The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 7 May 1849

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Early Navigation of the Lakes

We find in the Buffalo Commercial a letter from R. C. Bristol, Esq. of Chicago, in relation to the early navigation of the Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan. What a mighty change has been going on in the short space of fifteen years. Now steamers of 1600 tons burthen float across these waters and $4 fare for passengers from this place to Chicago is all that's changed. We give the following extract from the letter:

In 1833, the brig John Kinzie [sic] was built under my direction especially for the trade of the upper lakes, and was at the time the only brig in service above Lake Ontario; consequently she was considered an experiment by most persons. She answered the purpose fully so much that the next year two others of larger size were built, and soon after the number increased rapidly. At the time all of the vessels in the trade were fitted for carrying passengers - the fare being at times as high as $25 from Buffalo and $20 from Detroit to places on Lake Michigan, generally $5 less from each place. The following year (1834) I took the first shipment of wheat from Lake Michigan, of about 2,000 bu. and afterwards another cargo of about 3,000 bu - from St. Joseph, Mich. A small shipment of wheat was made the same season from Michigan City, by the schooner Post Boy, which capsized near the Manitou Islands. - Some valuable lives as well as cargo were lost.

Up to this time there were very few white families from Fort Gratiot* around to St. Joseph, and none on the west side of Lake Michigan, to my knowledge, until within a few miles of Chicago. As the depth of water at the mouth of the St. Joseph River would not allow a vessel drawing more than about seven feet of water to pass, I determined to make another experiment, which was to build a schooner of 130 tons with a centre board expressly for that trade, it being better than to go to Chicago. Those interested with me consented, and the Schooner St. Joseph was built,** and took one or two cargoes in 1835. There was none shipped after that from Lake Michigan to my knowledge, until 1838. It required all her flour (and not then sufficient) to supply the great demand caused by emigration. Previous to this time, it was thought by persons navigating the lakes that it would not answer to build (a vessel) more than fifty or sixty tons with a centre board, (or rather a slip keel was then used for shoal water,) now nearly all vessels, of whatever size, are built with them.

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*Port Huron **At Black R. (now Lorain ), Ohio R.C. Bristol, author of the letter extracted below, was a pioneer Lake Michigan skipper, shipbuilder and vessel owner. His commands included the brig JOHN KENZIE, the steamer NEW YORK and the schooner FLORIDA. In 1843 he built the famous steamer INDEPENDENCE at Chicago, which was later the first steamer to ply Lake Superior.
Date of Original:
7 May 1849
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Dave Swayze
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
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Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 7 May 1849