The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Oswego Advertiser & Times (Oswego, NY), Monday, May 27, 1867

Full Text
The Burning of the Wisconsin

We have just returned from a visit to the wreck of the Wisconsin. As we passed over the waters where that unfortunate vessel, in the dark and gloomy night, was discovered to be on fire, and where twenty or more human beings rushed madly to a watery grave, we could have no patience with that folly, - that worse than folly - that criminal fright and lack of self-control in danger, which sent these unfortunate men and women to their awful end.

Those who have not witnessed that wild, uncontrollable conduct of panic-stricken men can have no idea of their utter recklessness. They will not reason - they will not listen to reason, and can only be controlled by brute force. it is useless to tell them that their safety depends on their coolness, that their danger is fancied: - In the case of the Wisconsin, there as no danger, and every life lost on that melancholy occasion, was owing to the blind fright of men who would not stop to see whether the danger was real or fancied, and would not be controlled by men cool enough to comprehend the extent of the danger, and take such means as were necessary to avert it.

The night was very dark and rainy. - As the Wisconsin left the St. Lawrence and rounded out into Lake Ontario, word was brought to Capt. Townsend that the vessel was on fire around the boiler. The vessel was running at the rate of about nine miles an hour. He seems not to have hesitated for a moment. Being within a mile and a half of Grenadier island, he at once headed the vessel for the shore, giving instant order to the engineers to throw open the throttle and give the engine the full power of steam. This increased her speed to at least ten miles per hour.

His plan was that if the fire could not be got under, the vessel would soon reach the shore and the passengers all landed. If it should be subdued, the course could be resumed. In the meantime, the force pumps, with two hundred feet of hose, all in good working condition, were got into operation, but it was soon discovered that the fire could not be subdued. The passengers were then awakened and told to keep perfectly cool, that there was no danger. - that every one would be landed with safety.

The scene which followed is said to be indescribable. The Captain had ordered the boats, which were stowed upon the hurricane deck, to be lowered near the water, but not into it, there to remain until it should be necessity to fill them. Until he should give the word he ordered that no one should enter the boats. Had this order been obeyed, all would have been well. Instead, of which in the wildest fury, the boats were filled, women, children and strong men, perfectly wild to take refuge in them. The small boat was thus instantly taken possession of, and a shout set up for an ax to cut the "fall," but as no ax was forthcoming, the same mad office was performed by a jack knife, the lines being cut which dropped the bow if the boat once into the water. The steamer being at full speed, and the stern fall still being fast, the boat was plunged head foremost into the water, and everyone of the mad occupants was swept away into the bosom of the lake and left there to perish. It was the universal testimony of all on board, that those who were lost, were lost by crowding into the boats, against the express commands of Captain Townsend.

In from fifteen to twenty minutes from the time the alarm was given the Wisconsin was beached upon Grenadier island, the bow resting in about four feet of water. A line was instantly taken ashore, and the surviving passengers and crew, who had been gathered into the bow of the vessel where the fire had not reached, were lifted over the side into the water. A line was instantly taken ashore, and the surviving passengers and crew who had been gathered into the bow of the vessel where the fire had not reached, were lifted over the side into the water, and got safely ashore.

Capt. Wilson Searles, of Detroit, a passenger on board, who was the last to leave the burning vessel, testified before the Coroner's Jury, that there was ample time to have lifted over and saved at least from twenty-five to thirty more passengers, after the last one was safe on shore, before the fire drove him from the wreck, thus showing beyond a doubt that had all the passengers exercised a little reason not a life would have been lost. We were kindly permitted to examine a copy of the testimony before the Coroner's Jury, an among a dozen or more witnesses made up of the survivors, there was no discrepancy on this point: They all agree that the lost, were lost by entering the boats against the express orders and expostulation of Capt. Townsend, and that had they remained aboard, there is no reason why every passenger might not have been saved!

Captain Townsend, throughout, seems to have acted with the greatest presence of mind, coolness and efficiency. It has been said that he should have enforced his orders against the passengers who attempted to enter the boars by shooting or knocking them down, or otherwise. He would have been justified in doing so. But it must be remembered that the night was very dark. There were three of the boats lowered on different sides and different points of the steamer, and he could not be omnipresent. Besides, he had the course of the steamer to look to, the force pumps to keep in operation, and the various other trying matters upon his hands incident to such an occasion. The wonder is that he accomplished so much. His first mate disappeared with the first boat. He either entered the boat voluntarily or was forced into it by the crowd. He was seen by no person on board after the catastrophe, which cost so many lives, and he must have gone down with the rest. The death of his first officer was of course a severe lost to the captain.

The two engineers of the steamer also disappeared at the same time and probably in the same manner. The Second Mate, Mr. James W. Shaver, quite a young man, proved himself well worthy his position. he was self-possessed and efficient throughout, rendering the Captain the most important aid in saving the lives of passengers. We are happy to learn that he has already been appointed second mate on another of the Company's steamers. The same characteristics were also true of Mr. C. H. Dodge, the steward.

