The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), July 26, 1941

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Sending a Schooner over Niagara Falls: once She Was a British Man-of-war

They had some fool ideas of fun a hundred years ago, among which "Schooner Days" begs to include sending somebody else over Niagara Falls. The objection applies whether the somebody else is a man in a barrel or a pig in a punt. Recently the secretary-manager of the Port Huron Chamber of Commerce, Mr. H.A. Hopkins, who, of course, merits no such criticism, gave an historical instance in a broadcast. It was an account of how the old schooner MICHIGAN went over the falls in 1827. And it was taken, after various transcriptions, from an old letter written in Buffalo, September 9, of that year.

"The schooner MICHIGAN, as you have already learnt from me, was the largest on Lake Erie, and too large in fact to enter the various harbours on the lake, and being somewhat decayed in her upper work, the thought struck the owner, Major Frazer, formerly of New York, that she would answer the purpose of testing the fate of a vessel that by accident might approach too near the stupendous cataract of Niagara, and also the fate of animals that might be caught in the rapids of these swift rolling waters, and carried over the falls.

"The proprietors of the large public houses at the Falls, on both sides of the river, and of stages and steamboats, made up a purse to purchase the schooner, aware that they would be repaid by the company which the exhibition would attract; and in this calculation they were not deceived.

"For several days previous to the September 8, the stages came crowded, as well as the canal boats, so much so that it was difficult to find a conveyance to the Falls: and such was the interest that the descent was the only topic of conversation among all classes. On Friday night, September 7, wagons filled with country people rattled through the town, and on Saturday morning Buffalo itself seemed to be moving in mass towards the grand point of attraction. To accommodate those who could not find passage in carriages, five steamboats had advertised to leave here on Saturday morning, and great numbers chose this conveyance ...

"The CHIPPEWA was appointed to tow down the pirate schooner (as she was termed) the MICHIGAN: which service she performed. I took my passage in the boat, and we got under way before the others, passed through the basin at Black Rock, and about a mile below the Rock took in tow the vessel destined to make the dreadful plunge. As soon as we got under way the scene became interesting. The sun shone in full splendor, the waters of the Erie were placid, there being scarcely a ruffle upon its surface, and a few miles astern. of us four steamers crowded with passengers, and with bands of music on board, were plowing their way down the rapids of Niagara.

"Our little boat towed the MICHIGAN as far as Yales's Landing on the British shore, within three miles of the Falls where she anchored: and at this place the Chippewa landed her passengers as well the WILLIAM Penn, and they were convened from thence to the Falls in vehicles of all descriptions. The three other steamboats landed their passengers on the American side.

"Three o'clock was the hour appointed to weigh anchor on the MICHIGAN. The task of towing her from Yales's Landing to the rapids (and a most hazardous one it was) was entrusted to Captain Rough, the oldest captain on the Lake. With a yawl and five oarsmen, of stout hearts and strong arms, the old captain got the schooner under way, and towed her till within one-quarter of a mile of the first rapids, and within half a mile of the tremendous precipice - as near as they dare approach - and cutting her adrift she passed majestically on, while the oarsmen of the yawl had to pull for their lives to effect their own safety. Indeed such was the fear of the hands, as I have understood, that on approaching near the rapids they cut the tow line before they had received order from their commander. And now we approach the interesting moments of the exhibition.

"The high ground on both sides of the American and British shores were lined with people, having a full view of the rapids and of the approach of the vessel. And now it was that a thousand fears and expectations were indulged, as the MICHIGAN, unguided by human agency, approached, head on, the first rapid or descent, and apparently keeping the very course that the most skillful navigator would have pursued, having an American ensign from her bowsprit, and the British Jack displayed at her stem.

"She passed the first rapid unhurt, still went on, making a plunge, shipping a sea, and rising from it in beautiful style, and in her descent over the second her masts went by the board, at the same moment affording those who had never witnessed a shipwreck a specimen of the sudden destruction of the spars of a ship at sea in case of a wreck. Expectation of her fate was now at highest. She swung round and presented her broadside to the dashing and foaming waters, and after remaining stationary a moment or two was, by its force, swung round, stem foremost, and having passed to he third rapid, she bilged but carried her hull apparently whole, between Grass Island and the British shore to the Horse Shoe, over which she was carried stern foremost and launched into the abyss below.

"In her fall she was dashed into a thousand pieces. I went below the falls immediately after the descent, and the river exhibited a singular appearance from the thousands of floating fragments, there being scarcely to be seen any two boards nailed together, and many of her timbers were broken into atoms. Such was the eagerness of the multitude present to procure a piece of her that before sunset a great part of her was carried away.

"I believe I have neglected to inform you of the animals on board. They consisted a buffalo from the Rocky Mountains, three bears from Green Bay and Grand River, two foxes, a raccoon, a dog, a cat, and four geese. The fate of these you will probably wish to learn. When the vessel was left to her fate they were let loose on deck, except the buffalo, who was enclosed in a temporary pen. Two of the bears left the vessel shortly after she began to descend the rapids and swam ashore, not withstanding the rapidity of the current. On reaching the British shore they were taken. The buffalo was seen to pass over the falls, but was not visible afterwards. What became of the other animals is not known. Those who had glasses could see one of the bears climbing the mast as the vessel approached the rapids. The foxes, etc., were also running up and down, but nothing was seen of them after the schooner passed over. Two of the geese were the only living things that passed over, and they were taken up unhurt. Major Frazer obtained one, and an Englishman purchased the other for $2.

Respecting the effigies, of which there were several, the only one I saw below the falls was Gen. Andrew Jackson, apparently uninjured, throwing his arms about and knocking his legs together in the eddies, the only one of the crew of fancy that escaped unhurt. There were over 30,000 people in attendance, and you may judge of the situation of affairs when I assure you that I stopped at Forsyth's about 4 p.m. and was unable to obtain even a cracker or glass of water. It was the same on the American side."

Who and what was this schooner MICHIGAN, too big for Lake Erie early harbours? Why was she built?

One thing which makes this old letter of particular interest to Canadians is that it may - one cannot say that it did -settle the ultimate fate of the British ship Detroit, flagship of Commodore Barclay, captured by the Americans in the ill-starred Battle of Put-in-Bay in 1813. Lossing in Field Book of the War of 1812, compiled for Harper's in the early 1860s, when memories were still fresh, says the Detroit became an American merchant vessel and, not proving profitable, was striped and sent over the falls with live animals on board, in a sort of public festival organized by hotelkeepers. But later historians, a hundred years and more after the time, have questioned this, and pointed out that there is no official record of the Detroit's fate such as an in a custom house or marine registry.

Might it not be that the name of the British ship Detroit, already born by two American brigs, was changed to MICHIGAN when she was sold as a prize, and used as a commercial freighter? All official entries thenceforward would refer to the MICHIGAN. The fact that she was too big for contemporary lake harbours would fit in with this theory. For the Detroit was built for battle. The American men-of-war which captured her were also too big for most Lake Erie harbours, and had to floated away from their launching places on "camels" or pontoons. The fact that the MICHIGAN went over the falls "with the British Jack displayed at the stem" would indicate a British origin and signal an American triumph, even if the position of the flags was wrong by every know rule: ensigns are carried aft, jacks forward.

It was fool cruelty to send a cargo of animals over with the MICHIGAN, which is what we started out to suggest. The "DV" at the head of this 505th number of "Schooner Days" need not be taken as the equivalent of DV, as the skypilots say in the church announcements. The big V is for a big victory with divine help.

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July 26, 1941
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Richard Palmer
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
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Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), July 26, 1941