The G.P. Griffith / The Great Lakes Second Worst Passenger Steamer Disaster

The Great Lakes have produced some of the most severe storms and waves on the surface of the earth. In this unpredictable environment was the burgeoning Great Lakes shipping industry. The toll on lives and vessels traversing the Great Lakes since the earliest times has largely been lost to history. Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes have been around as long as man has been sailing on them.

Beginning in the 1840s, lumber, coal, iron and agricultural products were hauled by boats over the Great Lakes. As an example, iron ore from the upper lakes region was carried east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. The early ships that traveled the lakes helped build the great cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit among others. The lake boats were the economic catalyst of the entire Great Lakes region.

On the Great Lakes During the Mid 1800’s

The year of 1850 proved to be the most deadly of any Great Lakes shipping season up to that date. The Great Lakes truly do have a shipping season since the winter months largely ice over all of the lakes. The season generally runs March through November although November has always been a question mark. The storms of November are infamous for taking down many vessels, large and small.

steamboat explosion

Steamboat boiler explosion

The loss of lives and ships during 1850 however didn’t seem to need much help from mother nature. If you were to name the biggest danger to ship, crew and passengers during this mid 1800’s time, aside from mother nature and storms, you would probably point to boiler explosions. In fact, steamboat boiler explosions raised havoc all throughout the eastern U.S. waterways. The boiler explosions of 1850 were not the first and they certainly weren’t the last. Most historians might say that the second culprit was fire. Fire not related to boiler explosions would be combustibles in the boats cargo hold. There was even a Great Lakes steamboat fire started by someone tamping out his smoking pipe on the wood deck. This was an era of wooden steamboats. Whether it by explosion or by fire, a wooden vessel would go up in flames many times faster than someone could leap overboard or put on a life jacket. Add to this the absence of any meaningful safety regulations and a culture among captains and crews of racing and you have the proverbial “accident waiting to happen”.

In this atmosphere was a country growing immensely. The mid 1800’s was an era of massive immigration. The Great Lakes served as a highway to the frontier because in 1850 the western frontier would have been roughly anything from Chicago westward. The forests of the upper Great Lakes would go on to provide needed lumber and would supplant the eastern forests which were essentially decimated. The Great Lakes was the often used route for immigrants from Europe who came to the U.S. with their life savings for the purchase of land.

A European immigrant might travel from New York City to Buffalo New York where he or she might then board a steamer for points west. Points west would include, among others, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. If the passenger had the funds then he or she might travel in a private cabin. If not, then steerage was the option and steerage accounted for the majority of travelers. Keep in mind, many of these people had already endured a lengthy voyage on the ocean before even arriving in Buffalo. In 1850, steamboat traffic on the Great Lakes was enormous. Today, we look at the Great Lakes as a venue for lake freighters and pleasure craft. In 1850 it represented the equivalence of the Santa Fe Trail, although without Indian attacks, for people wanting to travel to cities like Detroit and Chicago.

The Worst Disaster of 1850

Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes seemed to have been not an uncommon occurrence. During the infamous 1850 Great Lakes shipping season, the largest of all 1850 disasters occurred on June 17th. The burning of the steamer G. P. Griffith about twenty miles east of Cleveland, cost 286 lives to be lost. Some estimates I’ve seen put the total at 326. This was one of the greatest single event loss of life in Great lakes history. This disaster was the second of Lake Erie’s three great passenger steamer tragedies and the worst nautical disaster on the lakes until the SS Eastland capsizing while at port in Chicago in 1915. In that disaster, 844 people lost their lives. What’s incredible is that the worst Great Lakes loss of life occurred while the boat was tied up at a Chicago River dock. You might expect great shipwrecks  to occur during a storm or during an uncontrollable fire, but what happened to the SS Eastland is almost beyond belief.