The passengers speak in the highest terms of his self-possession, and the aid he rendered them. Capt. Searles, on his way to Detroit, to take command of his vessel, was a passenger on board, and was very efficient in assisting to keep order, and in saving the lives of passengers. Among the surviving passengers, the testimony is unanimous in relation to the coolness and efficiency of Capt. Townsend, as well as to the other gentlemen referred to.

Grenadier Island is a small island near where the Lake contracts into the St. Lawrence River, and is composed of about one thousand acres of land. But few farm houses are upon it, and the nearest to the point where the burning steamer landed was distant about one half mile. The men, women, and children had been hurried from their berths and most of them had been too much frightened to think of dressing. The result was they went into the water with but little else than their night clothing, and arrived at this small farm house in a nearly perished condition. It was occupied by Mr. John Nugent, who, with his wife, deserve especial mention for their good Samaritan conduct. No means were found to take away the passengers until nearly noon of the next day, and a portion, owing to exhaustion and sickness which followed, remained until Saturday.

From the beginning the Nugent's were unremitting in their exertions for the comfort of the strangers thus thrown upon their hands. They exhausted their stores, in feeding them, and gave them nearly every article of clothing the house contained, stripping themselves of dresses, drawers, shoes, stockings, etc., and all without expectation of compensation or reward, as all so furnished were necessarily worn away. That lonely family, away there in their island home, must ever bee remembered with gratitude, by the surviving passengers of the Wisconsin, for whom they did so much.

The survivors were taken by the steamer Watertown to the village of Cape Vincent, a distance of about seven miles, where all their wants were cared for in the most hospitable manner. They were taken in charge of by G.T. Bartlett, Esq., Supervisor of the Town, whose exertions for their comfort was unremitting. Nothing was left undone by the people of Cape Vincent for the comfort of those thrown upon their hands. Valuable dresses and clothing were bestowed upon them in profusion, all the people vying with each other in their kind attentions. Too much cannot be said in their praise.

The drowned, so far as the remains have been recovered, have been in the charge of Supervisor Bartlett. When ordered, the remains have been forwarded to friends, and in the absence or orders have been decently interred with properly marked graves, and a record duly preserved so that they may be identified hereafter.

An inquest was held upon the bodies recovered on Friday, by Robert H. Angell, Esq., of Clayton, Coroner of Jefferson County. After the necessary investigations the following was the unanimous verdict of the jury:

That the aforesaid persons came to their deaths by drowning in lake Ontario, near Grenadier island, on the night of 21st May, 1867, by jumping from and leaving the Propeller Wisconsin while on fire, which fire originated in the hold of said vessel near the boiler. That if the orders and directions of Captain Townsend had been obeyed, it is the opinion of the jurors aforesaid, that all the lives of said passengers and crew would have been saved.

Passengers Saved.

Geo. Ashworth, Lawrence, Mass.
Ezra Cook, Westmeath, C.W.
Alvin Joiner, Forrestville, Mich.
Jas. R. Dean, Lawrence,
C.W. Joiner, Roxalville, Vt.
Robert Chisholm, Chateaugay Co. C.E.
Wm Chisholm, do
Jno. Chisholm do
John Criscaden, Centerville, N.Y.
Ira Creed, Potsdam, N.Y.
D.C. Forrest, Carthage, N.Y.
Samuel Beattie, Kingston, C.W.
Jno.. Delaborbugh, Smithfield, C.W.
P.H. Perry, Rouseville, C.E.
D. Fisher, do
Mrs. Spaulix and two children, Alexandria;
S.G. Hellier, Odessa, C.W.
Samuel Fullerton, North Gore
Lucinda Fetterlee, Finch, C.W.
Wilson Searles, Detroit
Edward Cassay, Colton, St. Lawrence Co.
Mrs. Dunn and girl, Brockville
Thos. Frasier, Prescott
L. Cutnier, wife, and six children, Prescott
Wm. Cousin, Granville, C.E.
Jno McNeil do
Rev. J.M. Armour, wife and four children, Graftburgh, Vt.
Alvin Richards, Manchester, N.H.
W.J. Read do
Mrs. Mary Richards do
Mrs. Alvin Reed do
Mrs. C. W. Clough do
Mrs. Geo. Richards do
C.W. Reed do
Emma Richards do
Mrs. Galligher, Pembrooke, C.E.
Mrs. Dings, Oswego
R.H. Hillier, Odessa, Canada

Crew Saved.

Capt.. Townsend
Jas. W. Shaver, Second Mate.
Charles W. Shaver, Wheelsman
J. D. Shaver, Wheelsman
C.H. Dodge, Steward
Warren Tracy, Cabin Boy
Edw. Masterton, Porter
Joseph Strong, Fireman
Pat Johnston, Fireman
Robert Himes, Deck Hand
Jos. Raycraft do
Pat Ferry do
David Conlin do
Thomas Enwright, Second Cook
Mary Miceklebanny, Cabin Maid
Jane Mayette, Cook

Crew Lost.

