The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Sebastopol (Steamboat), aground, 1 Sep 1855

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SEBASTOPOL Steamer, ashore and total loss at Milwaukee. Cargo merchandise. 7 lives lost. Property loss $350,000.
      Buffalo Morning Express (1855 casualty list)
      Jan. 11, 1856

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      (From the Milwaukee Sentinel of Sept.. 19.)
      The steamer SEBASTOPOL, Capt. Thomas Watts, left Buffalo on the 12th inst., and after lying on the St. Clair Flats for 24 hours, came on towards her destination -- the upper lakes ports -- having on board a full crew and some 60 passengers, besides a full and valuable cargo of merchandise, a large portion of it belonging to parties in this city and state. The night was very dark, and there seems to have been no light upon the government piers -- at least so it is said by several of those belonging to the boat. Either the light upon the schooner ROCKWELL, ( which is ashore near the SEBASTOPOL,) or lights from houses on the shore, were mistaken for the pier light, and the doomed steamer, after the captain had twice rounded to, followed the deceitful light, and soon struck the ground, about three miles south of the government piers, and shortly after swung around broadside on. The storm increased in violence until long after daylight, and the scene on board is described as being a fearful one, the huge waves striking and dashing clear over the steamer, making her frame quiver throughout. A large portion of the passengers were woman and children, and their condition was a fearful one.
      About day-light the (so called) life-boat -- a small copper boat -- was got down, with a line aboard, and Capt. Watts, with several of the crew, put off in a dangerous attempt to get ashore. So far as we could learn, the boat had only reached about half way, (the steamer lay about 500 feet from shore) when it was upset by a wave, and three of the crew were drowned. Capt. Watts and the others got ashore, and with the aid of persons who had made their appearance on the bank, carried the line up the steep bank -- some 50 feet -- and hauled out from the steamer a cable, which was made fast to a stump in the field.
      (We have another version of this part of the story, to the effect that "two" boats came ashore and that two men were drowned from one of them, and three from the other, and that Capt. Watts came ashore in the yawl. One of these boats brought the line. We believe that the Captain and four others were in the yawl, and brought the line ashore.)
      Messengers were sent off to the city for the life boat, and for other assistance, and the hours wore away amidst great anxiety and terror on the part of the passengers, until help came. Mean time one man has succeeded in getting ashore by clinging to an oar, and another by the aid of the line, while two or three, in attempting to reach the shore, were drowned. (We found it very difficult to obtain the facts and names in regard to the lost correctly, as a great number of the crew, who were not engaged in the attempt to save life, were too drunk to know their names, much less to tell those of others.)
      When we arrived at the scene at about 8:30 A. M., no aid had yet come, and we found Capt. Watts in the field overlooking the wreck, in a state of great anxiety, the more poignant that his wife and four children were aboard. At his request we drove back to see if his messengers had succeeded in starting the life-boat, and near town met Captain Stewart, Sherwood, and others with a boat on wheels, urging their horses along as rapidly as possibly. By the time the boat reached the ground, there were two or three hundred people at hand ready to render assistance, and the boat, under the direction of Captain Sherwood, was speedily lowered down the bank, and in the water. The anchor of the ROCKWELL was brought by stout hands and fixed to steady the cable, and the life-boat, with her gallant crew pushed off on her errand of mercy. The following composed her crew:
      Capt. Stewart, of the NEBRASKA and two of his crew; Thomas Pierce and Charles Blue; Capt. Porter of the KIRK WHITE; Capt. Taberner, of the CRAMER; Capt. Jack Humphrey; J. Northrop; Jon. Hanson, and Charles Warner.
      Carefully guided by the cable, but rising and falling in the heavy seas, the boat proceeded, reached the steamer, and in a few minutes, from the groups gathered on the upper deck, the women and children were being lowered in slings into their ark of safety. After about a dozen were on board, the boat put off for shore. Much apprehension was felt for its safety, as it approached, but a hundred men were in the surf up to their arm-pits, and lifting the boat carried it safely to the shore -- whence the passengers were lifted from hand to hand up the steep bank and taken into houses near by, where they were kindly cared for till they could be sent to town.