ss eastland in chicago

SS Eastland docked at Chicago

On the G P Griffith, one woman was the sole survivor and what is so surprising about the Griffith loss was that it occurred just three miles from shore. A fire was reported in the hold at about 4 in the morning. One seaman took the wheel and tried to steer the boat to shore but hit a sandbar reportedly only about 600 feet from shore. The vessel burned all the way to the water line while passengers jumped in the water. Lights could even be seen on shore but with the panic that ensued  the shore could have been 100 miles a way. Burned bodies would have to be buried on the shoreline and there they stayed. The G.P. Griffith disaster was not only a Great Lakes boating disaster but it was a tragedy for the mostly German, Irish, English and Scandanavian immigrants who had traveled so far already just to have their lives snuffed out so close to their intended destinations. Also among the victims were the captain and his family who was traveling with him.

With the lax regulations in place, boats built of wood, steam boilers that were sometimes left unattended and the eagerness to race a break time records, it’s almost amazing that there were not more accidents and lives lost during the mid 1800’s. It’s estimated that the Great Lakes are home to some 8,000 shipwrecks and about 2,000 of them are located in Lake Erie. One-hundred and fifty years ago Lake Erie would have looked like a traffic jammed street. Lake Erie for centuries was a bustling water highway. It’s reported that the majority of the Great lakes shipwrecks have not been discovered even to this day. Each year more wrecks are discovered. Some have been found by fishermen while working with their nets. Diving expeditions, which I hear draw divers from all over the world, are undertaken each year. By inputting as much information that is available, maps of Great Lakes shipwreck locations have been plotted out and these are referred to by divers. Shipwreck maps are often updated when new information is discovered.

eastland capsized in chicago

Effort to right the SS Eastland after the dockside disaster

If you’re somewhat familiar with the Cleveland Ohio area, the area of the sinking, according to a Willowick Ohio web site, is approximately an area north of Lake Shore Blvd. from Cresthaven to East 305th Street.

Today, there is a memorial in place in regards to the G P Griffith tragedy at Lakefront Park in Willowick Ohio, east of Cleveland.

I also have a short article about the devastating steamboat boiler explosion at the docks of Lawrence Kansas. Also an interesting article on the Mosquito Fleet and wrecks on Washington State’s Puget Sound. Another Great Lakes related story which is very interesting concerns the break up and sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley during a fierce Lake Michigan November storm.

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

(Photos are in the public domain)

The Storms of Lake Michigan And The Carl D. Bradley Sinking

The Great Lakes are truly a geographic wonder. If you have traveled on or near them during the summer months you are probably well aware of their natural beauty. In fact, the Great Lakes are one of America’s premiere vacation destinations covering a major part of the upper midwest. There are many cottages, hotels and resorts dotted along it’s shores that are excellent for family vacations. There are many interesting stories about the lakes and vessels who sailed and steamed on them. Many people who may not be familiar with the Great Lakes might also be a bit surprised by the degree in which they can be deadly.

french ship on the great lakes

The Le Griffon, the first vessel ever to sail on the upper Great Lakes in 1679

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

lake michigan

Lake Michigan from Big Sable Point Lighthouse

The Great Lakes cover an enormous area spanning some 1,500 miles from the end of Lake Superior to Lake Ontario. The first discoverers of these massive lakes were quite surprised that they contained fresh water. This was because they were so large, the early explorers actually referred to them as oceans. While they certainly aren’t oceans, what is certain, and some may not realize it, is that there are factors involved with these chain of lakes which often make storms more hazardous to shipping than the oceans themselves. The Great Lakes of course don’t possess the massive depths of the ocean but this fact in itself often make wave action more unpredictable and deadly to shipping. It’s believed that the lake waves come so frequently as compared to ocean waves that a ship gets hit by the next wave before she has a chance to recover from the first one. Interestingly enough, most Great lake sailors believe Lake Erie, the most shallow of the lakes, can put forth the most dangerous waves. By the same token, many sailors contend that Lake Superior is the best lake to be on during a gale because it offers much more room to navigate. Great Lakes shipwrecks fill the pages of many books.