Jno. Powers, First Mate, Ogdensburgh, not found; A.F. Morrison, First Engineer, Clayton, not found; A.W. Morrison, Second Engineer, Clayton, not found; Edw. McCormick, Watchman, Clayton, not found; David Horan, Deck Hand, Prescott, not found; Henry Chatman, Deck hand, Ogdensburgh, buried at Cape Vincent.

Passengers Lost As Far As Known.

Mrs. C. Chisholm, Eliza, Mary Ann, Catherine, and Master Thos. Chisholm - buried at Cape Vincent by directions of Mr. Chisholm; Mrs. Nancy Creed, Miss Catherine Creed, Potsdam, buried at Cape Vincent by order of Mr. Creed; Frederick Creed, Potsdam, not found; Mr. Galligher, Pembrooke, C.E., buried at Cape Vincent by wife; Henry McAlpine, Edwardsburgh, C.W., sent to Ogdensburgh; James Cassay, Colton, St. Lawrence Co., taken to Colton; Geo. Lindsley, Colton, St. Lawrence Co., taken to Colton; A. White, Keesville, sent by express; Ira Cook, ticketed, Aurora, Ill., buried at Cape Vincent.

The Wisconsin was furnished with two large wooden boats, and one metallic life boat, sufficient in all to have saved every passenger, had they been needed. It was furnished with a large number of life preservers, greater than the number of passengers on board, which were distributed through the various state rooms, which would have saved every passenger who rushed into the boats, had they had the presence of mind to use them. Upon the hurricane deck were stored a large number of "life" floats, sufficient to float a hundred or more persons, had they been necessary.

The pumps, and all other apparatus prescribed by law, were in good working order. How the fire originated will never be known. it was one of those mysterious providences which will sometimes occur, notwithstanding the exercise of the greatest degree of human caution.

No man could be more unremitting in attention to the unfortunate than have been the agents and representatives of the line. Capt. Townsend has remained on the spot, doing all that was in the power of man to do. Capt. Keating, the efficient superintendent of the line was at once dispatched to the scene of the disaster, and has taken a general direction of affairs, omitting nothing which could conduce to the comfort or convenience of the sufferers. Messrs. Hall & Buckley, the Agents at Cape Vincent have been unremitting in their exertions. To all these gentlemen, to Mr. Supervisor Bartlett, M.E. Lee, Esq., and various other gentlemen, we desire to tender our acknowledgments for the attention shown us on our hasty visit to Cape Vincent.


We were informed by an intelligent lady, a passenger, that the steerage passengers of the Wisconsin were mostly Irish and that the scene presented after the alarm was given, was beyond description. Men and women alike were frantic with fright and utterly uncontrollable. At one time they would be upon their knees, crossing themselves, wailing and lamenting, at another, tieing their children with ropes and wildly letting them over the sides of the steamer into the water. This scene of confusion was continued long after the vessel was upon the beach and all danger had passed.

A Heroine Boy and a Brave Woman.

Among the passengers was Mr. Alvin Richards of Goffstown, New Hampshire, and family, consisting of his Wife, Mary E. Richards, a son aged six years, and an infant daughter aged ten weeks. They were accompanied by Mr. Richard's mother an aged lady, sister, husband and child.

Mrs. Richards refused to leave the boat until she seen all her friends safely off - her husband went ashore with the little boy and they succeeded in getting safely to land, leaving the mother and babe upon the burning craft. In the darkness and confusion, the husband lost sight of her. She was approached by the cabin boy, Warren Tracy, of Ogdensburg, who throughout had been perfectly cool, and who begged the privilege of jumping overboard with his precious Burt hen and struck out for the shore. But before he got clear of the vessel some one from the wreck leaped into the water striking him upon the head stunning and confusing him temporarily, but not once did the brave fellow think of surrendering his charge.

Rising to the surface he struck out into the lake, taking a circuitous route to avoid the frantic passengers in the water surrounding the wreck, he brought the infant safely to the land and restored it to the friends of the mother, who recognized it by its night wrapper. Its mother at this time was supposed to be among the lost. Having committed her child to the care of young Tracy, Mrs. Richards let herself into the water and was taken to the shore, the last to leave the ill-fated Wisconsin, except one. Her feelings, upon finding her babe, saved and living, upon the shore, can better be imagined than described. Young Tracy is much petted and praised for his heroic conduct but he takes the matter very modestly.

A Sad Case.

Mr. Robert Chisholm, of Canada, lost five members of his family. When the boat was ordered lowered by the Captain, in defiance of his orders, Mr. Chisholm crowded his whole family but one into the first, and failed to get in himself. All that were thus crowded into the boat found a watery grave.

Media Type:
Item Type:
Date of Original:
Monday, May 27, 1867
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.

Oswego Advertiser & Times (Oswego, NY), Monday, May 27, 1867