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)