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Lessons from the Saluda

Posted by imawheatwatcher on January 25, 2009

William G. Hartley, “Sturdy Shoes and a Waterproof Tent,” Ensign, Oct 2001, 38

Church history teaches us many lessons about personal preparedness
“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1831. While it may sound surprising, a look at Church history can teach us about preparedness for our day.

Lessons from the Saluda Disaster

On Good Friday morning, 9 April 1852, the Missouri river-boat Saluda blew up near Lexington, Missouri, killing nearly two dozen Latter-day Saints traveling from St. Louis to Council Bluffs on their way west to Utah. Important lessons are learned from this tragedy.

Lesson 1: When the Spirit cautions us against something, we need to obey.
One passenger, William C. Dunbar, later admitted he had ignored warnings from the Holy Spirit to stay off the vessel. When Latter-day Saint agents chartered the old, slow Saluda to move Saints from St. Louis upriver to the wagon train camps, Brother Dunbar and his friend Duncan Campbell looked it over. Both felt strongly impressed that “something awful was going to happen,” such that each saw tears coursing down the other’s cheek. This was a warning that went unheeded. By contrast, Abraham O. Smoot was similarly prompted and refused to board the boat, even when offered free passage.

Despite his bad feelings about the Saluda, Brother Dunbar determined that he and his wife, Helen, and their two small children would go. But on departure morning the Dunbar family missed the boat because supplies they purchased did not show up on time. Brother Dunbar later reflected that “some friendly unseen power was at work in my behalf, trying to prevent me from going on board with my family.” Two days later they boarded another riverboat, but Brother Dunbar insisted that its captain put him aboard the slower Saluda if they caught up with it so they could rejoin the Latter-day Saint company. Before long they caught up with the Saluda, but river ice prevented the Dunbars from transferring. Upriver the passengers on the Dunbars’ boat disembarked, but Brother Dunbar made the captain drift their boat back to a dock where the Saluda was waiting for the ice to clear. There the Dunbars boarded the Saluda the night before it blew up. They joined about 175 passengers, 90 of them Latter-day Saints.

The Dunbars slept that night behind a canvas wall on the deck—directly over the boat’s boilers. Friday morning Brother Dunbar stepped briefly to another part of the deck to watch the crew working. Stokers fired up the boilers so the Saluda could start upriver. When pumps shot cold water into the red-hot boilers, they exploded. The blast was “heard and felt” throughout nearby Lexington. Two-thirds of the Saluda’s superstructure disintegrated in a cloud of smoke, flame, and dust. Passengers were blown ashore and into the river.

Brother Dunbar wrote, “I witnessed just two revolutions of the paddle wheels, when I remember nothing more till I found myself lying on the bank of the river within three yards of the water’s edge, with my clothes drenching wet, and my head all covered with blood.” When conscious, he found the lifeless body of his one-year-old boy. Then, in a temporary hospital, he saw his wife, Helen, breathe her last. Searching among the dead, he found the body of his five-year-old daughter. He lost his entire family. For the rest of his life he regretted that he ignored several voices of warning.

Lesson 2: Up-to-date rosters of people are important, and parents need wills that specify who should have their children.
To this day, no one knows for certain how many members were aboard the Saluda, how many were lost, or how many reached Utah. Lexington townspeople, with charitable instincts but who also wanted to save children from Mormonism, took a number of Latter-day Saint orphans into their homes and raised them. Leaders had no list to check off to see how many children they needed to locate and claim.

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