Blowing Off Steam

Blowing off steam is an oft-used expression to describe someone who is doing or saying something to relieve built-up feelings or energy. Sometimes the person exerts a sudden act of verbal or physical violence. This expression has its roots with steam engines. Steam engines use boilers to boil water. The boiling water produces steam pressure, which, when channeled properly, can propel vehicles including pre-diesel train locomotives and water vessels. When functioning properly, safety valves on the engines release or blow off steam to keep the boilers operating at a safe pressure. When not functioning properly, the boilers are unable to release the built-up steam and the pressure increases until the boilers rupture which creates a massive explosion.

In the mid-1850s, steamboats which travelled along the Mississippi River were seen by many as romantic. Children and teenagers idolized the crew of these large vessels, especially the pilots. Steamboats were at the height of technology and offered thrilling adventure with a twinge of danger. Like so many other young men, Henry dreamed of working on a steamboat and eventually becoming a steamboat pilot. Henry’s older brother was a crewman on the sidewheeler steamboat Pennsylvania, and, in the first week of June of 1858, got Henry a job on the same vessel as a “Mud Clerk.” This was an entry level position with no salary, but would become a paid position once the crewman proved himself. On June 5, 1858, Henry’s brother and the Pennsylvania’s pilot got into an altercation which resulted in Henry’s brother’s resignation. Following his brother’s departure, Henry knew he would have to work even harder to impress the pilot.

On Sunday, June 9, 1858, the Pennsylvania left New Orleans, Louisiana bound for St. Louis, Missouri. It was Henry’s first trip as a member of a steamboat crew. Although the work was grueling, Henry was ecstatic. On June 13th, four days into the trip, the Pennsylvania neared Ship Island, about sixty miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The crew noticed that the steamboat’s boiler was building up pressure to a dangerous level. The safety valves had failed. The crew tried to manually open pressure release valves but the pressure continued to climb. At about 6:00 a.m., the Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded. Within an instant, red-hot metal shrapnel, wood splinters, and scalding hot water violently shot in every direction.

A survivor of the explosion wrote, “The boilers seemed to be heaved upward and forward parting the cabin at the gangway, and rendering the upper works of the boat from that point forward a complete wreck. When the steam and smoke had cleared up from the wreck, there indeed was a mournful spectacle to be seen by the few survivors. The boilers and smokestacks were twisted together like hungry serpents, locking in their hot embrace scores of human beings, dead and dying. Some were killed instantly; others were buried beneath the rubbish to await the advance of the flames which as yet slumbered in the hold.”

Survivors scrambled to aid the wounded. The pilot and some surviving crew members commandeered a local flatboat and, after nearly half an hour, returned to the drifting wreck. The crew loaded survivors and victims onto the flatboat. Using buckets, survivors had nearly extinguished all of the small fires in the forward part of the Pennsylvania when a much larger fire suddenly erupted in the middle of the ship. The heat from the fire was so intense that the crew on the flatboat had to abandon their rescue operation. Survivors, many of whom were wearing cork life vests while others grabbed anything which would float, jumped into the swift current of the Mississippi River. The fire aboard the Pennsylvania burned the steamboat down to the waterline.

The current carried the flatboat and the floating survivors down the Mississippi River. Up ahead was Ship Island, which was mostly underwater due to high rainfall. The crew aimed the flatboat toward the island. Survivors who had enough energy swam to the island. The burning steamboat, survivors who were too weak to swim, and others who were less fortunate, coasted down the river past the island.

Henry had survived the initial blast but his body was scalded by the boiling water from the steamboat’s boilers. Survivors loaded Henry onto the flatboat and transferred him to Ship Island. Henry’s brother stayed with him in the hospital, but there was little hope for his recovery. On June 21, 1858, eight days after the explosion, Henry died from his wounds. He was just nineteen years old.

Henry’s brother regretted getting Henry the position on the Pennsylvania for the rest of his life. He wrote, “My poor Henry — my darling, my pride, my glory, my all, will have finished his blameless career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter darkness. O, God! This is hard to bear … “

Henry’s brother continued to work on steamboats until the Civil War crippled the shipping industry in the south. Following the war, Henry’s brother entered into an entirely different career field. Had Henry’s brother not argued with the ship’s pilot, he too would have been on the steamboat when it exploded and he might not have lived to write the literary classics “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. Henry’s brother was Sam Clemens, who is known around the world as Mark Twain.

1. The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), June 14, 1858, p.1.
2. The Greenville Journal (Greenville, Ohio), June 23, 1858, p.2.
3. “Henry Clemens (Mark Twain’s Brother) Dies While Working On Steamboat.” Accessed May 18, 2021.
4. Julia Keller, “Death of Sibling Crucial Moment,” Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2005,
5. Find A Grave. “Henry Clemens.” Accessed May 18, 2021.

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