The sinking of the Steamboat Wawaset is probably the worst maritime disaster on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. On August 8, 1873 the vessel caught fire and went down in the waters of the Potomac River just upriver from Colonial Beach.
Nothing like it was seen since the U.S.S. Princeton disaster when President John Tyler, his Cabinet and about 200 guests left Alexandria, Virginia for a cruise. A defective gun on the ship burst, killing about eight and injuring about 20.
The Steamboat Wawaset disaster was much worse. It happened only a few miles upriver from Colonial Beach, near King George County. Back then, the completely overhauled ship was considered to be the most luxurious vessel on the Potomac. She used to ferry folks from Washington D.C. all up and down the river, where she made many stops in Maryland & Virginia - including Colonial Beach.
Supposedly there were safety violations of not enough lifeboats, and life jackets that were stashed away so well that they would be hard to get to during a disaster.
It was a sultry summer day on Friday, August 8, 1873 when at 6:00 Captain Wood and the Wawaset, 129 feet long, 26 feet abeam, nine feet in the hold and weighing some 258 tons, left Washington with 117 adults and 20 children on board. She made many stops in both Maryland and Virginia to pick up passengers, and was well on her way towards Chatterton's Landing on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, when the crew discovered a fire below in the engine room. After futile attempts to douse the flames, a decision was made to get as close to shore as possible and run the boat aground.
Folks on the Wharf stared in horror as they watched the massive ship, engulfed in flames and her passengers burning to death or being trampled before their very eyes. Apparently a bull in the cargo hold below deck could be heard screaming in the background as he was being roasted alive.
The steamer Georgiana was dispatched from Baltimore to pick up the survivors and bring them back to D.C. For days afterwards, a gruesome sight could be seen up and down the Potomac coastline as burned bodies washed ashore and in some cases, villians stole whatever valuables were still there.
Author Alvin Oickle released a book (see above) on the subject in 2009 and it features profiles of some of the approximately 82 who perished, as well as incredible firsthand accounts of the disaster.
The wreckage was located in early June, 2010 by Navy divers, 250 yards offshore from King George County.
A memorial and picnic was held August 8th from 1-5pm.