Lafayette Spring is the most historic spot in Perry County. No doubt it is the most historic in the state with reference to the great general whose name it bears. The shrine is owned and cared for by the Lafayette Spring Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who perpetuate the name of this great American benefactor.
The spring is located several miles east of what is now Cannelton, then Virgin Forest, near the Ohio River. Here a spring now issues from a cliff in the steep rock cliffs facing the river. It was here that Lafayette held an informal reception with pioneers of the area following the shipwreck of his steamboat, the Mechanic, May 9, 1826.
Lafayette was on a farewell visit to the United States as guest of this government. He was enroute to Louisville with a group of distinguished persons. He had been honored by every state in the Union by patriots who wished to show their love and esteem for the great Lafayette.
During a heavy rainstorm about midnight, the boat struck a rock formation which juts out of the river from the Indiana side (now know as Rock Island) and sank in a short time. No lives were lost but Lafayette's carriage and his desk containing $8,000 and valuable papers were lost.
The old general fell into the river as he was being assisted into a lifeboat and would have drowned except for the deck hands. Bonfires were built and some clothing and food were dried out.
As Lafayette talked with friends, the steamer Paragon, moving downstream, was sighted. The captain was told of the incident and he agreed to return to Louisville with Lafayette and his party.
There are cliffs around to the north where you may visit Devil's or Bear's Cave or edge through Fat Man's Misery.
A Narrative of Lafayette's shipwreck
An Alternative View
I t was a pleasant enough voyage, and all had gone well for the honored passengers about the steamboat Mechanic . The honored Marquis de Lafayette of France, the Marquis' son, Georges Lafayette, a former governor of Louisiana name Thebeaudot, and a former governor of Kentucky Isaac Shelby were heading up the Ohio River toward Louisville after having spent some time with Andrew Jackson at his home, the Hermitage, near Nashville, Tennessee. Lafayette was to be honored at a huge reception upon reaching Louisville on this, his second and final visit to America in 1824.
Shortly past midnight on that drizzly May night, the boat struck an underwater snag near or upon Rock Island and came to a halt with a violent shudder. The hold began to fill with water, and it was obvious that the vessel was sinking rapidly. The captain gave orders to abandon ship. A cry went up to save General Lafayette. Torches were lighted, and the deckhands hurried to launch the small skiffs and herd the passengers overboard into them.
Presently, Lafayette, an elder statesman of 67 years, appeared, fully dressed, wigged and completely unperturbed. However, in mid-staircase, he stopped, suddenly remembering that he had left his snuff box in his stateroom. Quickly he sent his secretary, Levasseur, back up to fetch it. Some say the box was one of his prized possessions because it had a miniature portrait of George Washington painted on the lid. The two men had been great friends; in fact, Lafayette's own son had been named for the American patriot. Others who are more skeptical say that perhaps the General just didn't want to be without his snuff in a crisis. Anyway, the precious box was recovered, and the general and his secretary were hurried to the rail and put overboard.
The boat waiting below was already crowded, and the river was rough. In the darkness Lafayette lost his footing and tumbled headlong, powdered wig and all, into the river. Had it not been for the quick action of two sailors, he might have drowned in the Ohio River. However, the great man was no worse off than wet, so when the small boat reached the Indiana shore, fires were built for a general drying out.
According to records, no lives were lost in the disaster, but within 10 minutes the Mechanic had completely sunk, taking with it Lafayette's carriage, clothing, and about $8,000 of his money. Captain Wylys Hall lost not only his boat but also his desk and a sum of money which ranges from $1,300 to $13,000 depending upon which source is quoted.
All the excitement, the shouting and the blazing bonfires on the river bank awakened the family of James Cavender, who lived in a log cabin nearby. When the Cavenders found out what had happened and who the distinguished personages were who had alighted so unexpectedly on their shore, they hastened to offer the Marquis de Lafayette hot broth in their cabin and a warm bed for the rest of the night.
The next dawn ushered in a gray and rainy day. When area farmers learned through the grapevine that Lafayette was here, they came in wagons and on horseback to shake his hand. They were not unlike other people all over the United States who gave of their best in his honor. Children had been known to have scattered flowers in his path, men on horseback had ridden before his party to tell of his approach, and it is said that people kissed his hand and some wept on seeing him. Nonetheless, about 9 a.m. another steamboat, the Paragon , was sighted churning up the river. The party flagged her down, and she pulled to shore and took aboard the Mechanic's unfortunate passengers and carried them to Louisville.
Whether or not Lafayette actually slept in the Indiana cabin is still debated today. In fact, there is even speculation that the Mechanic actually wrecked and sank on the Kentucky side of the river, whereupon the party spent the night on Kentucky shores. Nevertheless, the wreck of the Mechanic and all her cargo remains today at the bottom of the Ohio River, and Lafayette Springs claims to be the official sight of the event.
An Alternative View
B efore the dam was built there was a large round rock in the river just past the upper end of the present lock. It was called the Lady Washington Rock (a boat of that name was supposed to have wrecked there in 1852). It was also called Elephant Rock from its shape. It was used as a navigational mark by steamboats going upstream. Before reaching it boats moved to the Kentucky side where the current was easier on the inside of a curve.
This was the situation when Lafayette was traveling upstream on the rainy night of May 9, 1825. The boat, the Mechanic , moved to the Kentucky side and soon hit a submerged tree, called a snag, and partially sank around 11 o'clock. The 65-year-old Lafayette spent the rest of the night on the Kentucky shore on a partially dry mattress under an umbrella with a fire burning. At daybreak a rowboat was found and he was brought to a cabin near Elephant Rock on the Indiana side. He stayed here out of the rain until around noon when a downstream boat turned around and took him to Louisville. Bert Fenn found three eye-witness accounts which agreed with one another. So Lafayette was not wrecked on Rock Island nor did he spend the night at Lafayette Spring around 3/4 mile upstream from Elephant Rock.