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Vicksburg History

Lost landmarks of Vicksburg: The Sprague



The Sprague
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Nestled along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, our city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, is renowned for its rich history, architectural heritage, and romanticized riverboat era. Though much of the charm of the city remains today, many of the iconic landmarks of our past have vanished with the passing of time. Among these is one of the most famous and remarkable steamboats to travel the Mississippi: the Sprague.

Originally constructed for the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Company (commonly known as The Combine) in 1901 for $300,000, the Sprague launched its career in December of that year. The sternwheeler was named after Captain Peter Sprague, who was serving as the company’s construction superintendent at the time of its completion.

The Sprague

Pilot room (Old Court House Museum)

At 318 feet in length, the Sprague was most famously known as the “Big Mama” of the Mississippi. However, her size came with certain complications, as no other sternwheeler at the time came close to her specifications. A set of pulleys had to be linked from the pilot house to the paddlewheel so the captain could guarantee that their signals remained in sync. Additionally, the paddlewheel had to be reduced in size by 1904 to increase the number of revolutions per minute from nine to eleven, in order to improve its speed while traveling upriver. Regardless of these initial issues, the Sprague was a marvel of the steam era.

The first voyage of the mighty riverboat was from Pittsburg to New Orleans, and folks flocked from all across the state in order to witness the “walking and floating island of coal.” With an average towing capacity of 46 barges, there was nothing else that came close to its towing power. Within the first few years of service, it broke another record for the era when it transported 53,200 tons of coal. Then, in 1907, it broke the record a second time when it made the largest tow in history at 63,307 tons.

Despite its impressive feats, the Combine stopped operating the Sprague in 1916 due to a loss in profits in the coal industry. The sternwheeler was purchased the following year by the Aluminum Ore Company and was put to work transporting barges of bauxite. Five years later, it was again sold, this time to the Standard Oil Company out of Louisiana. Under the ownership of Standard Oil, the Sprague played a vital role on the Mississippi River alongside its duties of hauling crude oil. During the great flood of 1927, 20,000 refugees were brought aboard the vessel and taken from Greenville to the Red Cross camps at Vicksburg. Many of those 20,000 were stranded inland, and the Sprague had to traverse across flooded plains to reach them. The vessel was once again called into public service throughout World War II, where it earned its second nickname, “The only pipeline running lengthwise of the Mississippi.”

Standard Oil announced in 1947 that the “Big Mama” would make its last voyage on March 5, 1948. Steam power was beginning to be phased out by diesel-powered ships. For many, the announcement was negatively received. The Sprague had become quite famous for its unmatched feats in the first half of the twentieth century. Having traveled an equivalent distance of 40 trips around the world and transporting more cargo than all other vessels of its kind combined, the Sprague had dominated the steam era.

The Sprague

The Sprague burns. (Old Court House Museum)

After its final voyage, the Sprague was brought to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where plans had been made for it to be scrapped. The City of Vicksburg, believing the ship had historical significance and deserved a better fate, reached out to Standard Oil, and an agreement was reached to have it moved to Vicksburg and displayed at the waterfront. Vicksburg paid Standard Oil $1.00 for the sternwheeler.

For several years, the Sprague served the City of Vicksburg faithfully. The inside was transformed into a museum attracting visitors from all across the nation, a restaurant operated on board becoming a local favorite, and the world record-holding melodrama “Gold in the Hills” was performed regularly by the Vicksburg Theatre Guild. The “Big Mama” had found its second wind as a permanent fixture on the waterfront. Unfortunately, most natives of Vicksburg know the rest of the story of the Sprague. It’s a tragedy that has been recounted for almost 50 years.

In 1974, a fire broke out onboard during the night, and within minutes the ship was lost. No official cause was ever declared; although, lots of speculation has been made over the years. The Sprague is now with us in memory only but serves as another interesting part of Vicksburg’s unique history.

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