The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Northern Indiana (Steamboat), fire, 17 Jul 1856

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Steamer NORTHERN INDIANA, cargo merchandise and passengers, took fire and was totally destroyed on Lake Erie. 58 lives lost.
      Buffalo Commercial Advertiser
      January 31, 1857 (1856 casualty list)

      . . . . .

      We have obtained the following particulars of the loss of the NORTHERN INDIANA on the morning of the 17th, of Capt. Langley, captain of the steamer MISSISSIPPI, Michigan Central Railroad Line.
Capt. Langley says the MISSISSIPPI and NORTHERN INDIANA left Buffalo together on the night of the 16th. The boats kept together, as is usually the case, until 11 o'clock on the morning of the 17th, when off Point au Pelee, when the NORTHERN INDIANA was at least four miles ahead. Capt. Langley was standing forward on his boat with some friends, when he saw smoke bursting out of the starboard gangway of the NORTHERN INDIANA, and knew she was on fire. He sent word immediately to his engineer to hurry the MISSISSIPPI along as fast as possible, that the NORTHERN INDIANA was on fire. He put on the steam, and in from 12 to 20 minutes came abreast of her bows, and instantly dropped his boats they being all ready when the MISSISSIPPI reached her. The INDIANA's engine was at that time stopped, and she was burning fiercely amidships and aft. The passengers were crying, entreating, emploring to be saved, and the rope around the bows and the stern were full of people clinging for life. The boats from the MISSISSIPPI came rapidly alongside and carried off full loads of passengers.
      The scene was one of the direst confusion. Woman were shrieking for help, children were crying, and no presence of mind was visible. The water was covered with people, and pieces of floating wreck. As the MISSISSIPPI came alongside, the crew threw out cork life-preservers in great numbers to those in the water, many of whom were saved thereby. One heroic fellow, named John McDonough, a hand aboard the MISSISSIPPI, seized several life-preservers and jumping in the water swam to several men who were nearly exhausted, and gave each one, saving their lives thereby. His deed deserves something more than mere newspaper mention.
      The steward of the INDIANA was aft, and had jumped over, clinging by the hose. Three women were holding on to him. Finally the hose burned off, and the women still clinging to him carried him down. After great effort to extricate himself he succeeded, the women drowning immediately. He was afterwards saved by a life boat.
      The flames, as a matter of course, went towards the stern of the vessel, driving all who had taken refuge there into the water. Those who went forward had a longer lease of time, but all agree in saying that the principal loss of life was by the life-boat. When the fire was first discovered, a number of the deck hands and passengers jumped into the life-boat, and fairly broke down the cranes. As soon as she touched the water, the steamboat being under rapid headway, the life-boat was drawn under the wheel and capsized. It was supposed a number were killed by the revolutions of the wheel. Every person who stayed on the steamboat was saved. No children were lost. They were let down into the life-boat by cool and human individuals, who preserved their presence of mind through the whole scene.
      The MISSISSIPPI stayed alongside for two hours, Capt. Langley, the crew and the passengers doing everything in their power to save the sufferers. When the saved came on board, trunks and wardrobes flew open, and they were provided with whatever they desired - they had only to help themselves.
      The propeller REPUBLIC then towed the NORTHERN INDIANA ashore near Point au Pelee, where she now lies in eight feet water. A meeting was then organized on board the MISSISSIPPI and $200 in cash was raised for the sufferers. The meeting was adjourned to meet at Larned's Hotel, Detroit. When the boat landed at Detroit, Mr. Rice, the superintendent of the Michigan Central Railroad, came aboard and announced to the saved that the railroads in every direction were at their disposal, and so were the hotels, free to all. They should be well taken care of, and all their wants supplied.
      When the members of the adjourned meeting went ashore they found that the citizens of Detroit were already beforehand with them and that they had already raised $1,400 for the sufferers. Among those who subscribed were Eber Ward $50 Wm. Rice, Supt. $50; J. Hurd & Co..$100. The proprietors of the Michigan Exchange, Messrs. Lyons and Barstow, placed their house at the disposal of the sufferers, without price. A generous act. Mrs. Jacob M. Howard, who went up on the MISSISSIPPI, and who is a resident of Detroit, in a short time collected a large quantity of clothes, which she brought to the sufferers and distributed among them. The passengers were extremely sensible of all this real kindness, and many of them wept with joy.
      From the above it seems that everything that could be done was done by those connected with the MISSISSIPPI and INDIANA to preserve live, (there was not a particle of baggage saved) and the citizens of Detroit have exhibited a generosity and liberality characteristic of that city.
      The NORTHERN INDIANA was valued at $200,000. No insurance. The hull will be saved.