      Not a life was lost after the life-boat reached the spot. Steadily and constantly did the gallant crew perform their good work, nor did they cease when every soul was safe on shore; for the next endeavored to save the horses, of which some forty were on board, and did save seven or eight; and then went to work at the baggage. Some twenty or thirty trunks were got ashore, most of which were taken to the Sheriff's office, awaiting owners. The Messrs. Davis sent down a sufficient supply of omnibuses, and from other stables came carriages in abundance to bring the drenched and chilled passengers to the city. Mr. Williams, of the Central Hotel, and Mr. Warner, of the Merchant's Hotel, requested that a number should be sent to their houses. By 12 o'clock, all of the passengers and crew were on shore in safety.
      The following list of the saved and lost is as accurate as we could obtain yesterday:
      CREW SAVED. -- Capt. Watts; Wm. Waterbury 1st Mate; Thos. Cole, 1st engineer; Follett Goewey (came ashore on the line); Wm. Scott, fireman (came ashore on an oar); Charles Cumming, colored. Besides the above named, the two clerks, two porters, steward, five foremen, two carpenters and eight or ten deck hands were saved. DROWNED -- Morris Berry, 2nd. Mate; Frank, 2nd. engineer; Wm. James, cook; a waiter; Bradley Davis, and the wheelsman, James Clark. These, we believe, are the ones lost. Total crew, 28 -- drowned 5.
      PASSENGERS SAVED, -- H. Alderman, of Albion, N. Y., bound to Chicago; Wm. Chisholm, (one of the owners, we believe); Mrs. Watts, (wife of the captain) and four children; Isaac Bates, wife and six children, of Vernon, N. Y.; Mrs. Bennett, wife of Capt. Bennett, of propeller MOUNT VERNON; I. Lamb, wife and three children, from County Wexford, Ireland; Mary McCaughey, Irish; Susan McIntosh, from Cleveland; A. Harbaugh, wife and four children; -- Jackson, wife and one child, from near Buffalo; P. Poth, German; Stoddard Tubbs, Livingston County, N. Y.; Wm. Tanner, Herkimer County N. Y.; Edwin Shaw, Batavia, N. Y.; Wm. H. Lewis, Darien, N. Y.; Jas. Gay, 10th Ave. N. Y.; N.W. Burdick, wife and child, Syracuse N. Y.; E.D. Gay and wife, Wayne, Pa.; Alex & J. Boyd, Knowlesville, N. Y.; Niel Hansen and wife, Norwegian; J.M. Thomas, Chatham Columbia Co. N. Y.; George Delamater, going to same place near Madison; C. Rollins, Boston; Ed. Kaufter, German; Fred Ennion, German; Martin Schuler, wife and three children, German; Nischolas Dowran, German; M. Kormer, German; Albert Zeignund, German.
      PASSENGER DROWNED. -- Two German passengers, whose names are not known, are thought to be drowned -- one seems to be certainly lost -- concerning the other, accounts vary. Total passengers saved, 88; total lost, 7.
      The Clerk of the steamer informs us that the bills of lading were in the safe, and that the part of the boat containing it was breaking up as he left, so he could not get at the safe. There were nearly 400 tons of merchandise for Chicago, all of which was lost. We regret to state that a disposition to plunder manifested itself in the afternoon. A guard was set during the night, to protect such good as had already, or should still come ashore. The gale seemed to continue with no abatement last night, and we fear that we shall have many disasters to record.
      The SEBASTOPOL was built at Cleveland, last winter, and was owned by Messrs. Cheeseborough, Moses, and Capt. Watts, and valued at about $65,000. We understand that Mr. Moses was not insured, but that the other owners were.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Friday, September 21, 1855
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WRECK OF THE SEBASTOPOL. -- The Milwaukee American of the 20th, gives the following concluding particulars:
      The wind continued heavy all the night of Tuesday and all day yesterday, though last night the sea had considerably gone down. The bow of the SEBASTOPOL, and the stern, were entirely washed away yesterday morning, though the skeleton remained stationary by the weight of the cargo of heavy goods in the hold. The shore for three miles is strewn with the fragments of the steamer and the deck cargo; also horses, barrels, bales, boxes, trunks, &c. Tuesday night officers Conover and Beck detailed men to watch the beach, to protect the property that had been thrown up by the waves; but notwithstanding their precaution, we are sorry to say that considerable stuff was taken away. Yesterday morning several men were caught in the act of breaking open a box of elegant shawls, that had been thrown upon the beach, but the prompt attention of officer Beck put a stop to their robbing propensities. We saw a grindstone that had been washed from the wreck, which is an evidence of the fury with which the waves were hurled upon the beach. And as another evidence of the luck and fortunes on such occasions, we were told that yesterday the large mirror of the SEBASTOPOL's main saloon "came ashore unbroken."
