The Palace Steamers of the Great Lakes

The history of transportation on the Great Lakes is an interesting topic and one which has quite a long history. One of the reasons that make the subject interesting is the role it played in transporting immigrants to the then northwest territory of the United States.

walk in the water steamboat

Steamship Walk-In-The-Water

U.S. Historians generally refer to the side-wheeler Walk-In-The-Water, launched from Buffalo New York in 1818, as the boat that ushered in Great Lakes navigation Great Lakes. This first steamboat on Lake Erie was both a passenger and freight carrier. This was merely nine years after the steamboat itself was developed as a transportation vehicle. During this very same year the Great lakes received it’s first lighthouse at Erie Pennsylvania. In fact, steamboats are credited with developing much of the midwest and Great Lakes region for half a century during the 1800’s. By the 1850s steamboats dominated river and lake transportation. As you can imagine, the history of the Great Lakes also includes some very tragic shipping disasters.

The Palace Steamers

The Palace Steamer is a type of vessel that started to operate on the Great Lakes from 1844 to 1857. It’s very name implies that this was a luxurious vessel. Palace steamers marked the high point of Great Lakes passenger service. The fact is that many steamers whether on the Great Lakes or on this nation’s rivers referred to themselves as “palaces” because of their luxurious appointments.

There were some twenty-five of these ships built specifically for Great Lakes transportation. The vessels sported stained glass windows and domes, parlors, saloons, beautiful carpeting and the finest of furniture. The Palace steamer was the first class way to travel the Great Lakes in the decades before the American Civil War. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the finely appointed Palace steamers and their many luxuries and the inherent dangers that Great Lakes navigation could present.

The Palace steamers were built to carry hundreds of passengers and large amounts of cargo. Steamers actually decreased freight rates while being more speedy than wagon freighters.

niagara palace steamer sidewheeler

Niagara steamship

The Palace Steamer Niagara

The second Palace steamer to begin navigating the Great Lakes was the Niagara. The Niagara was a 245 foot long sidewheeler with a thirty-four foot beam and was considered one of the world’s longest steamboats. Entering service in 1846, and owned by the Collingwood Line,  the steamboat Niagara played a big role in bringing settlers to new homes in Wisconsin.

All went well for many years with the Niagara until September 23, 1856. That was the date that the beautiful Niagara met the fate of many 1800’s steamboats, fire. The Niagara which was a frequent sight on the Wisconsin shoreline was steaming on Lake Michigan between Sheboygan and Port Washington Wisconsin bound for Chicago Illinois.

The fire was first noticed in the engine room and the smoke that emanated caused the passengers to panic. Men, women and children rushed on deck. Captain Miller, who was asleep, was called and the steam pumps set to work. The fire hoses were not working and the panicking passengers took to the lifeboats. The stampede and fighting between passengers caused every lifeboat but one to capsize causing many to just jump into the water. Others lowered themselves into the water by rope. Most of these were women and children.

lake michigan shoreline

Moonlight over Lake Michigan shoreline

At the same time, the Niagara’s captain steered the vessel toward the Lake Michigan shore at top speed which seemed to only fuel the raging fire even more. The vessel made some headway toward shore but sank about one mile short near present day Belgium Wisconsin.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles about Great Lakes shipping you’ll enjoy are the

Sinking of the Lady Elgin

The Sinking of the Carl D. Bradley

The Storm of 1913 and the Loss of the SS Wexford

The Aftermath

It was believed that the fire caught in the “fire room,” or “engine room” and had made such rapid headway before being discovered that all attempts to extinguish it was futile. Captain Miller and most of his crew survived the fire and sinking of the Niagara. It was reported that over 150 passengers were lost making it one of Wisconsin’s worst transportation disasters. It was also reported that a small schooner saved six persons, the propeller driver Illinois picked up another thirty survivors.

city of cleveland steamer

The modern day sidewheeler steamer "City of Cleveland", 1941

Captain Miller during the investigation pointed out that there were over three hundred life preservers aboard the Niagara and that he felt not more than half a dozen were used. Some reports from the era stated however that there were no life preservers on board. If indeed there were so many life preservers present, the only logical reason offered for their non use was that the utter panic and chaos aboard the vessel caused such terror that many passengers simply acted irrationally.

One cause offered for the disaster was that some flammable cargo caught fire. The only other cause ever proffered for the Niagara fire was incendiary in nature. In other words, it was possible that the fire was started by an arsonist although there never were charges brought.

The Wreck of the Niagara

The sunken hull of the Niagara was discovered in 55 feet of water about one mile off Belgium Wisconsin and about eight miles north/northeast of Port Washington Wisconsin.The vessel’s boilers were found a little north of the hull site.The site is just offshore of Harrington Beach State Park. This is about 39 miles north of Milwaukee.

