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Gratitude goes on for 1852 kindnesses

Documentary recounts heroic efforts toward victims of steamboat disaster

LEXINGTON, Mo. — When an 1852 steamboat explosion on the Mississippi River near this city killed 75 passengers, including some two dozen Mormon immigrants en route to Salt Lake City, the townspeople opened their hearts and homes to the wounded and survivors.

Now 152 years after the tragedy, a video documentary chronicling the incident has been presented to the Lexington Historical Association, according to Jolene Clark, Kansas City Missouri Stake public affairs media specialist. Also, young women from the Olathe Kansas Stake have given service in honor of the kindness of the Lexington residents in 1853.

The explosion of the steamboat Saluda and the humanitarian efforts of townspeople were memorialized two years ago on the 150th anniversary of the incident with an observance, monument unveiling and dedication of a memorial park involving Latter-day Saint descendants of the victims. A month later, a book by two BYU Church history professors, William G. Hartley and Fred E. Woods, was published about the incident. (See March 16, 2002, Church News, p. 14.)

On June 13 of this year, a DVD copy of the documentary, "Fire and Redemption: The Explosion of the Steamboat Saluda," was presented to the historical association. The premiere showing of the film took place at a dinner reception hosted by the association that was followed by commentary from experts.

Brother Woods, who is featured in the documentary along with Brother Hartley, briefly described the turbulent history of the Church that led to the expulsion of Church members from Missouri in 1838. Fourteen years later, the explosion of the steamboat occasioned the beginning of a healing process, as the citizens of Lexington rescued the wounded, buried the dead, found homes for the orphans and raised money to help others continue their journey. Later in the evening, Brother Woods played the guitar and sang the words to an original song, "Have You Heard of the Saluda?"

L. Douglas Smoot, a descendant of Abraham Smoot, who was the leader for the Church members on board, shared some excerpts from the personal papers of his ancestor. After witnessing the tragedy, Abraham Smoot wrote: "I shall never forget the kindness of the citizens of Lexington in caring for the living and burying their dead. . . . Prominent citizens did all they could to comfort and help the afflicted survivors."

Michael L. Hutchings, a member of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, which presented the documentary copy to the historical society, told of his ancestor Matilda Wiseman, who survived the explosion. She was dressed in her wedding gown and was to be married that day aboard the Saluda to John Sargent. He was killed, and the citizens nursed her back to health before she continued her journey to Utah.

Visitors to a museum in Lexington will be able to view the documentary, which features many local residents.

This month, young women and their leaders from the Olathe Kansas Stake journeyed on six homemade boats down the Mississippi. During their first stop, they performed service in Lexington, said Colleen Drake, public affairs specialist. They donated books, DVDs and videotapes to the Trails Regional Library in honor of the compassion shown to the survivors. Following the dedication of a solid granite park bench to the Saluda memorial, they divided into three groups: one provided a story time about the Saluda at the library; another did much-needed planting at the park; and a third planted flowers and erected a fence at the burial site of the victims.

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