Death Dredge

“Home away from home is how a lot of us thought of her when we first got aboard…and then we would find out differently as she would show her dark side.

V. Freeman, Pilot 1938 – 1939 View the history
112 crewmember deaths in 45 years of service

Named after its Captain, the William S. Mitchell is among a fleet of four steam-powered, side-wheel dredge boats designed to carve through the river’s erosive and treacherous path clearing way for commercial travel. From the very beginning however, the Mitchell seemed to have a much more sinister purpose that would remain in existence to this day.

Three men were killed during its construction along with another death and dozens of injuries during its inaugural launching ceremony. In just 45 years of active service, the boat is responsible for over 112 crewmember deaths. Those who endured grueling shifts unearthing the river’s bottom and whatever else was awakened from its depths gave the ship a fitting moniker: Death Dredge.

DREDGE [drej]

noun A powerful machine or barge for dredging up or removing earth and gathering objects from the bottom of a river. Also called a dredging machine. verb to reveal or unearth by painstaking search

The Dredging Machine

Built in 1934 by the US Army Corps of Engineers, these 1,300+ ton machines could move 80,000 cubic yards in just 24 hours. But as river passage became more stabilized, three of the four boats were retired and the Mitchell was left as the only dredge still in service. Although the Captain and his crew were still operating infrequent dredging missions, the William S. Mitchell’s retirement was also imminent.

  • – Dimensions: 277.5’L x 84’W
  • – Two 600 hp steam propelling engines
  • – Side-wheel or paddlewheel propelled construction
  • – Two 30’ tall boiler stacks
  • – Listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the US Dept of the Interior National Park Service


Crewmembers described Captain Mitchell as a “peculiar” and, at times, “maniacal” leader who would collect bones and other items that were dredged up from the river’s bed. An apparent journal he began writing in the days leading up to his death offered even more ominous insight into life on the boat. One caption noted “various accounts […] of odd circumstances” surrounding his beloved daughter, Anna, who also lived on the boat.


Anna was the only child between the Captain and his late wife. Although he was very protective of her, one can only imagine what the life of a young girl aboard a dredging vessel could have entailed. During its missions, the boat would make infrequent stops to refuel and restock onboard supplies. It is noted the Captain would allow “clowns” from local carnivals to come aboard to entertain Anna and his crew.

Learn About the Massacre

A special thanks to PODS Moving & Storage