Location: Demopolis, Alabama, USA
Built: c. 1852
Used: 1852 – 1858
The Eliza Battle was a palatial steamboat that sailed on the Tombigee River. It was launched in New Albany, Indiana in 1852. At the time, it was one of the most luxurious riverboats in the state’s waters. President Millard Fillmore was once entertained aboard it during a reception on April 7th, 1854.
In February, 1858, the Eliza Battle departed Columbus with S. Graham Stone as her captain and Daniel Epps as her pilot. During the journey, it made stops at Pickensville, Gainesville, and Demopolis, among others. By the time the ship left Demopolis on February 28th, the boat was loaded with passengers and 1200+ bales of cotton.
Around 2 AM on March 1st, about 32 miles downriver from Demopolis, it was discovered that the cotton bales had caught fire. The Eliza Battle continued downriver out of control. Passengers could not reach the lifeboats due to the fire blocking it. They were forced to jump into the frigid water in the already-cold night air. Some survived by floating atop cotton bales. About fifty people died in the freezing water and night air, and over one hundred were injured. The Eliza Battle eventually came to a stop above Kemp’s Landing.
Survivors were rescued by the Magnolia and some local residents. A few passengers had to be saved from treetops along the river. The ship’s remains are still at the bottom of the river, buried by 28 feet of water. Now, the boat’s ghostly outline can be seen along the river. Fishermen consider its sighting an omen of impending death on the river. It tends to appear on cold and windy winter nights, often appearing covered in flames.
The story is featured in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey under the title “The Phantom Steamboat of Tombigee”.