Two Sister Ships Tell a Story of the Remarkable Impact of the Sidewheel Steamers Developing the Midwest in the Mid-1800’s
by Paul Schmitt
The 1863 winds of war blew some blasts up to the Great Lakes area significantly affecting the nature of its Commerce. That mid 1800s commerce is dramatically represented by the careers of two particular vessels, nearly sisters, the Queen City and Sultana.
Both were built in the late 1840s in response to the nation's growing westward migration fed by ever increasing waves of immigrants.
Both vessels were lionized in the press at their launch as leviathans and floating palaces. Both served in the lucrative passenger and freight trade through the early 1850s. Both vessels struggled during the mid 1850s when competition among rival steamship lines, and increasingly with railroads, squeezed rates. There were other career similarities to come.
The 806 ton steamer Sultana was launched and put into service in the spring of 1847. Built by Zadock Pangborn at Algonac, Michigan. She measured: 217'3" long by 30'6" beam by 12'7" depth.
The Queen City
The 906 ton steamer Queen City was built by Bidwell and Banta at Buffalo, New York in 1848. Her dimensions were 242' x 30' x 12'.
The Sultana was built for the Troy and Western Line and commanded by Captain Gillman Appleby, while the Queen City operated under the command of Captain T.J. Titus for the Reed Line.1 Both of these fine side wheel steamers were built for the then booming Buffalo to Chicago passenger and freight trade. This trade was in turn being fed by ever increasing waves of immigrants arriving in New York, making their way west across the Erie Canal to Buffalo, then to western Lake Michigan ports to new lives in the American West.
Fleeing war and failed revolution in Germany, religious persecution in other parts of Europe and the potato famine in Ireland, immigrants fled to America by the hundreds of thousands. In the year 1845, immigration totaled 114,000; it increased steadily reaching 310,000 in 1850 further increasing to 428,000 in 1854.2
These immigrants were not the storybook penniless, but generally lower to middle class farmers lured by cheap land and opportunity in the newly opened northwest. In a single decade, "Between 1830 and 1840 the population of Michigan grew from 31,000 to 212,000 and in the following decade Wisconsin's population grew from 30,000 to beyond 300,000. 3
Following the immigrants came the supplies, tools, and housewares needed to make the wilderness a home. This continuing east to west flow of people and materials spawned a veritable building boom in side wheel passenger and freight steamers during the 1840s and '50s. Competition and increasing trade drove the lines to build larger and grander vessels. This building boom culminated in the mid 1850s with such vessels as the steamer Western Metropolis (1,856 tons), the steamer Plymouth Rock (1,991 tons), and finally the Western World (2,002 tons).4
Both the Queen City and Sultana opened their careers on the growing Buffalo to Chicago run. Then in 1849 the Queen City was put into the Buffalo to Sandusky route where a connection with the new]y completed rail line carried passengers to Cincinnati. This route however proved unprofitable and the steamer was laid up in August. In 1850, the Sultana continued Buffalo to Chicago service while the Queen City ran between Buffalo and Toledo with stops at various south shore ports.
On June 4 the Queen City engaged in a race with the steamer Alabama (Captain Howe) from Buffalo to Cleveland. While the race generated much press with both masters providing their point of view, it appears that the Queen City won, averaging a then incredible, 14 1/2 miles per hour. The Sultana earned some notoriety when in May a young woman gave birth aboard and named her new daughter in honor of the steamer.
The Queen City opened 1851 with a trip to Dunkirk, New York to celebrate the extension of the New York and Erie Railroad to that city. The event was commemorated by such notables as President Millard Fillmore and Daniel Webster. The steamer continued in the south Lake Erie trade throughout the year under charter to the railroad.
The Sultana, however, had a rough year of it breaking an engine cross head during a gale on May first off Fairport, Ohio. She ended the season on a similar note striking a submerged rock near West Sister Island on December 4. She was able to make it to Sandusky where she sank in the harbor, destroying her cargo of flour. Damage to vessel and cargo was estimated at $7,000.