A Lake Michigan Diving Site

Today, the Niagara wreck site is visited by divers of intermediate skill level. The Wisconsin Historical Society, with assistance from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee WATER Institute, installed a seasonal mooring buoy at the site. Boats stopping at the site are to moor to this buoy. The mooring prevents boat anchors from further damaging the wreck, and provides a solid and safe descent and ascent line for divers. The wreck site is a Registered Historic Place.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

Soo Locks

The biggest event in Great lakes shipping history was the construction of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie Michigan. Just as in the case of Lake Ontario being at a higher elevation than Lake Erie, Lake Superior is at a higher elevation than Lake Huron. For commercial shipping to exist and to exist at a profit, canals and locks would have to be built connecting several of the Great Lakes.

soo locks 1800's

Soo Locks in the 1800's

The first locks constructed that reached the Great Lakes was the historic Erie Canal which connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie. In fact, the Erie Canal which cut across New York state had a total of 36 locks over it’s 363 mile distance. That 363 miles covered an elevation differential of some 565 feet. That was how much higher Lake Erie was compared to the Hudson River. The Erie Canal was a great success. Not only did it make trade between the east coast and Great Lakes region much more convenient and efficient but it also opened up a gateway for immigration into what is now called the midwest. When the Erie Canal was built, the midwest of today was the western frontier. It was where immigrants, many from Europe, traveled to settle in areas such as Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota.

In the case of the Soo Locks, the necessity of having a way for commercial vessels to travel to and from Lake Superior was the result of iron ore being discovered and mined in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The actual discovery of iron ore predated what we refer to as the industrial age, but nevertheless, it’s value was appreciated. The iron ore was first discovered in the Marquette Range. In the early 1840’s, a man named Douglass Houghton, today’s namesake for the city of Houghton Michigan, was Michigan’s first geologist. Houghton surveyed the area and did determine that there were iron ore deposits, mostly on the southern shore of Lake Superior. At this time, the amount of the deposits were not yet determined. In 1845, the first large deposit was discovered near the site of Negaunee Michigan.

soo locks

Soo Locks, circa 1910

There are six main iron ore regions in the upper peninsula of Michigan extending into Wisconsin. The three Michigan ranges are the Marquette, Menominee and the Gogebic. The Gogebic extend to Wisconsin. In respect to shipping, the iron ore had to be transported from the shores of Lake Superior down to the steel mills in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The first iron ore to be shipped out of upper Michigan occurred in 1852 when six barrels of iron ore were shipped to Pennsylvania. The problem of course was the task of negotiating the rapids of the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and lake Huron to the south. During these very early times, boats would literally have to be pulled by horses through the streets of Sault Ste Marie Michigan. To make shipping possible on a large scale, Congress in 1852 passed a bill for the construction of a canal to bypass the rapids. Work began on the canal the next year. To pay for the canal and locks construction, the federal government granted the state of Michigan 750,000 acres of land to sell and raise the money.

soo locks in sault ste marie michigan

Modern day Soo Locks

Much of the labor for the construction was supplied by immigrants from the region south around Detroit and northern Ohio. These men found that building a canal in the upper part of Michigan would be a daunting task mostly due to the very harsh winter weather in Michigan’s upper peninsula.

The work was difficult and there were some labor disputes which caused some temporary work stoppages but finally on May 31, 1855 the first locks were completed. The locks were originally operated by the state and then turned over to federal control in the 1870’s.

The Soo Locks now consist of two canals and four locks. These allow vessels  to safely travel the 21 foot drop in elevation of the St. Mary’s River between Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan and Huron.Estimates are that about 10,000 vessels go through the locks each year. These include both Great Lake and ocean vessels. Since the locks were established there have been several additions and alterations made to accommodate the modern vessels of today.

The Soo Locks today are not only a necessary aid to Great Lakes navigation but is also one of Michigan’s more popular tourist attraction. The Soo locks are closed due to ice during the winter months. The Visitors Center is open from mid May to mid October and just might be a good addition to your Michigan vacation planner. Michigan’s upper peninsula is a great place to visit during the summer months and a visit to Sault Ste Marie and the Soo Locks make a good family vacation stop. The park Visitors Center can also give you a schedule of vessel arrivals to help plan your visit. Boat tours of the locks are also available. Tour boats travel along the international shoreline of the lower harbor letting you experience all the sights, sounds, and excitement of Sault Ste Marie which is Michigan’s oldest city.

Another related article that also makes an excellent addition to your Michigan summer vacation is the Copper Country Scenic Highway in Michigan’s upper peninsula.

