Along the Road: Leonidas Taylor and the Steamer Belle

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Again, from our recent trip to Woodland: Headed from Woodland toward Sacramento, Old River Road is a levee highway, generally keeping to the top of the embankment separating the Sacramento River from the flood plain to the west and south. If you like seeing the river, the surviving remnant of riparian landscape and the adjacent farms — orchards interspersed with fields ready for row crops — it’s a beautiful drive.

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I’m guessing about halfway between Woodland and Sacramento, you pass the obelisk above. It’s along a stretch of 55 mph highway, meaning much of the traffic is faster, and the pullout is minuscule. We ran past it heading south toward Sacramento, then turned around and pulled in heading the wrong way up the road.

The obelisk is a memorial to a young Philadelphia native named Leonidas Taylor, one of the many victims of steamboat disasters/mishaps in mid-19th century America. He was clerk aboard the steamer Belle, which, according to newspaper accounts from the time, left Sacramento at at a little after 7 a.m. on February 5, 1856, and headed up the foggy river bound for Red Bluffs (today, it’s Red Bluff, singular). That’s roughly 120 miles in a straight line, and one would guess about 150 river miles. About 40 people were aboard.

About an hour later, 10 miles above Sacramento, the Belle’s boiler blew. The explosion obliterated the front half of the 75-ton sternwheeler, flinging passengers, cargo and wreckage into the Sacramento. The Belle sank quickly. The papers reported about half those aboard were killed in the blast or drowned. Here’s how the Sacramento Union described the toll:

From the most reliable information obtainable, we cannot learn that there were over forty souls on board. Of this number, however, we fear that a great proportion are no longer in the land of the living, and there is little probability that their names will all be recorded, save in the registry of Heaven. This deplorable tragedy, as well it might, has cast a deep gloom over our city.

Among those whose name was known was Taylor — referred to in the early press accounts as Alonzo Taylor. His family reportedly offered a $500 reward for recovery of his body. Today he is unique among the Belle casualties in having a permanent roadside monument that passers-by snap pictures of and blog about.

The obelisk, said to be of Italian marble, was put in place about eight months after the Belle blew up. Here’s the item from the October, 7, 1856, number of the Union:

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And yes, that’s precisely the inscription we read when we stopped on Old River Road a few weeks back — weathered but clearly visible. The monument itself is a little different from what the Union describes. The base is neither 5 feet square nor 5 feet high, and the shaft is about 10 feet, not 13. I’m guessing that the needs of various road makers and levee builders over the intervening 159 years have probably led to some alteration in size and location. Still — pretty surprising to me that it has survived for so long. I’m tempted to go out to the spot next February 5 to see if there’s some little ceremony out there.

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