Lake Michigan is a very long lake running north to south and is the only Great Lake which doesn’t have an international boundary. It’s length is about 300 miles. An interesting fact about Lake Michigan which many may not realize is that it’s full length is longer than the entire U.S. northeastern seaboard. While the southern end of the lake is at a latitude similar to the southern coast of Cape Cod, the northernmost part of the lake is closer to the North Pole than Montreal Canada. Another characteristic of Lake Michigan is that it doesn’t have an abundance of natural harbors that most of the other lakes have. Indiana and Chicago are located on it’s southern end and the Straits of Mackinac mark it’s northern end. Between these two points, natural harbors really exist only in northern Wisconsin to the west and Grand Traverse Bay to the east in the northwest section of lower Michigan. A good two thirds of the lake’s southern part is without natural harbors. Lake Michigan is also known for having a variety of different currents caused by water running through the Straits of Mackinac. Weather in Lake Michigan also produces west to east crosswinds. Lake Michigan beaches on the eastern shore are characterized by their large sand dunes. As you can see, the lake is much more affected by geography than an ocean.

One of the most publicized Great Lake shipwrecks occurred in November of 1958 and was an exceptionally surprising event because of the ship involved. In fact, when it occurred it was the biggest Great Lakes disaster to date.

ship carl d bradley

Carl D. Bradley, 1958

The lake freighter Carl D. Bradley was built in Lorain Ohio in 1927 by the American Shipbuilding Company.. Lorain was a big ship building port located on the southern shore of Lake Erie just a bit west of Cleveland Ohio. The Bradley was built for the Bradley Steamship Company which was owned by U.S. Steel. When the vessel was launched, it was hailed as being the longest lake freighter to enter service. The Bradley at 640 feet in length was longer than two football fields. Built using riveted steel plates, the Carl D. Bradley was considered unsinkable and the safest vessel on the Great Lakes. Compared to earlier ship construction, the Carl Bradley was indeed a modern vessel for 1927.

The Carl Bradley was in service for decades. It wasn’t until the year 1958 where she and her crew met their doom. Like almost all Great Lakes ship disasters, there were some differing of opinion as to what exactly occurred. What is known was that there was some weakness reported in some of her plates. Missing rivets had been replaced with bolts and thus would have been fully repaired during the winter off season. When the Bradley was built in 1927, the use of rivets was the method of securing the steel plates. Since that time, welding is the method employed.

It’s well known that the long lake freighters like the Carl D. Bradley were built to be somewhat flexible. In other words, they were built like a tall building, being able to sway or bend rather than snap apart. After a strong lake storm it was quite common for crew members to pick up buckets full of torn off rivets. When a rivet would snap off during a storm it would shoot through the air like a bullet. It would be very dangerous to be in the immediate area. Many shipwrecks on the Great Lakes could easily have started with popping rivets.

The Carl D. Bradley’s last voyage would occur during November of 1958. November was considered the last month for lake traffic. Not all vessels would sail during November but the Bradley with her large length and several other large vessels, some approaching 700 feet, would try to get their last runs in. The Bradley steamed up Lake Huron and then turned west to go through the Straits of Mackinac. After that, it was just a run down Lake Michigan to her destination of Burlington Indiana where she would unload her cargo of limestone. In the book Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals by author William Ratigan, the Carl Bradley set out from Burlington Indiana after the winds and waves had been building up for a few days. The book points out that the rule of thumb regarding Great Lakes storms is that it takes three days for the storm to blow in and another three days to blow out. When the Bradley departed Indiana, the storm crossing Lake Michigan would probably have been at full strength. November storms on the Great Lakes, while not uncommon, were certainly not welcome. Over the centuries, the month of November has been no stranger to ship wrecks.