(Photos are from the public domain)


Deadliest Storm on the Great Lakes / The 1913 Storm and the Loss of the SS Wexford

The Great Lakes have always been treacherous to navigate on during the fall period. Many ships have been lost both in the 1800’s as well as the 1900’s. The storm that hit the entire Great Lakes basin in the year 1913 was unlike any other storm in it’s destructive fury. The storm has been given many different names including being called the “Big Blow“. All in all, more than 250 people lost their lives and some 19 ships were lost. The estimated loss of ship value alone was some $5 million dollars in 1913 money. A particularly peculiar facet of the 1913 storm was that it lasted some sixteen hours where most Great Lakes storms tend to last about four hours. No doubt that this added to the death total and loss of vessels. The storm was most powerful on November 9, 1913 with waves battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes. Lake Huron appeared to be the hardest hit..

cleveland 1913 storm

Cleveland Ohio during the November 1913 Great Lakes Storm

The Great lakes region often has a confluence of different weather fronts meeting together and as a result has some unpredictable and fierce storms. Most come during the months of October through December. It’s a well known fact that that Great Lakes seamen have long felt that the storms and wave action are equal to or can surpass anything experienced on the oceans. Lake Michigan as an example can be quite dangerous. Most shipping travels on a north to south direction and storms coming from the west, which is more common, hit the vessel with waves from the side. Lake Michigan, especially on it’s southern half, offer few harbors or bays to take refuge. The modern day breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley was just one example. Anyone living in the Great Lakes Region for an extended period of time can become all too familiar with the tremendous storms, or low pressure areas, that can settle over the Great Lakes Region in the fall. In short, as Polar outbreaks become more regular and intense, surging south into the Great Lakes area, they meet up with the warmer, moisture laden air from the Gulf of Mexico.

The story of the SS Wexford and it’s fatal demise on Lake Huron in 1913 exemplifies the dangers. Remember, that in 1913 maritime weather forecasting and warnings were not as sophisticated as what we now have in the 21st century. According to records from NOAA, the November 1913 weather map pattern of storm development was  not unlike the storm development of another more recent monster low pressure system that formed during the period of January 25-27th, 1978. Both systems involved an Arctic shot of cold air moving south across the Lakes area, while at the same time, an intensifying low pressure area took shape over the southern Appalachians. The 1913 great storm produced 90 mph winds, waves over 35 feet, and whiteout snow squalls.

ss wexford

SS Wexford

The SS Wexford was a steel hulled, propeller driven bulk freighter that was built in Great Britain in 1883. She was 250 feet long and 40 feet wide. At the time the SS Wexford went down on November 10, 1913, she was hauling a load of steel rails and was owned at the time by the Western Steamship Company of Totonto.  According to NOAA, eight out of eighteen ships that battled the 1913 storm on Lake Huron were lost. In the  book, The Wexford: Elusive Shipwreck of the Great Storm, 1913, author Paul Carroll points out that there was a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that the SS Wexford had actually traveled further north heading up Lake Huron than where she eventually sank. The speculation is that the ship was pushed far southward by the fierce northerly winds before she went down. All 22 of her crew were lost in the sinking. Bodies, life jackets and debris washed up on the shores of Ontario for some time afterwards. Another vessel, the 524-foot steamer, the Charles S. Price was found floating upside-down off Port Huron Michigan. Some artifacts of the SS Wexford were actually discovered along the Canadian shoreline some years later. Another good book regarding this storm is White Hurricane by author David G. Brown.

detroit news 1913 great lakes storm headline

Detroit News headline, Nov. 1913

The story of what exactly occurred with the eight lost vessels on Lake Huron will never be completely known since there was not one survivor from any of them.

Very interesting is that the wreck of the SS Wexford was actually discovered in the year 2000, 8.6 miles NNE of Grand Bend Ontario Canada. The ship was lying upright in 75 feet of water. Of the eight ships lost on Lake Huron to the November storm of 1913, the Wexford is the only ship sitting fully upright. It sits on the bottom of Lake Huron in a north/south orientation. The wreck is being explored today by divers although I have read of a few prosecutions made for removing artifacts from the wreck. At the relatively shallow depth that the SS Wexford lies, it affords a excellent experience for skilled divers.

The Great Storm of 1913 not only devastated Great Lakes shipping but rained havoc on Great Lake communities as shown on the photo on top of Cleveland Ohio which had a 22 inch snowfall. Power was out in vast areas of Michigan and Ontario. In regards to lake Erie shipping during the brutal storm, Buffalo New York on the east end of Lake Erie offered shelter and an end to Lake Erie’s constant, brutal wave action.

You will want to read two additional articles relating to Great Lakes shipping disasters. The sinking of the Carl D. Bradley in Lake Michigan and the G.P. Griffith tragedy on lake Erie.

Michigan is a vacation wonderland during the summer and there are several Great Lakes museums that offer a lot of information about the history of this shipping region. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point on the very southeastern part of Lake Superior on Michigan’s upper peninsula. Another is the  Steamship William G. Mather Maritime Museum in Cleveland Ohio. The museum is located just north of the Great Lakes Science Center at Dock 32. Detroit Michigan offers the Dossin Great Lakes Museum  located on at Belle Isle which is in the middle of the Detroit River.

(Photos are from the public domain)