The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 18 Jun 1887, page 1

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The Steamer Champlain Burned On Lake Michigan
Twenty-four Persons Known to Have Drowned or Burned to Death.
Names of the Victims and The Survivors So Far As Learned
Statement of the Captain of the Burned Steamer

Petoskey, June 17. - (Special.) - The steamer Champlain, of the Northern Transportation Line, plying between Chicago and Cheboygan, burned at midnight last night half-way between Norwood and Charlevoix. She had fifty-seven persons on board, passengers, officers and crew, and a large amount of freight, with some horses. Reports of the disaster were received at all shore towns early this morning by telephone. Excitement prevails everywhere, and all sorts of conflicting accounts are in circulation. The Northern Independent, of this place, going to press this evening, has collected the most complete account, and this, with advices received by THE FREE PRESS representatives, will make the news as accurate and full as can be had at this distance from the disaster.

The fire originated in the engine room and was caused by the explosion of a lamp. The engineer was at once enveloped in flames and was forced from his post, unable to stop the engine or start the fire pumps. The steamer was headed for shore and unavailing efforts were made to extinguish the flames, and to lower the boats. The boat struck a reef about a mile from shore, and those aboard were driven to the water. Some succeeded in getting ashore and others were picked up in the water, being supported by wreckage and life preservers.


The continuous blowing of the whistle brought out fishermen with their boats. Capt. Casey had swum ashore, and was one of the first back with a boat to pick up passengers.

Early in the morning a tug went out to the wreck from Charlevoix and is still searching around Fisherman Island for bodies. The contents of the hull are all one charred mass. The hull was towed to Charlevoix and the fire extinguished by the village engine.


To the present time are:
Mrs. Ella Smith, of Charlevoix; drowned; body recovered.
Geo. Wrisley, Charlevoix; drowned; not recovered.
Robert Welsh, Charlevoix; burned.
Capt. G.G. Lucas, Petoskey; drowned; body recovered.
Russell Jackson, agent of the Corset Company; died of exhaustion after reaching shore.
Henry Buthan*, clerk; also died of exhaustion.
Mr. and Mrs. Keogh*, Chicago; drowned; bodies not recovered.
Two children of Martin Bange, steward; bodies not recovered.
Jack Hoxtley, second cook, drowned; body recovered.
Mrs. Mary Fall and daughter, Lulu Willard, residence unknown, missing.
Unknown man and little boy, who took passage at Milwaukee for Mackinac Island, both drowned. The body of the father was found, but not that of the boy.
Four whites and four Indians, from Elk Rapids, of the boat's crew, and Eddie Wilkins, cabin boy, of Chicago, drowned. The latter's body was found.


Are Capt. Casey, Mates Harry Bishop, Joseph Thorpe, Wheelsmen S. Bishop and James Barr, Watchman James Monkey, Engineer John McCaffery and Warner, the former badly burned; P. Katon and Roy Hazelton, cook and waiter; Miss Kehoe, Chicago; Mrs. Jackson Ingalls and Miss Wilson, Petoskey; Geo. W. MIller, Mrs H. Bedford, Mary Wakefield, William Stevens, Henry Wilkes, Fred Wrisley and Antoine Sharron, Charlevoix; W.B. Albright, Chicago; R. Wittman, Milwaukee, Steward Baugh (sic, see above) and wife; Mrs. Kane, the stewardess, Charlevoix; E. Fall, Brokoke and one a white deckhand. The persons saved floated one and a half to two hours in the water.


Capt. Casey states to the Independent correspondent that the first he knew of the fire the first engineer rushed up on the upper deck with his clothes all ablaze. He shouted to him to jump in the water tank and with the assistance of the first mate threw him in and extinguished the flames. The engine room was all on fire, and, after seeing that there was no chance to quench the flames, the Captain headed the boat for Fisherman's Island and gave orders to lower the boats. But the boat was rushing along at full speed, and before they could launch, the fire drove all hands upon the bow of the boat. Here all were provided with life preservers. The boat grounded about a mile from shore. The flames had been kept back by the speed of the boat and the wind, but now they came rapidly nearer and the people were forced to take to the water. Many were let down with lines, while others jumped overboard.