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Saturday, September 22, 1855

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      (From the Milwaukee Sentinel of Sept. 22d.)
The wreck of the SEBASTOPOL must have taught many lessons to every sailor who watched her, and looked upon the noble crew that manned the life boat. That same life boat, in the hands of any other than thorough and perfect seamen, would have been useless -- as it was manned, it was an ark of safety to the numerous passengers it saved, and wherever, on this continent, the telegraph cleaves the air, or wherever a newspaper can be carried, will be borne the names of that crew. The relatives of those saved will bless them -- they who witnessed their heroic conduct, who watched them as they braved the angry wave, or dashed through the wild surf, returning freighted with women and children and heard the cheers that greeted them from the hundreds that lined the high bluffs, as the poor dripping passengers were landed on the beach, and almost carried up the steep hillside, to the houses near by -- they cannot forget it; at every returning equinoctial, this scene will be again imagined, as in its fearful reality, and the stranded boat with its cargo of human souls pictured on the mind, will be relieved only by the after-scenes of the life boat, pulled hand over hand along the hawser, bring at each return a number of passengers. As long as South Point remains where it is now, the wreck and the crew of the life-boat cannot be forgotten. So much for the poetry of the wreck.
The delay in getting the life boat to the scene, and the fact that a hole was stove in the bottom of it through the necessarily rough handling which it had in getting it upon a wagon unfitted for its use, teaches that a proper cradle should at once be provided in which the boat could be placed at once upon wheels, and easily taken down for service. With a single apparatus of this kind, the boat could be easily handled , and taken to any part of the coast where it may be needed.
Another lesson it teaches us is this; no other lights except revolving or colored lights should be placed on our coast; whether the light on the government pier was or was not burning on the night the SEBASTOPOL was wrecked, matters not here -- a revolving or colored light can be always distinguished by any practiced seaman from a vessel or shore light, and had the light on the pier been a revolving one, whether the upper light house or the pier beacon, the SEBASTOPOL would not have been wrecked. The insurance officers may profit by this hint.
      Another lesson taught by four-fifths of all the wrecks occurring on the lake coasts is, that in no one instance has any vessel to our knowledge been supplied with proper and sufficient ground tackle. A lake vessel of 200 tons requires in reality a far heavier anchor and more scope of cable than a salt water vessel of the same tonnage; but all seamen conversant with both waters know that the reverse is the fact in the supply of anchors to lake vessels. Vessels taunt rigged, and which never strike their spars, carry seldom more than fifty and often but forty fathoms of cable to an anchor, and anchors by far too light. For three years past we have never seen a gale of wind, and, from all we can learn there has never been a gale of wind, on Lake Michigan, in which a vessel could not ride at anchor safely if she was supplied with good and sufficient ground tackle, good heavy anchors and at least, as at sea -- seventy five fathoms of cable to each anchor. Several other suggestions might be made, but we fear would be but little heeded; however it is the duty of journalists to call attention to them, and the duty and interest of insurance officers to see them carried out.
      Buffalo Daily republic
      Thursday, September 25, 1855

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      The wind and waves yesterday made sad havoc with the wreck of the SEBASTOPOL. The bow and the upper cabin have disappeared; one smoke pipe has fallen, and though the stern is still held together yesterday afternoon, it cannot do so much longer. Large quantities of goods washed ashore during the day; the beach for 2 or 3 miles, being strewed with them. The men on guard, and the Sheriff and his officers, did their best to prevent pillage; but, in spite of all they could do, thieving was practiced pretty extensively. The different consignees in this city had goods on board to the value of $20,000. They were fully insured, however, in our home companies, and will sustain no loss -- Milwaukee Sentinel, Thursday.
