The tendency of steamboats to blow up and catch fire became such a concern by 1838 that the U.S. Congress created the Steamboat Inspection Service on July 7.
Its purpose was to ‘provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.’
The spectacular explosion of the SS Moselle in the Ohio River on April 25, 1838, no doubt contributed to the passage of the act. The vessel’s boiler exploded just east of Cincinnati, killing 160 of the estimated 300 passengers.
The Steamboat Inspection Service was soon found to be inadequate. On Jan. 13, 1840, the SS Lexington was en route to Stonington, Conn., from New York when it caught fire, killing all but four of the 143 passengers and crew. She was carrying a cargo of 150 bales of cotton, which were stored next to the casings around the smokestack. The casings ignited, the fire spread to the cotton and the crew was unable to extinguish the flames. Lifeboats were inadequate and sank almost immediately after they were launched. Passengers drowned or froze to death. The four who survived had clung to bales of cotton floating in the water.
Just before he joined Ives, Nathaniel Currier had a blockbuster hit with his print of Awful Conflagration of the Steamboat Lexington, a tragic fire that killed 139 people aboard a steamship in Long Island Sound.
Between 1847 and 1852 an unusual number of steamboats exploded, caught fire or collided. Congress passed another law, the Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852. It required testing of boilers, safety valves and licensing of pilots.