BUILT: c. 1852
OPERATION TIME: 1852 to 1858
The Eliza Battle riverboat was a palatial steamboat that sailed the Tombigee River. It was launched in New Albany, Indiana in 1852. At the time, it was one of the most luxurious riverboats in Indiana’s waters. On April 7, 1854, President Millard Fillmore was entertained aboard it during a reception. The Eliza Battle departed Columbus with S. Graham Stone as her captain and Daniel Epps as her pilot on February 1858. Along her journey, she made stops at Pickensville, Gainesville, Demopolis, and several other Alabaman towns. At the time of departure from Demopolis on February 28, the boat was filled with passengers and over 1,200 bales of cotton.
The Destruction of the Eliza Battle
Around 2 AM on March 1, the crew discovered the cotton bales had caught fire. Eliza Battle, now thirty-two miles downriver from Demopolis, continued along the river, out of control. With flames blocking access to the lifeboats, the passengers were forced to jump into the frigid water in the already-cold night air. Some survived by floating atop the cotton bales. Roughly fifty people died of hypothermia and over one hundred were injured. The Eliza Battle eventually came to a stop above Kemp’s Landing. Remaining survivors were rescued by the Magnolia and a handful of local residents. A few of the desperate, fleeing passengers had to be retrieved from treetops along the river. The remains of the steamboat are still at the bottom of the river, buried by twenty-eight feet of water.
The ghostly burning outline of the Eliza Battle can be seen floating along the river, usually on cold and windy winter nights. Fishermen believe that seeing the phantom steamboat is an omen of impending death on the river.
In Pop Culture
- The story was featured in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s Jeffrey’s Latest 13 More Alabama Ghosts in the short story, “The Phantom Steamboat of Tombigee.”