      Detroit Free Press
      September 23, 1855

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NO LIGHT. - We have now no beacon at the entrance to the mouth of the River. If a propeller should arrive from below in the night, and see no light in the direction of where one ought to be, she would undoubtedly be beached. This is what wrecked the SEBASTOPOL last fall. If there is no one else to attend to it the Insurance Companies would make money by repairing it at once. Not another night should pass without a light. - Milwaukee American.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      May 10, 1856

( schr. FANNY & FLOY struck the pier, disabling the light house, May 3, 1856 )

      Capt. Watts Mistook St. Francis For Pier Lights.
      Heavy Northeast gale Blowing At The Time -- Steamer Bound Up With a Full Cargo And Sixty
      Passengers Besides The Crew --Three Men Lost Trying To Carry A Line Ashore -- Passengers
      Rescued By a Volunteer Crew Of Life Savers -- One, Charles Warner, Still Living Here.
The stout steamer SEBASTOPOL was coming up Lake Michigan with a full load of freight and sixty passengers in the cabin and the steerage, beside her crew of over twenty men. Most of the passengers were bound for Milwaukee and were preparing for disembarkation. Many of them were immigrants and were busy with their plans for making a home in the great west. A heavy northeaster had set in after nightfall and as the steamer neared Milwaukee bay the storm increased in violence until it reached the fury of a gale. All this made the passengers the more anxious to reach port. The though of disaster never entered their minds as they had a good ship under them and a good sailor in command.
      About midnight Capt. Thomas Watts knew he was off the port and the course was changed so as to bring the steamer safely into the harbor. The weather was very thick with the driving spray and the fog which had drifted in and the captain as he stood on the bridge peered anxiously into the darkness to see the pier lights. These were of little more power than a house lamp and it was a knowledge of this fact which made the good captain the more anxious and led him to wish that he was well inside the harbor instead of out there in the gale. At last he saw ahead several lights but according to his reckoning they were not just where they ought to be and after some hesitation he headed about.
      Seeing no other lights anywhere, however, he decided that these must be the harbor lights and headed for them. Looking ahead sharply, for the pier head he suddenly saw dark and indistinct, just in front of the bows a large black mass which had no resemblance to the harbor mouth. Before he could convey an order to the engineer or even say the word to the men at the wheel the steamer struck heavily once or twice and then swung broadside on to the beach just off St. Francis, the lights of which had been those which lured the steamer to her destruction. The huge waves picked the steamer up and drove her further up on the beach until she was within 150 yards of bluff and there she lay at the mercy of the storm and sea.
      The passengers, panic-stricken, rushed out of their staterooms, adding to the horrible sounds of the storm their shrieks of terror. The first think to do was to quiet them, which Capt. Watts did, and then he began to take stock of his situation. He was well enough acquainted with the bay to give a fair guess of where the steamer had taken the bottom, the groaning of the oak timbers, told him too, that it would not be long before the tremendous poundings of the waves as they dashed against the sides would reduce the wreck to kindling wood. No vessel, no matter how well built, could long stand such pounding and as soon as he had his passengers moderately quiet, he began to cast about for means to communicate with the shore. This was more of a task for the reason that the most of the passengers were women and children, among them his wife and four little ones.
      With the coming of daylight the scene became more wildly terrible although it gave the captain an opportunity to the better see where he was. The shore at that point presented a narrow strip of beach which was covered with the incoming breakers and above that rose the clay bluffs to the height of forty feet. The steamer in swinging broadside made a good lee so that while the waves were running to a dangerous height there were no crests to break into a boat and swamp it. After a survey of the situation Capt. Watts decided that he would try to get ashore in a small boat with a line. If successful he could then haul a cable ashore and make it fast, after which the passengers could be brought to shore over that if a boat could not live in the sea. The small copper boat, called a life boat was hoisted over the side and into it Capt. Watts tumbled with a crew of a half dozen in the forlorn hope of being able to reach the shore, which seemed so short a distance away. When about half way in the boat capsized with a huge roller and three of the brave men gave up their lives. The sacrifice was not in vain, Capt. Watts and the remainder of the crew managed to reach the shore and climb up the slippery clay bluffs. As soon as they recovered their breath they signaled the steamer and a stout cable was bent on to the line and pulled ashore, this was made fast to a stump in the field and then was pulled taut on board the steamer, here was a communication and means of rescue if all others failed.