The year 1852 appears unremarkable for both vessels. The raised Sultana was in the Tri Weekly Fleet running Buffalo to Chicago, the Queen City in the south Lake Erie trade.
The Queen City opened 1853 by striking rocks upon entering Dunkirk harbor where she sank on April 13. But these vessels were hard to drown. She was raised and repaired at Buffalo only to be involved in a collision with the steamer St. Lawrence in July. The unlucky vessel ended the season by striking a submerged anchor in the harbor at Erie, Pennsylvania. She immediately filled with water and went to the bottom causing the loss of her flour cargo. Total loss was estimated at $4,000.
Yet in the 1854 season both vessels operated very full schedules. The Sultana ran from Buffalo to Chicago while the Queen City ran from Chicago to Sault Ste. Marie for Reed's Chicago and Lake Superior Line. In that trade on November 20, Queen City broke her arches. The Sultana, after successfully riding out some violent weather on Lake Michigan, ran aground on the St. Clair Flats in October.
By 1855 railroads stretched from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi. On the lakes the Soo Locks opened linking Lake Superior to the rest of the transportation system. The Reed Line chartered the Queen City to the Ontario, Superior, and Union Railroad to operate from the railhead at Collingwood on Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie and Chicago. Meanwhile Captain Appleby, long master of the Sultana, sold her to J.C. Harrison and J.B. Johnson of Erie, Pennsylvania where she continued in the fiercely competitive Buffalo Chicago trade.
The very next year, the Simcoe and Huron Railway Company chartered the Queen City continuing her in the Chicago to Collingwood run. The season ended early, however, as the steamer broke her machinery in the straits and had to be towed to Detroit. Meanwhile, the Sultana continued to operate for the Buffalo and Chicago Line. She too became a casualty, grounding off upper Fox Island in Lake Michigan in late June. After several days, tugs were able to pump her out and pull her into dry dock where repairs were estimated at $6,000.
The increasing costs of operating the Queen City apparently prompted Reed to sell the vessel in 1857 to Green Bay parties. Local citizens, who subscribed $60,000 for the purchase, put her in service between Buffalo and Green Bay under the command of Captain Chamberlain. The Sultana, under the command of Captain Mead, again damaged her machinery in June and was towed to Detroit where in December, she was sold under foreclosure to John Owen for $3,500. Summer witnessed the full effects of the Panic of 1857 resulting in early lay up of most of the large passenger steamers.
The 1857 Panic
The Panic had its beginning earlier in the spring with a run on a Cincinnati bank. It was fueled by the over expansion of railroad building along with land and stock market speculation. High prices paid for land and stock investments were underwritten by bank loans, with over valued land pledged as collateral.
All was fine so long as food prices remained high. However, the end of the Crimean War in Europe in 1856 had reduced export demand for food, leading to lower prices. With their incomes thus diminished, many farmers were unable to make loan payments, resulting in foreclosure. With prospects for economic prosperity in agriculture thus diminished, immigration fell drastically. By 1858, the year following the Financial Panic, immigration was only 123,000 souls, less than 30 percent of what it had been in the peak year of 1854.5
The Panic of 1867 and competition from the railroads had done what the most violent Lake Huron gales could not: it forced permanent lay up of all but the smallest side wheel passenger steamers. The high cost of operating the large ships, along with the reduction in passenger trade, doomed them. Even the Plymouth Rock and Western World, barely three years old, would never raise steam again.
In 1858 both the Sultana and Queen City were laid up, the former at Detroit and the latter at Erie. In April the Queen City, which had been purchased a year earlier for $60,000, was sold at Federal bankruptcy sale for $2,500. The successful bidder was her former owner C.M. Reed. The term successful, however, was deceptive as she remained laid up for the next four years.
The Sultana made some news in 1859 when she broke free from her moorings on the Detroit River and drifted down stream. She struck the Great Western Railway dock in Windsor and sank. However, she was later raised and returned to her mooring.
In April of 1860, the cabins of the Sultana were removed and converted to souvenir and hot dog stands on Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River.
