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Leonidas Taylor and the Steamer 'Belle'

Driving along the Sacramento River, about halfway between the California's capital and the town of Woodland, 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 text:

"ERECTED to the memory of LEONIDAS TAYLOR, born in the city of Philadelphia on the 3d of July, 1832. He grew to manhood in the city of St. Louis, and was killed by the explosion of the steamer Belle, opposite this spot, on the 5th of Feb. 1856. His body was never recovered. Far distant from those who loved him, the waters of the Sacramento will roll over him till that day when the sea shall give up its dead."

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