      Capt. W.H. Wetmore of the NORTHERN INDIANA says: - " We left Buffalo on Wednesday evening, July 16, at 10 o'clock, with a medium load, and I suppose, about 100 passengers. The crew numbered between 50 and 60. Nothing occurred of any importance until about ten minutes past eleven on Thursday morning, when we were about half-way between Point au Pelee Reef and Point au Pelee lighthouse. I was on deck by the pilot house. The engineer sent a man on deck, and said he wanted me below. I supposed at the time there was some difficulty with the men I ran below as fast as I could, it being an uncommon thing to leave the deck when outside even for meals; when I got below, the first engineer, Farrar, was getting the hose ready in the fire engine. He said. Mr. Wetmore, my God, she's a fire. There was a round hole usually covered with a plate of iron, which was off, between the engine-room and the smoke-pipe on the starboard side. I cast my eye there, and saw a light, something like the reflection of a common lamp underneath the main deck. I turned and ran to call the men; I passed some on the deck, and told them to run to the engine. I passed on towards the forecastle, and found two or three men, told them to run to the engine. Then passed into the forecastle, and told them the same. I immediately ran back to call the second mate for the purpose of altering her course. As I got on the promenade deck, I met him. He said, my God, Mr. Wetmore, what's the matter ? Said I, "She's burning up; get out your boat forward." I ran to the wheelhouse and helped alter her course for the nearest point of Point au Pelee Island, supposing she would make the Island before her engine would stop. I then returned to the engine on the main deck. When I got there the flames had driven them from the fire-engine, and she was all a flame there.
      I turned and went to the promenade deck again, and found the flames bursting through the upper deck around the engine. I then ran to my room which was alongside of the wheelhouse, to get ny axes and had hard work to get back through the flames. As I came forward I met the second mate and one of the wheelsmen. They said they had the boat out on the cranes but not lowered. I told them to run aft and get out the life-boat. I went immediately on the promenage deck with my axes; when I got there I saw the forward boat was crowded with men. I saw that they would be all lost unless I could get them out of the boat. I took one axe in my hand and ran forward and told them they would all be lost unless they got out of the boat. The engineer, Mr. Farrar, and second mate were attempting to get them out of the boat and did pull some out by force. At that moment the cranes gave way with the heft in the boat, and she went down end foremost and spilled the most of them into the water. She would hold 18 or 20 and was crowded to excess. When she went down I knew the consequences and did not stop to look at her, but turned around and met the men I had sent aft. The said they could not get aft as the flames would not let them. I turned to the passengers and begged them to keep cool and I would save them all yet. Knowing that there was almost two cords of planks about half-way aft on the larboard side, intended for safety planks, I ran to them and took the first one out urging the passengers and crew to fetch them. I did this to encourage them and for the example. I brought an arm-full, and then went back to the other side and brought a load from there. Several of the crew followed and assisted me. I kept telling them all the while that I would save all of them, if they would only take my advice.
      After I got them well going at this, I seized an axe and called upon the rest to assist me in cutting away the doors and panel work about the cabin, the engineer and second mate assisting me. After cutting all the panel work away which we could reach, on account of the fire, and passing them to the passengers, we then rushed into the cabin and hauled out the dining tables forward. We spread these tables out full length and dropped them overboard,
bottom side up, and them brought side tables, sofas, big chairs, &c., from the cabin, all of which we threw overboard to the passengers in the water. By this time the steamer had stopped. Could not tell exactly when she did stop, but am sure she did not run over a mile from the time the fire was first discovered. After getting all out of the cabin we could, we commenced cutting the fenders away, and telling men to get on them. After cutting and getting away everything that was possible to get at, I went forward on the promenade deck. The engineers and 2nd. mate and wheelsmen went below on the forecastle deck and commenced passing everything out of the forecastle deck, boards, mattrasses, stairways, rigging boxes, etc. I saw them passing them out. At that time one of the passengers called my attention to one of the broken crane stanchions, and we tried to get it out but did not suceed. I went down to the forecastle and took the axe and succeeded in cutting it off. Passed up the axe to the passenger, as we wished to keep it with us, and as I was getting up, a woman came to me saying, "I am alone with four small children," ( one of which she held in her arms.) I said to her, give me the child and I will save it if I get ashore. I passed it up to my friend on deck, the passenger, and followed it. I heard the woman calling after me and looked back, and she passed me the other three of her children. Soon after another woman passed up one about six months old.
      Previous to this the MISSISSIPPI, which, when the fire broke out, I thought to be five or six miles astern, had been engaged, and by this time had picked up most of those in the water. By this time her boats and those of the REPUBLIC came alongside to pick them off the burning steamer. The boats were full of life-buoys, and, those on board the boats kept telling the passengers to jump into the water. Many, and especially the women, were afraid to do this. A passenger said to me, take this child and I will go and push them overboard. I took the child, and then had one in each arm, and three beside hanging to me. The passenger succeeded in getting off these women and some men into the water, and then I lowered the children away to them by the heaving-line. Then my friend, the passenger, went into the boat, and was the last man with me on board the steamer. I was the last person who left her. Previous to leaving her, I walked aft from fifteen to twenty feet from the stern, and stood there a moment without experiencing any inconvenience from the flames.
      I then lowered myself on to the forecastle over the side to see if there was any one there, and found no one. I then lowered myself into one of the MISSISSIPPI's boats, which had just come up with no one in her but her crew, taking an oar and pulled to the stern of the steamer and took off two men who were hanging at her rudder. We then pulled past to the leeward of her, and saw some one in the lee wheel through the flames hallowing and splashing the water. I called out to them to swim out from her if they could. They not doing it, we pulled under the lee of the wheelhouse, and then pulled into the wheel and found two ladies and a gentleman and got them on board, and told the men to break away as there was danger of the wheelhouse dropping on us. Not seeing anyone we pulled for the MISSISSIPPI. I thought all were saved that were in the water and whom it was possible to save, and I then asked Capt. Langley for a boat to assist in saving the wreck. He told me to take what boats I wanted. I jumped into a life-boat taking the second mate and one wheelsman, a passenger from Toledo by the name of Anderson volunteering to go with me. I rowed to the propeller REPUBLIC and asked them to take hold of the wreck, which he promptly acceded to. They passed us two chains and a haswer, and run down to the stern of the wreck. We made the chains fast to the rudder and then bent the lines to them, and then went on board the propeller, and she towed the wreck into Pigeon Bay near the Bluff where she grounded within 200 feet of the shore. We then left for Detroit.
      From the time the steamer caught fire until she was entirely abandoned, I should think it was from a hour to an hour and a quarter. I think I could have remained on her half an hour longer, when we left her, with much inconvenience from the flames. When the flames were discovered, the utmost panic took possession of most of the passengers, and it was impossible to maintain any kind of order. They paid no attention to my frequent appeals, although I repeatedly assured them that all could be saved if they would only obey orders. It is my positive opinion that not a single person forward of the wheel, however, would have been lost had they been in a condition to know what they were about. I did not see a single person drown, but I was too constantly engaged to look after the people in the water. My impression is that not more than twenty persons were lost, and those were principally from the forward boat, which fell from the cranes in the early part of the disaster.
      As there is a report that the NORTHERN INDIANA was racing at the time, I desire to say that such was not the case. We left nearly an hour behind time, and no extraordinary exertion was made. I saw the engine from half past seven to eight o'clock in the morning before the fire. We then had 27 pounds of steam upon her. We are allowed to carry 40 pounds. I can positively assert that no dispostion to race was manifested.
      In conclusion, I desire to bear testimony to the uniform good and gallant behavior of all my officers and crew, and the humane and generous conduct of Capt. Langley, of the MISSISSIPPI, and Capt. Weaver, of the propeller REPUBLIC. Both these gentlemen, and the officers and crew under their command, did all in their power to aid us and save the passengers in the water, and it is entirely due to their exertions that so many were saved. There were also two or three sail vessels which stood in boldly, and rendered every assistance in their power. I know that some were picked up by these vessels, but what became of them I am unable to say.
      Statement of Mr. Farrar, the First Engineer. - I was in the engine room and was down on the fire hole ladder, where I could look all around the boilers a few minutes past eleven o'clock. I then went forward on the starboard stairs which go up from the main deck, and was looking off towards Point au Pelee, and from there I went up on the hurricane deck to see how the engine worked, and as I went by the smoke pipe I thought I smelt something burning. I started on a run immediately below and when I got there I pulled off one of the ash hatches and jumped down below, and saw no blaze of any kind, but smelt the smoke plainly. I got out immediately, and got a length of hose, and sent for Mr. Wetmore.
      He came to me as soon as possible, and I told him to send me some men, as the boat was on fire, but I did not know how bad. He sent me some deck hands, and they manned the pump. Mr. Wetmore ran above and changed her course for Point au Pelee, and came immediately back, and in that short space of time, which could not have exceeded three or four minutes, she was in a complete mass of flames amidships. I jumped and called my second engineer and some of the men. They had hardly got to work before the flames burst out, and they were obliged to consult their own safety by leaving. I was the last man about the engine, and when I left there was one complete solid column of blaze amidships. The thing was so quick that it was impossible to effect anything in the way of extinguishing the fire. I had three men in the fire hold, and one assistant on watch, and was myself in a condition to discover the first symptoms of a flame.
      While I have been in that boat I have been in the habit of going in and around the boilers to see if there was any fire, and I never before discovered anything which would lead me to suppose there was any danger from fire, and always regarded her as perfectly safe in that respect. Mr. Cameron, our resident engineer, examined her this spring as did all the inspectors and considered her perfectly safe. We had taken extra precautions to guard against fire this spring. I cannot determine the exact origin of the fire, but I think it must have been a spark from the fire-hold, which got between the wood-work which formed the fire room next to the boiler, and did not show itself until it was ready to burst out.
      The three men in the fire hold did not discover anything until I had got the hose ready, and until the blaze was stretching across the stairs where they came out. When I first discovered the flames I opened the door in the sheet iron crossing to open steam cock, and it was a volume of flame and impossible to get at it. When it was utterly impossible to remain near the engine any longer, myself and second engineer each took an axe and assisted Mr. Wetmore to cut away and throw overboard as long as there was anything available, and my opinion is that if the passengers had kept cool and had not jumped overboard, not a single
life would have been lost off the steamer forward of the wheels.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Saturday, July 19, 1856

      . . . . .

      We were furnished yesterday by the several inspectors who visited the wreck of the ill-fated NORTHERN INDIANA, with the following communication which was received too late for insertion:
We left Buffalo on the SOUTHERN MICHIGAN for the scene of the wreck at ten o'clock Thursday night, with two lifeboats, 21 men, grapnels, tongs, lumber for coffins, and every appliance for the recovery of any of the lost. Captains Forbes, Perkins, and Dorr, in charge; leavibg orders for the Mutual Insurance Company's wrecking propeller RELIEF, to follow immediately on her arrival in port. Arrived at, and landed on Point Pelee, Canada side of Lake Erie, at eleven o'clock next day (Friday,) wind blowing strong from south-west and large sea running; found the wreck of the NORTHERN INDIANA sunk in 18 feet of water, head to the south-east, 500 feet from the shore, on the west side of Point Pelee Peninsula, 2 miles inside the end of the shoal where she had been towed by the propeller REPUBLIC. We built a camp with boards on the sand of the Peninsula close by the wreck, and stationed a patrol to watch the beach for any bodies, baggage or goods that might come ashore; and waited for the wind and sea to subside that we might board and examine the wreck. It blew all day Friday, with a large sea, so we could do nothing but watch the wreck and hear the mournful sound of the sea breaking through the machinery of the ill-fated vessel.
      Friday night the SOUTHERN MICHIGAN called on her way down, but as we had no want of anything we did not communicate with her. Saturday forenoon it moderated down so we were able to launch a life boat and board the wreck; and she presented a melancholy and sad spectacle indeed. All that remained of a noble boat that a few hours before had left her port, as perfect in all her appointments (and particularly so to ensure her safety against that element that destroyed her) as any boat that ever floated, was what remained above water of her battered, bent and unsightly machinery. Her shafts too are just at the surface of the water. The wood work of the port wheel is entirely destroyed, and burnt up to the very flanges; most of her starboard wheel remains resting on the bottom, her gallous frame is all destroyed, every vestiage of wood work burnt up. The walking beam is suspended in its place by the connecting and gallous frame rods. Shafts, half of wheels, steam chimneys, tops of cylinders, and walking beam and the connections are all that remain above water. The hull is apparently split open fore and aft - probably done by the sea breaking into
her the day before - as we found one side of her, forward floating, wrenched apart.
      We stayed on the wreck some time, until the sea increased, so we had to leave at noon Saturday. The RELIEF came, making a splendid run up against a strong south west wind and sea. The party embarked on her at once, to visit the spot and vicinity where the disaster occurred. Spent the afternoon in cruising around the ground - discovered nothing. Visited Point Pelee Island, and made arrangements with the lighthouse keeper to send all around the Island, and if any bodies came ashore to have a particular examination and description of each person made so as to identify them, and to preserve all articles upon the persons, and write to Capt. Forbes at once, to Buffalo, with all particulars. Ran back to the wreck, and anchored for the night close to her. In the morning (weather fine) we amde a critical examination of the hull all over; could see the bottom plainly; became satisfied there were no bodies in the wreck; took some easily detached portions of the machinery, and left at noon, leaving some men on the beach with timber, &c., to patrol and search for bodies when they rise, as they probably will in a few days; ran up in the vicinity of where the boat took fire, and spent the afternoon in cruising around over the ground - discovered nothing, and at night bore away for Buffalo, where we arrived at this eleven A. M. Monday.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Tuesday, July 22, 1856

      . . . . .

We understand that the hull of the NORTHERN INDIANA is to be abandoned. The machinery will be rescued, and probably in good order. Workmen are now engaged at the wreck in removing whatever is valuable and can be easily recovered. But the hull of the vessel which at one time it was thought might be rebuilt and made available, is not worth the effort. We regret to learn that such has been the decision. - Toledo Blade, 7th.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Monday, August 11, 1856

      . . . . .

      The scow TRENTON arrived here yesterday with about two-thirds of the NORTHERN INDIANA's engine. The portion received comprises the last portion of it. The work is under the contract to Mr. John A.B. Campbell, (the derrick man who assures us that the whole of the machinery will be recovered.) Mr. Campbell informs us that the damage to the engine is not so great as was anticipated, and that nearly the whole of it will be fit for immediate use.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Friday, September 12, 1856

      . . . . .

Port of Buffalo, Arrived, July 21/22, 1856
      Propeller RELIEF, Wolverton, Wreck of the steamer NORTHERN INDIANA; a portion of the machinery of the wreck C. FORBES.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      July 22, 1856
      We understand that the hull of the NORTHERN INDIANA is to be abandoned. The machinery will be rescued, and probably in good order. Workmen are now engaged at the wreck in removing whatever is valuable and can be easily recovered. But the hull of the vessel which at one time it was thought might be rebuilt and made available, is not worth the effort. We regret to learn that such has been the decision. --- Toledo Blade, 7th.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      August 11, 1856

      Capt. Johm Cronin, One Of The Few Survivors, Recalls Terrible Experience.
Capt. John Cronin of 578 Niagara Street, this city, is one of the three known persons, now living who were aboard the passenger steamer NORTHERN INDIANA when she was burned on Lake Erie 46 years ago yesterday.
      The other two are Thomas Green, who lives at 439 Bryant Street, San Francisco, and Thomas Goodwin, whose home is said to be near Bradford, Pa. Goodwin was steward of the NORTHERN INDIANA and Green was her pastry cook. Captain Cronin was then her cabin boy.
      The NORTHERN INDIANA, said the Captain yesterday afternoon, "was one of the finest passenger boats afloat in those days. She ran from Buffalo to points in Ohio, and did a prosperous business, for that was before the days of the present railroad facitilities. There were railroads west from Toledo, but there were none between Buffalo and Toledo.
      When the boat took fire it was about noon. She burned with great rapidity, and we should have been burned or drowned, every mother's son of us, but for timely assistance rendered by the steamer MISSISSIPPI, which was passing and which towed us over to Pigeon Reef, on which the wreck of the old MAYFLOWER lay. As it was 56 of those on the NORTHERN INDIANA were never accounted for. I remember the death of one of them, an old Quaker. When he made up his mind that the boat was doomed he calmly climbed up on the rail and dove head foremost into the lake, without even stopping to remove his broad brimmed hat. The hat came up, but he never did. