The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Independence (Propeller), boiler exploded, 21 Nov 1853

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Propeller INDEPENDENCE, cargo supplies, exploded on Lake Superior. Total loss, vessel and cargo. lost three lives. Property loss $28,000.
      Buffalo Express
      January 2, 1854 (casualty list)

      . . . . .

Detroit, Nov. 26, 6 P.M. - The following was found in the Lake Superior Journal, of Nov. 22.--
      It becomes our painful duty to record one of the most terrible steamboat explosions that has ever happened on the lakes.
The propeller INDEPENDENCE, Capt. John McKay, left the dock at Portage last night about 12 o'clock, with a heavy freight of winter supplies for Ontonagon and La Point, and a number of passengers. She had not proceeded over a mile, before the boiler burst, literally tearing three-forths of the boat to atoms, killing, or scalding to death four persons; the first engineer, one passenger, and two firemen. The name of the passenger killed, we were unable to ascertain - he was a Frenchman bound for Ontonagon. The first engineer was George Sisson and the firemen's names are unknown. There were some of the most miraculous escapes we have ever seen recorded.
      The clerk, Watson, formerly of Cleveland, and Mr. A. Thomas, of the same place, were asleep in the upper cabin, and fell clear from the boat into the water, escaping with little injury---the second much scalded, but there is a chance of his recovery. The second engineer, Mr. Hudson, also badly scalded and burned, but may recover. Cargo all lost.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Saturday, November 26, 1853

      . . . . .

The O'Reilly Telegraph Office furnished us the following particulars, on Saturday evening, of the explosion of the propeller INDEPENDENCE. The catastrophe occurred beyond the "Soo." The Dispatch is taken from the Lake Superior Journal, published at Sault Ste. Marie.
      Four or five Clevelanders were aboard, among others Champion Vaughan, Miller and Emerson, who escaped unhurt, so far as we have heard. Alfred Thomas and the Clerk they were injured badly.
      The following is the dispatch:
      Detroit, Nov. 26.
      It becomes our painful duty to record one of the most terrible steamboat explosions that has ever happened on the lakes. The propeller INDEPENDENCE, Capt. John MacKay, left the dock at the portage last night, about 12 o'clock, with a heavy freight of winter supplies for Ontagon and Laponte, and a number of passengers. She had not proceeded over a mile before her boiler burst, literally tearing three-fourths of the boat to atoms, and killing or scalding to death four persons -- the 1st Engineer, one passenger, two firemen, and badly scalding and injuring the 2nd. Engineer and several passengers.
      The names of the passengers killed we are not able to ascertain. He was a Frenchman, bound for Ontagon.
      The 1st. Engineer was George Sersion, and that of the fireman names are unknown -- neither of them were from Ohio.
      There were some of the most miraculous escapes we have ever seen recorded.
      The Clerk, J.W. Watson, formerly of Cleveland, and Mr. A. Thomas, of the same place, were asleep in the upper cabin and were blown a hundred feet or more into the air, with the cabin, and as far from the boat into the water, and escaped -- the former with little injury, and the latter much scalded and bruised, but there is a chance for his recovery.
      The 2nd. Engineer, Wm. Herson, was badly scalded and bruised, but may recover.
      The cargo was lost.
      Cleveland Daily Forest City Democrat
      Monday, November 28, 1853

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      Detroit, Nov. 26 - The prop. INDEPENDENCE, Capt. John McKay, left her dock at the head of Portage River on the evening of the 21st. inst., with a heavy freight of winter supplies for Ontonagon and Lapointe, and a large number of passengers. When about a mile out her boiler bursted, tearing the boat to atoms, and killing 4 persons, viz; the first engineer George Session, one passenger, and two firemen, (names unknown) and badly scalding and injuring the second engineer and several passengers. The cargo is a total loss. The boat is owned by Mr. McKnight of Detroit.
      Rochester Standard & Union
      November 29, 1853