All accounts about the last voyage of the Carl Bradley were that the ship steamed northward on November 17th and was handling the storm well. Late in the afternoon of November 18th, as the ship was approaching the Beaver Islands, northwest of Traverse City Michigan, things changed fast. The captain and first officer were in the pilot house which on a Great Lakes freighter was located on the bow. The other superstructure was at the stern. Normal sounds of strain were heard by there was really nothing to do but  the captain which wasn’t all too irregular during a gale. Then the sound of thuds were heard, each getting a bit louder. Looking back out of the pilothouse toward the stern, the captain and first officer could see the stern bending downward. Seconds later the stern bent downward more. At this point there was really nothing anyone could do but watch. When the situation looked worse, the captain had the first officer radio out ‘maydays”. The captain sent out an abandon ship signal with his horn and everybody went for the life jackets.  At about this same time the final thud was heard and the ship broke in two.This also cut off power to the radio.

coast guard cutter

Two USCG Cutters similar to this were dispatched to the scene of the Bradley sinking

Life rafts were employed, crewmen were thrown into the water and the two sections of the carl D. Bradley were headed to the bottom of Lake Michigan. The distress calls were heard by the Coast Guard and boats and aircraft were deployed but in a storm through darkness the Coast Guard was hampered in getting their boats to the scene in any timely manner. They were well aware of the search area which was only about 47 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station but getting there in a gale was another thing. Real recovery couldn’t happen until dawn and by that time the freezing cold water of Lake Michigan would surely take it’s toll.

The scope of this disaster wouldn’t be realized until sunrise. The two Coast Guard cutters and a German freighter that made it to the scene were able to retrieve only two survivors. One was the first officer and another a deckhand. Only two survivors out of a thirty-five man crew. The swiftness in which the breakup occurred, the quick sinking of the two sections and the freezing water certainly made chances of survival slim. In a way, it was quite the opposite of what occurred to the Titanic about fifty years earlier in the North Atlantic. The Titanic took on water and there was a reasonable amount of time to get lifeboats prepared. Not the case with the Carl D. Bradley.

When you look at the design of a lake freighter, you can clearly see that the weak point of the vessel would be in the center. This was well known to almost everyone. In fact, a lake freighter is much more vulnerable when it steams empty. To compensate a bit for this, the captain took on a water ballast in Indiana that compensated for about half a normal cargo load. Freighters handle lake storms better when weighed down a bit. Sitting higher in the water increases the chances of a breakup in a gale.

The breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley demonstrated that the Great Lakes present unique dangers to sailors and that whether a vessel happens to be large or small, lake storms can be devastating.

Boatmen have lived with danger for a long time. A century earlier, steamboats had their own problems on our inland river system. Before the advances in construction, boiler explosions were a common occurrence. The following two articles describe the deadly explosions of the river steamboats Sultana off Memphis Tennessee and the Saluda near the dock in Lexington Missouri.

(Photos and images are in the public domain)


Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody

The story about the great Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody were two life stories as dissimilar as can be imagined while at the same time had some interesting traits in common.

sitting bull

Sitting Bull

There was probably no other Indian leader who resisted the United States takeover of Sioux native lands as much as Sitting Bull did. Sitting Bull was believed to have been born in 1831 near the Standing Rock Agency which was in the Dakota Territory. To be sure, Sitting was a warrior during his younger years. He was very involved in leading war parties during Red Cloud’s War which lasted from 1865 to 1868 and resulted in the abandonment of three army forts along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. Sitting Bull went on to become the central figure in the Sioux War of 1876 which resulted in the Battle of the Little Bighorn debacle. Following that battle, Sitting Bull along with a few hundred of his people fled to Canada in 1877. His stay in Canada was quite an ordeal for both he and his people. The winter weather was severe and food was in short supply. Finally, in July of 1881 Sitting Bull crossed back into the United States and surrendered himself to the army.