The captain says it was not more than ten minutes from the time the fire broke out before the boat was wrapped in flames.

Capt. Casey speaks in the highest praise of the gallant conduct of his officers and crew, all of whom acted nobly and promptly obeyed every order given to them.

The books were lost, and as the clerk died from exhaustion after being picked up, it is possible that a complete list of the lost will never be secured.

The engineer and fireman, who were saved, are at Smithson's camp, six miles from Charlevoix, and they were so badly burned that he made no effort to learn from them the manner in which the fire originated.


Miss Ella Wilson, of this place, another of the survivors, came in on the City of Grand Rapids this afternoon. She tells your representative that she retired at about 10 o'clock. At midnight she was called by a lady acquaintance and told to dress and go forward, as the boat was on fire. By mistake she went aft where she saw the whole rear in a blaze and the men were throwing fire extinguishers. She returned to the bow of the boat where the passengers were going overboard. She and a Mr. Witteman (sic) of Milwaukee were let down by lines. Immediately after her a man, with his little son clasped to his breast, jumped. Both were drowned. Mr. Witteman and Miss Wilson kept close together and soon came across one of the boat's fenders, to which they clung for several hours until rescued by Capt. Casey's boat and taken to shore, where she saw the clerk of the boat and another man die of exhaustion. She speaks in high terms of the Captain and his crew; says they acted cool, and to her it appeared as though they did everything possible.


W.B. Albright, of the Sherwin Williams Paint Co., Chicago, a survivor, also came on the City of Grand Rapids. He gives the several newspaper reporters the following:

"We all passed a very pleasant day and evening. Just before midnight, while Mr. Russell, Mrs. Smith and her sister, and myself were in the cabin, we heard the most unearthly shriek. We afterwards learned that it was the poor engineer, who rushed up to the upper deck with his clothes all on fire. I ran out upon the guards, and seeing the boat was all on fire I returned to the cabin and told the ladies we would have to go out on the bow and get on life-preservers. An attempt was made to lower the boats, but we were running so fast it could not be done. The flames kept crowding us more and more out upon the bow. In less time than you can imagine the fire came so close that we had to jump into the water.

"George Miller was the first to jump and others followed his example. I said to Mr. Russell, 'When you get ready to go tell me and I will follow you.' I pulled the jackstaff out. He said 'I am ready; it's too hot for me here,' and jumped. We struck away from the boat to get out of the heat, which was so intense. I put my head under two or three times.

"It was an awful sight to see the steamer wrapped in flames, with the smoke and fire rolling up and sweeping down over the water in every direction. People were struggling for life and crying out for help. My life-preserver worked up so high on my back that I could hardly keep my head out of the water Mr. Russell and myself struck out for shore as well as we could, clinging to the jackstaff. He became chilled through and in spite of it all I could say he became discouraged. Finally he said he should perish with the cold if he did not get back to the wreck, where it was warmer, and started back. That was the last time I saw him until I saw his corpse on the sand at daybreak.

"After I had been in the water about an hour two boats passed me, but they were loaded and did not come to my assistance. On the second trip one of the boats came near me again, and I begged them to take me in, but the boat was loaded so deep and was leaking so badly that they did not dare to do so and would have left me if George Miller had not recognized my voice and insisted on their picking me up. All who were not rowing kept at work bailing, but in spite of all we could do, the boat was almost full of water when we reached the island.

The Champlain was an old boat, being one of the thirty-two steamers which at one time belonged to the Northern Transportation Company. She was purchased when the company went to pieces after a series of disasters a few years ago, and for six years has been running in connection with the Lawrence on the Northern Michigan Line. She was rebuilt last winter at a cost of $20,000 and was in first-class shape. P.J. Klein, of Milwaukee, owns a three-fourths interest and S.S. Burke, of Chicago, owns the balance. A charred foot of one of the victims was found in the hull.

Later - The unknown man from Milwaukee is supposed to be J.J. Rogers, Hospital Steward, United States Army, Fort Mackinac.

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18 Jun 1887
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Dave Swayze
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 18 Jun 1887, page 1