      . . . . .
      (For the Forest City Democrat.)
      Messrs. Editors:---Having been on the above ill-fated Propeller, at the time of her loss, I am perhaps better able to give an accurate account of the accident than has yet been done.
      The propeller left the Sault St. Marie, Nov. 21st, with a large cargo, bound for La Pointe and some intermediate ports. The passengers and crew probably numbered in all about thirty or forty.
      I had retired early and was sound asleep, when suddenly I was aroused by an awful crashing -- thrown from my berth which was smashed to pieces, and left standing in water knee-deep, --- steam filled the place, and with the frightful noise was mingling the shrieks and groans of poor sufferers, calling on God for help. Tons of the wreck fell around. I endeavored to break through the mass, I tugged, pulled and worked, all, however, in vain; and exhausted by the violence of my exertions, I sank down, as I thought, never again to rise. All this time I considered my room-mate as among the dead, for I had called him by name and received no answer. To my great surprise, though immeasurable delight, I heard him call me faintly, and then say, in a mournful tone; " Oh C---, we are lost!" The sound of a living voice aroused me from the lethargy into which I had fallen.
      Another crash now took place, as the vessel settled, I bowed my head, but the moment passed, and I was still uninjured; at this time I perceived a crack in a partition, through which I thrust my hands, tore it aside, and with my companion, stood in the fresh air upon a portion of the wreck, cold, wet and almost naked. God grant, that the scene we there saw, may never be seen again. We had scarce got foothold, when a man, bloody and evidently wounded, staggered by and fell into the water. We heard his frantic cry for "Help, in God Almighty's name," and then we heard a horrid gurgle, as he sank from his frail hold into Eternity. Night was made hideous by the shrieks and cries of the survivors, who were all collected on a small portion of the Hurricane deck, near the door, which was the only part of the boat out of water. One poor woman sat weeping apart from the others, but I found her tears were tears of joy, for her babe, which she feared was lost, had just been restored to its mother's arms unhurt. There was now a partial silence, and it was discovered to our horror, that four men were in the water. Mr. Watson, the Clerk, the 2d Engineer, who was badly scalded, Mr. A. Thomas, severely wounded, and a colored man. The latter being near me, I extended a stick to him, and with delight hauled him safely on the wreck. Mr. Thomas succeeded in reaching the wreck; and the Engineer and Clerk got on a bundle of hay; their position was certainly unenviable, for they were fast drifting towards the Rapids, and if not picked up, would soon be dashed to pieces by the foaming waters against the massive rocks; wildly did they call for help, and sure did they drift towards a certain grave; the gloom of night now shut them out from sight, and their loud cries seemed like dying echoes, as still they drifted down. Some time now passed, how long a time I cannot say, it seemed an age; when suddenly a faint and distant shout was heard, and lights glimmered on the shore, eagerly was that shout answered, and the air echoed and re-echoed with cries of joy. Once more the "heavens rang," a boat appeared, and we felt that we were saved ?
      The first boat was sent immediately to try and pick up those in the water, before they should go over the Rapids, swift flew that little boat across the watery floor, and just in time rescued the poor sufferers from the brink of their grave.
      During this time, we, on the wreck, were in a dreadful state, the little portion out of water kept cracking and settling, and we feared, would soon go down. It was ordered otherwise, however, for some other boats appeared, and ere long we all stood safe upon the shore.
      What happened that night can never be effaced from my mind. Once I remember hearing a friend of mine calling me by name, "to help him, for he was dying." and yet I could not move a finger to assist that suffering man. It made me almost frantic to hear him groan, to hear his agonizing prayers of poor persons expecting soon to be ushered into the presence of the Almighty, to see the wounded in their agony, but I saw and heard all this and more which I cannot describe.
      Yours Truly. C. V.
      Cleveland Daily Forest City Democrat
      Saturday, December 3, 1853

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Since the discovery of copper in the Upper Peninsula, in 1845, and the commencement of the Lake Superior steamer and vessel trade, many craft engaged in the trade have been lost. Previous to the discovery of copper, there was no other trade but that of furs, and one of the fur-trading vessels was lost - the JOHN JACOB ASTOR. We have compiled the following table, which will be found of interest to those connected with the Lake Superior copper trade:
Name of vessel lost Value Value cargo Year Lives lost.
Schooner MERCHANT $4,000 $2,000 1847 18
Propeller GOLIATH $18,000 $18,000 1847
Steamer BEN FRANKLIN $15,000 $4,000 1850
Propeller MONTICELLO $30,000 $10,000 1851
Schooner SISKOWIT $1,000 $500 -- (SISKAVIT)
Schooner SELBY $500 $500 --
*Propeller INDEPENDENCE $12,000 $18,000 1853 3
Steamer ALBANY $30,000 $2,500 1853
Propeller PENINSULA $18,000 $12,000 1854
Steamer E.K. COLLINS $100,000 $1,500 1854 20
Steamer BALTIMORE $15,000 $4,000 1855
Propeller B.L. WEBB $50,000 $15,000 1856
Steamer SUPERIOR $15,000 $10,000 1856 54
Propeller CITY OF SUPERIOR $50,000 $25,000 1857
Propeller INDIANA $8,000 $2,500 1858
      -------- ------ ---
      $366,500 $125,500 95
      -------- ------ ---
      Making a grand total of $492,000. - Detroit Advertiser.
      Buffalo Daily Courier
      Saturday, December 11, 1856

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Sault Ste. Marie News. -- Newcomb and Goodreau, sub-marine divers, are busy at work on the wreck of the propeller INDEPENDENCE, which was wrecked a little ways above the head of the canal, twenty-nine years ago. She seems to be pretty well loaded, and some of her goods and machinery are little the worse for their long rest under the water.
      Cleveland Herald
      Tuesday, August 30, 1881

