargo floating downstream.
The shores in that region were dotted with farms, plantations and towns, with frequent riverboat landings to provide the population with supplies and mail and also to transport cotton and other goods north. Riverboats had regular routes, but stops would be scheduled according to where cargo needed to be. These comings and goings were reported in local newspapers. Because of this, we know that there definitely was a sternwheeler on the Mississippi River called the towboat Iron Mountain. She was launched in 1872, and served for ten years. At 181 feet long, she was a giant, and modern with all steel boilers—the first on the river. This was a ship that everyone on the river would recognize.
It is correct that she was a cargo vessel that also towed barges, and she did have the route from Vicksburg to Pittsburgh, her home port. Two points for the legend, but those are quickly subtracted. The date in the legend must be wrong: 1872 is the year she was launched, not the year she “vanished.” Newspapers report her comings and goings all through the 1870s. The picture that normally accompanies the story on the Internet is obviously wrong, even at a glance: it depicts a small sidewheeler, not a multi-decked sternwheeler. The main picture for this edition of Skeptoid depicts the actual Iron Mountain, as we can tell from the letters “IM" suspended between her stacks, and the most obvious clue: it says Iron Mountain on the aft portion of her superstructure.
Here’s the interesting part: she did disappear, but it was in 1882, ten years after the legend states. What follows is the story that fits the research.
On March 26, 1882, the SS Iron Mountain was steaming north from Vicksburg towing five empty barges. After she left Vicksburg, the next reported sighting wasn’t of the vessel, it was of her five empty barges, which had been cut loose and were coming down the river, presenting a hazard to navigation.
Such occurrences were not uncommon. The Mississippi is notorious difficult to navigate as the water level changes and submerged objects shift and can’t be seen. A ship pulling barges would cut them loose if there was trouble. This could include running aground or even having an issue with the boilers. Also, the river was in a flood state so severe, it became known as the "Flood of 1882." It was the largest flood on the Mississippi in recorded history up until that time. This meant that riverboat captains were steaming blind as any obstructions they'd memorized were now underwater, in a different place, or replaced by other unseen hazards.
The Iroquois Chief was also a real vessel, and she did see the barges and collect them. As was the common practice, the barges were towed to port and there they awaited the Iron Mountain’s return to pick them up. As the legend stated, the Iron Mountain never returned.
The reason for the failed pick up is pretty well documented. Newspapers reported the incident across the region. There was no mystery.
According the The Weekly Louisianan of April 1, 1882:
It's as simple as that. Most likely, she hit a submerged tree that ripped a hole in her side. A great many riverboats succumbed to the same fate.
But the story doesn’t end there.
The next day as men went to survey the damage, they were surprised that the Iron Mountain had indeed, vanished. An extensive search was conducted and while some small parts of the ship were located downstream, the ship itself could not be found.
It was surmised that the river had risen and floated the stricken vessel off the snag and then downstream, where she finally sank beneath the muddy waves. It wasn’t until several months later, that her wreck was found. Oddly, it wasn’t found on the river, but in a field on a former plantation called Omega. How did a large sternwheeler get off the river and into a field? As was mentioned before, the Mississippi River was flooding. Where the Iron Mountain ran into trouble, the river had broken through a levee near Omega Landing. As the river poured through the levee, so must have Iron Mountain, now miles downstream from where it was originally damaged.
A report from the Public Ledger of Memphis, dated June 24, 1882 tells this story:
Thus, we have a complete story of the life of the Iron Mountain on the Mississippi. With the Iron Mountain lost, the crew went on to work on other ships. We even have a record of the barges: they were carried by the Smoky City back up river in May of that year. I was unable to determine what was done with the wreck, but it was probably scrapped. A record from the Merchants’ Exchange of St. Louis shows the following:
Well, it sure wasn’t an insurance scam.
To put things in perspective, the Iron Mountain was one of over a dozen wrecks for March 1882 alone. Ships were sinking all the time on the Mississippi, not for any paranormal reason, but simply because it was a difficult waterway and there were a lot of ships.
With newspapers reporting not only the sinking, but also the finding of the vessel, how did the legend start? Based on the many stories I’ve read, it seems that they’re all copying each other. The earliest version of the legend I could find was in the Frank Edward’s book, Strangest of All. Published in 1956, this was Edwards’ second book of embellished stories continuing a tradition established by Charles Forte decades earlier. The book was popular, and it’s possible that he was the originator of the tall tale that has been repeated ever since. Books published as recently as 2010 still report the vessel as “vanished without a trace."
It’s a shame that folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts need to embellish what is an interesting story in its own right. The case of the Iron Mountain is a fun puzzle to solve, but it is definitively solved.
Or is it?
Just when I thought all the questions had been answered about the Iron Mountain, I found an article in the Public Ledger calling into doubt the finding of the vessel. This is the same paper that on June 24th said the hull had been found. On July 1, they reported this:
So, is the legend true? Hardly. While I was unable to find confirmation of the wreck being found in a field, the legend remains just a fairytale. We know without a doubt what happened to the Iron Mountain. The only question is whether the hull lies beneath the mud of the river, or was found in a flooded field.
I maintain that the actual story is far more interesting than the legend.
By Jeff Wagg
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