Shortly after the Sioux War of 1876-77, the Native Americans of the Montana and Wyoming area began returning to reservations. Some held out longer than others such as Crazy Horse, but in the end they all gave themselves up and were transported to various reservations. Steamboats were even used by the government to transport some of the Sioux. In fact, as a bit of irony, the steamboat Far West, which was used to transport many of the wounded soldiers from the Sioux battle of June 1876 back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, was also employed by the army to transport surrendering Sioux back downriver towards their reservations months later. This occurred all during the years of Sitting Bull’s self-imposed Canadian exile.

buffalo bill cody

William "Buffalo Bill" Cody

When Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881 he was moved down to the Standing Rock Agency which today is very near the North and South Dakota border. He and his people were kept separate from the others fearing that his presence night reignite trouble. At one point in 1881 Sitting Bull and his band were sent to Fort Randall in the southern part of the territory as prisoners of war but were moved back once again to the Standing Rock Agency in 1883. While Sitting Bull was totally aware that the struggle against the white man was over, he still resisted adopting a new way of life. In a way it was peaceful resistance. At the same time, the U.S. military was aware of Sitting Bull’s influence among his people.

What’s interesting to the historian of the Indian Wars and the old west in general is how Sitting Bull’s return happened about the same time that William Cody was organizing his Wild West. Cody was born in 1846 and went on to be a soldier, a buffalo hunter and finally one of the United States’ most successful show promoters. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West began in 1883 in North Platte Nebraska. This would have been the same year that Sitting Bull was relocated to the Standing Rock Agency.

Although Cody served as an army scout, he fully respected the rights of native Americans. Buffalo Bill was quite outspoken in his belief that the Indian troubles were a direct result of broken treaties on the part of the U.S. government. He went out of his way in calling the Native Americans our “former” foes who are now our friends. This was not necessarily an opinion held by many and it did set buffalo Bill apart from others. The former bison hunter also pressed for limits on hide hunting and the establishment of hunting seasons.

William Cody was known for his employment of Native Americans as part of his Wild West productions. In answer to criticism from some quarters, Cody simply pointed out that he was giving useful work to unemployed Indians. The one thing that could be said about the Wild West was that audiences were seeing the real thing. Native Americans performed as warriors attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains. They and their families were also encouraged to set up camps while traveling with the show similar to the camps they would have set up on their native land. Cody’s use of the native Americans as performers was one of the reasons for the Wild West’s enormous success.

sitting bull and buffalo bill cody

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody

In regards to Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill Cody held no grudges. Sitting Bull was as entrenched in his beliefs as Cody was with his. Sitting Bull was asked by Buffalo Bill to join his show as a performer. Sitting Bull was given permission by the army to leave the reservation to join the Wild West. The great Sioux chief received about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, where he was a popular attraction. Not bad money at all in 1884.  A story was started that Sitting Bull cursed his white audiences as he rode his horse in the arena but historians could find no proof that this really occurred. It was said that Sitting Bull did give out autographs for about one dollar each before and after performances. The Chief reportedly gave this money back to his people who were quite poor. Sitting Bull was also known to have given speeches promoting education for Native Americans and for all parties, Indian and white, to reconcile relations. Sitting Bull spent merely four months with Cody’s Wild West and afterward returned to the Standing Rock Agency. Sitting Bull was ultimately killed while being taken into custody in 1890 during what was called the Ghost Dance movement. The story of the Ghost Dance and Sitting Bull can be found on our link Ghost Dance..

Another related article that’s quite interesting is the story of Pawnee Bill and his Wild West show.

When you look at both Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody, it’s not too hard to see how both men came together in the Wild West shows. The early 1880’s were a time of transition for both. The Indian Wars were winding down, Sitting Bull was being held on the reservation and Buffalo Bill was preparing to showcase an entire era of American history to the world. If anything, Sitting Bull’s participation in Cody’s Wild West gave him a platform to press for aid for his people. Where at one time Sitting Bull was considered an enemy, he was now acting as a delegate for Native Americans everywhere. It’s also fitting that someone with the respect for Native American rights that Buffalo Bill Cody surely had, would also be in a position to help the Indian by offering a public platform for one of their most famous Chiefs.

(Photos are in public domain)