      By this time the news of the wreck had reached the city and Capt. Stewart of the schooner NEBRASKA and Capt. Sherwood with several other secured the life boat which they loaded on a wagon and started for South Point. In the meantime the score of people who had assembled on the bluff watched the steamer with eager eyes and signaled to the frantic passengers not to give up hope as relief was coming. While they were thus watching they saw a man grasp the cable and swing himself overboard. With hands and feet twisted about the swinging rope he worked his way in, now covered with a huge wave, and again swaying high in the air as the water dropped away beneath him. As he neared the shore Capt. Watts was able to recognize his first engineer, Follett Goeway. Cheered by the encouraging shouts of those on shore Goeway made the passage in safety and was pulled up the bluff amid general rejoicing. Soon after another man was seen to throw himself overboard. As he struck the water it was seen that he had an oar to which he was clinging. The adventuresome fellow was William Scott, a fireman on the steamer. When he neared the beach a score of willing hands seized him and dragged him to land. Three others tried to come ashore on the line or by means of floats and were drowned in the sight of the helpless group on the bluffs.
      Along about 8 o'clock there was a shout and the life boat made its appearance dragged through the muddy fields by panting horses. The moment it reached the bluff preparations were made for launching it. There were plenty of hands to assist in lowering it down the bluff and steadying it in the surf which swept the narrow strip of beach while the crew tumbled in. The crew was changed at times and those who worked as heroes that not a life was lost, after they began work were Capt. Stewart, with Thomas Pierce, and Charles Blue, sailors on the NEBRASKA, Capt. Jim Porter, of the schooner KIRK WHITE, Capt. Taberner, of the CRAMER, Charles Warner, J. Northrop, and John N. Hanson. The line was steadied by the anchor of the schooner ROCKWELL, which was ashore near by and this enabled the crew of the life boat to pull the boat out and in by means of the line. In the meantime women and children were lowered into the boat as it was brought alongside. As the boat returned from its first trip scores of men waded out into the surf and seized the boat , steadying it on the beach where a hundred others stood ready to assist the helpless passengers up the bluff.
      Back and forth went the self-sacrificing crew of the life boat until every person was off of the wrecked vessel. On the boat were forty horses and once the people on board were safe the life boat crew turned their attention to rescuing the horses. Seven or eight were saved but it was found impossible to get the most of them to jump into the water and after cutting their halters they were left to their fate. Not content the crew of the life boat brought several loads of the passengers baggage to land and by noon all that was left on board was the cargo. By this time too the wreck had begun to break up and trips out and back were becoming more dangerous and it was determined to leave the remainder to the wind and waves. All the passengers were sent to the city, where they found a hospitable welcome among the citizens. Beside the three men drowned in the capsizing of the first boat, and the three lost while trying to make the shore two German immigrants were supposed to have been lost, making eight all told out of eighty or ninety people who were on the steamer. The joy of some of the poor immigrants on reaching solid land was pitiable to see.
      Among the cargo was a large consignment of goods for John Nazro, at that time one of the leading merchants of the city. It was insured and the companies paid the insurance. Just a month later the propeller ALLEGHANY went ashore at nearly the same place. On board was a second invoice of the same goods for Nazro. This loss the insurance companies also paid. Mr. Nazro made a third purchase and shipped the goods on the steamer ILLINOIS, and she went ashore in Detroit river, proving a total loss and the insurance companies had to pay a third time for this invoice of goods. Happily for them this ended the season.
