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)

Sinking of the Lady Elgin

Make a visit to the Chicago Maritime Museum and you’ll learn much about the popular lake steamboat the “Lady Elgin” and the story of her sinking on Lake Michigan in September of 1860.

The Chicago Maritime Museum is located at 310 South Racine in the Helix Building. This is the venue to add to your next trip to Chicago as the museum unveils and highlights the history of Chicago as an important port city as well as the ships and steamers that operated from there.

Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin was a popular side wheel steamer built in Buffalo New York in 1851. As with most steamers of the era, her hull was made of wood. She was a ship that carried hundreds of passengers up and down Lake Michigan. She was considered a luxurious first rate steamer. In addition to runs on Lake Michigan, the Lady Elgin had made journeys from Chicago to Buffalo and Chicago to ports in Ontario Canada. She also had some sailings as far north as Lake Superior.

September 8, 1860

One of the worst Lake Michigan ship disasters occurred on the night of September 8th, 1860 just about ten miles off Winnetka Illinois. The Lady Elgin was rammed and almost cut in half by a fully loaded lumber schooner.

What made this a particularly deadly shipping disaster was that the Lady Elgin had a full compliment of passengers that evening and 297 of them lost their lives. What made this collision and sinking all the more unreal was that it occurred just ten miles from shore.

The Great Lakes

An Excursion to Chicago

The beginning of this deadly voyage actually started in Milwaukee Wisconsin early in the morning of September 7th. The Lady Elgin was filled with members of Wisconsin Democratic militias which chartered the ship for an excursion to Chicago with a planned return the following day. The militia would tour the city of Chicago, participate in a patriotic parade and then set out back to Milwaukee later in the evening. This trip was a show of solidarity with the Union cause as the question of Wisconsin’s loyalty to the Union was somewhat of a question at that time.

The Lady Elgin reportedly pulled out of Chicago at about 11:30P on the night of September 8th. It’s also been reported that she picked up additional passengers for the return trip to Milwaukee and probably had between 600 and 700 people on board.

Britain's Lord Nelson of whose wife the Lady Elgin was named. Lord Elgin was Canada's Governor General from 1847 to 1854

There are stories that the Lady Elgin’s captain, Jack Wilson, was a bit concerned about the weather. Weather on the Great Lakes has a habit of changing dramatically and fast. The closer to the fall season, the more dangerous the lakes can become and on very short notice. This story is about a disaster that happened in 1860. Even today with the advancement in meteorology and modern navigation gear, Great lakes weather is still a large concern for lake freighters.

Regardless of any weather concerns the captain may have had, the Lady Elgin set sail. The captain’s decision may have been influenced by the number of passengers counting on getting back to Milwaukee as originally planned plus the fact that the steamer had a federal mail contract.

The Collision and Sinking of the Lady Elgin

What is known about the fatal collision on the night of September 8th, 1860 is as follows.

The Lady Elgin was fighting gale force winds when it left Chicago heading north along the shoreline. The schooner Augusta was sailing in this weather using only a single white light. The Augusta hit the Lady Elgin on her port side and while being damaged herself tore through the steamer leaving a huge hole on her side. The Augusta was damaged on the bow but was not taking on water.

After the collision the Augusta kept sailing south toward Chicago thinking that somehow the Lady Elgin must have continued her northward journey. This of course was a mistake. After the collision, and even though the captain ordered cargo and cattle to be thrown overboard, the Lady Elgin sunk in only about twenty minutes. Two lifeboats eventually reached shore, some survivors were taken off life rafts and still some managed to be rescued from floating debris.

The final records indicate that about 300 people died in this collision and sinking. The captain, Jack Wilson, also died.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting are the Loss of the SS Wexford in 1913 and the Sinking of the Carl D. Bradley on Lake Michigan.

Schooner of the era being built in Maine

Changes in Maritime Law

The investigation which followed the collision and sinking absolved the crew of the Lady Elgin of any blame. Interesting maritime law at the time gave sailing vessels the right of way over steamers. By the same token, sailing ships were not required to use running lights. As a direct result of this collision and the subsequent investigation, a new regulation was passed in 1864 requiring sailing vessels to carry full running lights.


Edmund Fitzgerald anchor displayed at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, Detroit Michigan

The Discovery of the Lady Elgin

The wreck of the Lady Elgin was discovered in 1989 in about fifty feet of water off Highwood Illinois. Today, the vessel is a destination for divers. Permission to dive the wreck is required from the Lady Elgin Foundation. Most artifacts have long been taken away and the dive is essentially an interesting recreational endeavor. The shipwreck site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a visit to the Chicago Maritime Museum offers one of the best ways to learn about the rich history of Great Lakes shipping, both passenger and cargo shipping.

Another excellent site is the Dossin Great lakes Museum located on Belle Isle in Detroit Michigan. Belle Isle is an island in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario Canada.

(Photos and images from the public domain. U.S. public domain. Edmund Fitzgerald anchor courtesy GNU Free Licensing Annebethmi at English Wikipedia)