      . . . . .
      Steamer INDEPENDENCE
      Capt. John McKay, father of Capt. George P. McKay, treasurer of the Lake Carrier's Association, was master of the steamer INDEPENDENCE when she exploded her boiler and sank on Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie, on Nov. 22, 1854. Capt. Geo. P. McKay was wheelsman on the boat. The INDEPENDENCE was the first steam vessel on Lake Superior and considerable interest is now attached to the parts of the vessel recently raised by divers of Sault Ste. Marie. T. R. Harvey of Harvey's Marine Bureau at the Sault, has the propeller and offers it for sale. It measures about 10 feet and is valuable as a curiosity.
      Marine Review.
      February 9, 1893

      . . . . .
      Boiler of The Steamer INDEPENDENCE
      Interesting Memento of One of The. Most Famous Disasters in The History of Navigation of The Great Lakes
      a Survivor's Story.
There is presented herewith a photo of a very interesting relic, fished up in Lake Superior last fall when dredgers were at work widening and deepening the upper channel entrance to the Sault Ste. Marie canal. A mass of iron now lying on a lighter at H.T. Dunbar's ship yard at the head of the canal represents what is left of the boiler of the steamer INDEPENDENCE which exploded at 11 o'clock on the evening of Nov. 22, 1854 resulting in the sinking of the vessel and loss of seven lives. The INDEPENDENCE was the first steamer on Lake Superior.
Capt. George P. McKay, treasurer of the Lake Carriers' is the only member of the crew and probably the only one of those on board, who survives. He talked to a Marine Review representative the other day regarding the accident. The INDEPENDENCE was a stern-wheel propeller built of wood and probably not over 150 feet in length, being fitted with a small single engine and boiler of only sufficient power to enable her to attain a speed of 7 or 8 miles an hour. She was built in Chicago and was the first of a number of vessels of this class hauled overland to Lake Superior, there being at that time no canal The process of moving the vessels around the rapids was very similar to that employed at the present day in moving houses, save that it was considerably more tedious by reason of the fact that instead of using rollers the vessels were slowly dragged along greased ways by means of capstans. A strong cradle was built for each vessel. A number of steamers, including the PENINSULA. MANHATTAN, MONTICELLO, JULIA PALMER and BALTIMORE were thus moved. ( Oftentimes an entire winter was occupied in the work. and probably the quickest time ever made was in the case of the MANHATTAN, which was relaunched just one month after she was hauled out of the water. Capt. McKay's story of the INDEPENDENCE disaster is interesting. "The accident occurred," he said, "during the first trip made by the steamer after she had been purchased by my father, Capt. John McKay.
      At that time of Sault Ste. Marie, and Capt. L. McKnight of Detroit. The vessel had been brought up from Lake Michigan several years before. and had a most unfortunate career from the beginning, having stranded a number of times. On two occasions she was on the beach during an entire winter. All the members of our family were rather opposed Lo father purchasing her. After he did so we spent many months in overhauling her and refitting her for the trade between the Sault and Ontonagon "
"After the repairs were completed up the lake, we made a trip down the Sault and took aboard a general cargo, consisting largely of material for a new hotel to be erected at Ontonagon. At that time boats day in deep water off what is now the head of the canal and were loaded by means of small boats that plied between them and the warehouses on the piers. We were several days in loading and had been under way but a short time when the explosion occurred. I was asleep up forward at the time. I was serving as wheelsman and was to have taken the wheel at 12 o'clock. When awakened by the explosion I hurried on deck and was able to discern the floating debris that covered the water for some distance. The accident occurred just as we were passing over the spot since known as Vidal shoal and which was removed last year The stern sank almost immediately, but the bows. where hay and lumber were stored sank slowly, and it was several days before they finally disappeared. Those on board were rescued by Capt. Ripley and a party of Indians.
      "The cause of the explosion has remained a mystery, but it is supposed the water in the boiler was allowed to get low and when the vessel got under way the cold water was suddenly turned in. Two engineers, two firemen and three passengers were killed, but the balance of the crew of twenty and the remaining passengers, there being fifteen or twenty in all, escaped entirely uninjured. Numerous wrecking expeditions have visited the scene and the cargo has been recovered piece-meal. It increased, however, nothing of any considerable value and no money whatever was lost on the vessel."
      The Review is indebted for the photograph to Mr. Leon Bellair, proprietor of the New Bay City House, Sault Ste. Marie., Michigan.
      Marine Review
      April 6, 1899

Media Type:
Item Type:
Reason: boiler exploded
Lives: 4
Freight: supplies
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original:
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 46.98215 Longitude: -88.44068
William R. McNeil
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Independence (Propeller), boiler exploded, 21 Nov 1853