The Shot on April 12, 1861
Events at Fort Sumter were to change the world forever. The American Civil War created a powerful echo on the Great Lakes. The significant increase in trade, along with the Navy's purchase of many lake vessels for blockade service, resulted in very high rates. Many old hulls were put into service including those of the laid up side wheel steamer fleet. The Sultana had her machinery removed and entered service as a barge in April 1862 with the Queen City undergoing a similar conversion and entering service in July. Both vessels had been purchased by J.S. Noyes and Co. to transport lumber from the Saginaw River to Buffalo. The Sultana was generally in tow of the tug Reindeer while the Queen City was towed by the tug Eagle.
The two remained in this service throughout 1862 and the summer of 1863.
The Queen City Leaves
Barely a month after the guns fell silent near the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the barge Queen City was being towed up Lake Huron. Bound for the Saginaw River and another load of lumber, she and the tug Eagle were encountering heavy weather on the night of August 16. The barge sprung a leak causing her to take on water faster than her pumps could handle it. Captain Boynton of the Eagle was having great difficulty in controlling the increasingly water logged Queen City.
Accounts differ as to what happened next. The seven man crew of the Queen City reported that the Eagle cut them adrift in the northeast gale that was then blowing. Captain Boynton made no effort to rescue the crew and headed back to the shelter of the St. Clair River. The Queen City was thus at the mercy of the waves. Later that evening she struck a rock or began to break up. The crew abandoned the vessel and safely made it to shore.7
Captain Boynton of the Eagle, when interviewed by The Detroit Free Press, stated that the crew of the barge signaled the tug to return to the river. While in the process of this maneuver, he claimed that the crew of the barge cast off the tow line.8 Amid accusations from both sides, the controversy continued in the press for several weeks.
The wreckage of the Queen City herself continued to float in the lake. Captain Ratteray of the steamer Susan Ward reported seeing the wreck floating off the Michigan thumb five days after her loss.9 Strong northerly winds persisted in the two weeks following the disaster, carrying the wreckage to a point between Lexington and Lakeport, Michigan before the Queen City finally went to the bottom.10
The Sultana Leaves
Almost two months to the day from the wreck of the Queen City, the J.S. Noles and Co. sustained another loss. On November 12, the barge Sultana in tow of the tug Reindeer had just rounded Point aux Barques and was headed south with a full load of lumber for Buffalo. Hugging the shore too closely, the Sultana struck a reef, filled with water, and settled on the bottom.
The tug Reindeer took the crew off and headed to Detroit where pumps were secured. The Reindeer returned to the site of the wreck with the crews attempting to patch and refloat the vessel. However, the "Witch of November" had other ideas and soon gales and high seas broke the Sultana up in place. Her grave marker was her cargo of lumber floating in the lake several days later.11
The life and times of the steamers Sultana and Queen City represented more than a mere anecdote in American history. Their careers represent the response of the Great Lakes transportation system to world events during the mid nineteenth century. The opening of the Erie Canal, settlement of the Indian Wars and general revolution in Europe all drove immigration. This immigration drove settlement and commerce. The primitive state of steamboat design and lack of aids to navigation resulted in frequent wrecks, beachings and sinkings. The building of the railroads, land speculation and the Financial Panic of 1867 forced changes in the transportation system. The Civil War and industrial revolution further drove change in Great Lakes' commerce. It is in this broad historical context that the history of the Queen City and Sultana represent an important chapter in the continuously unfolding saga of our inland seas.
1. Enrollment documents.
2. North, Douglas and Robert Thomas. The Growth of the American Economy to 1860. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina. 1968. pp. 227, 228
3. Havighurst, Walter. The Long Ships Passing. MacMillian Co. New York, N.Y. 1942. p. 129. 4. History of the Great Lakes. J.H. Beers & Co., Chicago, IL. 1899.
5 North. p. 227
7. Buffalo Daily Currier, August 24,1863.
8. Detroit Free Press, August 29,1863.
9. Detroit Advertiser & Tribune, August 23, 1863
10. Detroit Free Press, September 2, 1863. Detroit Advertiser & Tribune, August 28, September 1, 2, 1863. 11. Detroit Advertiser & Tribune; November 29, 1863.
Winter 1995, p. 2-10