Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ben F. Egan's Story

Since beginning my project on the history and people of Smithland, Kentucky,  I've "met" some very interesting people and I am especially drawn to  those who made their living on the rivers. Because Smithland is located at the confluence of two navigable rivers, the Ohio and the Cumberland, it was the perfect spot for steamboat people to work and live. Many of these  men continued living in Smithland long after they were too old to work the rivers, but others moved on to other places.

One steamboat man who has captured my attention probably would not be recognized as one of the "movers and shakers" of Smithland, but he certainly led an interesting life and has a story to tell.  His name was Ben F. Egan, the same man who sent the Citizens Report on the Federal troops to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The son of Edward Egan and Martha "Patsy" Barner of Logan County, KY Ben was born about 1827 in Smithland.   After Edward's death, Martha  married  15 March 1837 to Henry Wells, a commission merchant of Smithland who had previously been married to Martha's sister, Mayes Barner.

By 1840, Ben was an orphan.  It is believed that Ben went to live with his uncle, Benjamin Barner, in his house on Charlotte Street in Smithland. There he probably  heard stories about life on the river from his Uncle Benjamin and later from Benjamin's brother, Sterling M. Barner, who was a renowned steamboat captain for many years. Ben was well educated, having graduated from St. Mary's College in Marion County, Kentucky.

Ben F. Egan married his cousin, Nettie Miller, 15 May 1852 in Davidson County, Tennessee. Nettie was the daughter of Joseph Miller, a steamboat captain on the Cumberland River. Ben and Nettie moved to Paducah before 1860, but by 1870, they were back in Nashville.  They had three known children -  Frank , born about 1858 Kentucky,  lived in New York City as late as 1930; Kate, or Kittie, was born about 1860 in Kentucky and a child stillborn in 1863.

Ben had firsthand knowledge of two wars. He was a Mexican War veteran, having enlisted in the 4th KY Infantry in Smithland in 1847 and served one year.  He is reputed to have received a pension for this service, but that has not yet been verified. For his services in the Mexican War, he received a tract of land in Iowa from the government. Although not a soldier during the Civil War, Ben was an active witness of Federal troop movements and fortifications in and around Smithland.

In the early 1880s, Ben became convinced his days were numbered and began a round of being admitted to various institutions and hospitals and then going AWOL. He spent time in the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers or hospitals in Leavenworth, Kansas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Dayton, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri and Evansville, Indiana. At one time he requested admissions to an institution in California, but was rejected.

His physical description on one admission records describes him as being 5 feet 10 inches tall, being of light complexion and having grey eyes and grey hair. His occupation was given as steamboat captain and his religion as Catholic. His nearest relative was Frank A. Egan of New York City.

An article published December 1896 in the Morning Herald, Lexington, Kentucky newspaper, was titled titled "Going Home to Die." It states the following:
"Captain Ben F. Egan, one of the survivors of the war with Mexico, is a guest at the Phoenix on his way to his home in Nashville, Tenn. He has been at the soldiers home in Dayton, where, he says, he went last October to die. Death did not come as expected, however, and his surroundings were not what he desires his last to be, so he is returning to his old home to be buried by the side of his relatives, all of whom are dead. He says he is not despondent, but does not hope to live many months."  Ben did die, but not for several more years.
In the 11 January 1902 issue of the Paducah Sun, the following was printed: "We regret to learn that Captain Ben F. Egan, the veteran steamboat man, is an inmate of a hospital in Washington, being treated in for an incurable disease. He was a resident of Smithland many years ago and is recollected by our older citizens, and has friends here. The sick man is a Mexican war veteran and was a steamboatman before the war."

Ben F. Egan died 24 February 1908 in the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, DC.  He was 81 years old.

 Published 4 April 2013, Western Kentucky Genealogy Blog,




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