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    An alternative way to explore and explain the mysteries of our world. "Published since 1985, online since 2001."

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Vanished! The Mystery of the Iron Mountain

By Dr. Greg Little

It happened just over 139-years ago—one of the most mysterious events to ever take place on the Mississippi River—or anywhere else for that matter. I first became aware of this strange event while reading the novel, The Haunted Mesa (1987), one of Louis L’Amour’s many fine western tales. After understanding that the novel weaved an actual event into his story, it became a brief obsession with me and I recounted the subsequent research in my 1994 book Grand Illusions. It took over 40 hours of library research over several weeks and traveling between Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis to finally run down the story and reach a resolution. It is a tale that is actually so similar to Bermuda Triangle disappearances that it should have taken place there.

In the 1988 book World of Strange Phenomena, Charles Berlitz ends his telling of the story of the Iron Mountain riverboat by writing, “The mystery of the Iron Mountain has never been solved.” The story is also told in Frank Edward’s 1956 book, Strangest of All, in Begg’s (1979) book Into Thin Air, as well as in the more authoritative Reader’s Digest’s (1982) Mysteries of the Unexplained. I was impressed by the story, the writers who investigated it, and their documentation of the event— and in many ways it influenced me to delve into the Bermuda Triangle disappearances. So here is the story.

The Disappearance of the Iron Mountain

The Iron Mountain was a giant of a riverboat, more than 180-feet long, 35-feet wide, with a double sternwheel, and 4 boilers. On June 26, 1872 the boat pulled out of the port at Vicksburg, Mississippi heading north with a load of cotton, molasses, and 52 passengers. The boat also pushed several barges ahead of her attached to the bow. The eventual destination was Pittsburgh. Just after 9 a.m. the boat rounded the first river bend north of Vicksburg steaming out of view of Vicksburg. Moments later another riverboat plying up the river, named the Iroquois Chief, began wildly blowing her whistle as she swung around several loose barges now careening down the river. The Iroquois Chief gradually collected the loose barges and brought them back to port. At the dock, the Iroquois Chief and dockworkers awaited the return of the Iron Mountain to reclaim the barges that had apparently been cut loose. This was actually a frequent and common practice when a life-threatening event took place. Barges were cut to allow the riverboats to maneuver more freely and after attending to the problem, they would steam back down the river to retrieve their cargo. The problem was that the Iron Mountain didn’t return—ever. Not a trace was ever found of the boat or the 52 passengers on board. It was front page news everywhere when it happened. And the mystery has never been solved. At least that’s what lots of books tell us.

Moving Toward the Solution

In 1987 I began researching the Iron Mountain event and I started by pulling microfilm from newspapers dated to the event. The first papers I looked at were from Memphis, the key Mississippi River port back in the 1870s, where the cotton from the Iron Mountain was to be unloaded. The local papers (3 different publications were active in Memphis in 1872) had a great deal of information about river traffic listed, and I found a lot of other boats mentioned in June of 1872, but not a trace of the Iron Mountain could be found in any of them. I then looked at every paper issued in Memphis in April, May, and June of 1872, but found nothing. But starting in July 1872 I found her listed in lots of newspapers. Oddly, this was a month after the boat supposedly disappeared. I traced the movements of the boat up and down the Mississippi River from then through 1873, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, and on and on it went. Memphis, New Orleans, Cairo, Illinois, St. Louis — it seemed that she was moving quickly from one place to another. She was obviously a ghost ship, but nobody knew it. Initially I guessed that somewhere along the line the first writer of the story got the year she “disappeared” wrong and all the subsequent writers just kept making the same mistake. After spending more than 40 hours peering at newspaper microfilms, I stopped the search with the 1879 papers and decided to go to the site of the event.

I went to Vickburg, Mississippi and pulled the local papers from then. I found the same information I found in Memphis. The staff of the library there were clueless about the story. Then I went to the state archives in Jackson, Mississippi and talked to several people. Nothing—again. Interestingly the Mississippi State Archivist referred me back to Memphis where I then discussed the situation with staff at the Mississippi Valley Library housed at the University of Memphis. After their search turned up nothing they suggested I talk to Captain Fred Way, a respected author who cataloged all of the riverboats in use during the 1800s.

The Answer is Found

Captain Way was in his late 80’s when I reached him by phone, but he was mentally sharp. As soon as I mentioned the Iron Mountain, he shot back, “She was a 185-foot, double sternwheel tugboat built in early 1872 to carry iron ore from Missouri back to Pittsburgh. She sunk after striking an underwater obstruction at Stumpy Point north of Vicksburg. The crew escaped before she sunk but the chambermaid drowned. I believe she sank in March 1882.”

I was momentarily speechless, but I soon told him what had been written about the boat and asked if there might have been more than one boat with that name? He laughed a bit and then explained that there was only one boat named Iron Mountain but that river stories were commonly made up. It’s a lot like the telling of ghost stories where actual events are changed, embellished, and made more mysterious for amusement. River people told stories about the river and somewhere along the line the real story of the Iron Mountain was used to create a mystery.

I then went back to the old newspaper microfilm and pulled out the papers from March 1882. There it was. The March 28, 1882 issue of the Daily Memphis Avalanche published this small story: “Towboat Sank. Vicksburg, March 26—The towboat Iron Mountain, en route to St. Louis with five empty barges in tow, sunk this morning at Stumpy Point, twenty miles above here. The chambermaid was drowned. The boat settled to the hurricane deck and will prove a total loss. The Iron Mountain belonged to the Mound City Transportation Company of St. Louis.”

Lesson in Finding the Needle in the Haystack

I recounted the story of the Iron Mountain while discussing several UFO cases, mainly the exploding flying saucer case commonly referred to as the Ubatuba Crash. I also see the so-called MJ-12 documents, Roswell, the Socorro, New Mexico case, Gulf Breeze, and many others in a way similar to the Iron Mountain story. The field of ufology is in many ways like looking for a needle in a haystack. But because many stories in the field prove to be like that of the Iron Mountain, it’s more like looking for a specific needle in a haystack of needles.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023