      Of those who made part of the brave crew of life savers but one, so far as known, remains. This one is Charles Warner, still a resident of Milwaukee. In speaking of the scenes of the wreck Mr. Warner said "I was a young fellow at the time and that morning was standing in front of the Merchants Hotel, which was kept by my father. It was about 5 o'clock when someone passed by and said there was a steamer ashore on South Point. I at once got out a pony and started for Kinnickinnic bridge. When I reached the bluff opposite the steamer I hitched my pony to a tree and that was the last I saw of him until the next day. Someone brought him home. The SEBASTOPOL had grounded a short distance out and it looked as though she had broken in two forward of the engines. She was up so high on the beach that her decks were above water. The sea that was running was the heaviest I believe that I ever saw. A line had been brought on shore during the night and I was told five men had been lost in the attempt. There was no beach while the bluffs rose forty feet almost straight up and down. When the life boat arrived we lowered it down and a crew of which I was one got in and started for the steamer. The steamer having swung broadside to made a good lee and though there was a heavy swell there was no breakers. Those we could see dashing high over the steamer. We got a load on board and then pulled back by means of the line. The passengers were pulled up by means of ropes. We kept pulling back and forth by means of the line until we had brought ever person on board on shore. Then we turned out attention to the horses and managed to get two string ashore after which we were put in a bus and sent to the city. One of the horses rescued that day was for years used as a dray horse on the east side."
      The heavy sea soon pounded the SEBASTOPOL to pieces and the shore for miles was strewn with the wreckage. The steamer had been built the preceding winter and was valued at $65,000. She was owned by William Chisholm, Mr. Cheesboro and others, of Cleveland. Mr. Chisholm, one of the owners, was on board making a trip up the lakes at the time of the wreck.
      Milwaukee Wisconsin
      June 13, 1897

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Date: September 18, 1855
Type: Wooden Sidewheel Steamer
Depth: 15 ft.
LORAN: 33008.7 / 49300.8
LON/LAT: 42.59'20"/ 87.52.10

On September 18, 1855, the wooden sidewheel steamer SEBASTOPOL was bound for milwaukee from Buffalo, New York carrying 60 passengers and a cargo of 600 tons of household merchandise including nails, sewing needles, buttons and smoking pipes when she was found to be leaking. A stiff gale was blowing and Captain Webb had great difficulty entering Milwaukee Harbor. After several attempts, the Sebastopol ran aground about three miles south of the harbor entrance. She came to rest about 200 ft from shore, just off present day Oklahoma Avenue where the huge waves began to take her apart. The passengers and crew had to wait in the vessels hold until morning when rescuers were able to take them off the wreck. Four crewman who tried to swim to shore through the pounding surf were drowned.
As the Sebastopol came to rest very close to Milwaukee, her machinery and engines were easily salvaged, but her hull and much cargo was left littering the bottom. The location of the Sebastopol was forgotton until her remains were rediscovered in 1976 by divers Mike and Jim Wittlief. In the interim, the City of Milwaukee had built the south shore breakwall around her and today she lies within its protection. The SEBASTOPOL was built at Cleveland, Ohio in 1854 by Luther Moses for Henry Chisholm and Alexander Morrison.
      The remains of the Sebastopol make an interesting historical dive and a complete archeological survey of the site has been prepared by Milwaukee diver Tom Pittelkow. The most prominent features of the SEBASTOPOL are her ribs and spine which rest on the bottom in 15 ft. of water. Other debris including some of her cargo can be found around the wreck site. Divers have removed many of the household artifacts associated with the site. Fanning the bottom between the SEBASTOPOL's ribs will uncover buttons, sewing needles, broken dishes and clay pipes. Please leave the few remaining artifacts for others to see as the site is used extensively for training dives by local dive shops. The Sebastopol's remains are accessible from shore just off a small roadsite park South of Oklahoma Avenue. A stairway leads down to the beach and the wreck lies about 200 yds ESE of the stairway's end. The site is usually buoyed in the Summer months.

References: Explore Great Lakes Shipwrecks, Vol I by Kimm Stabelfeldt, Divers Guide to Wisconsin by Steve Harrington, Midwest Explorers League: Lake Michigan Dive Chart, Archeological Survey of the Sebastopol by Tom Pittelkow, Wisconsin Marine Historical Society: Soundings, Vol 30: 2, Milwaukee Public Library: Herman G. Runge Collection.
      From Divers Magazine [ no date]
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Reason: aground
Lives: 8
Freight: merchandise
Remarks: Total loss
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  • Wisconsin, United States
    Latitude: 43.0389 Longitude: -87.90647
William R. McNeil
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Sebastopol (Steamboat), aground, 1 Sep 1855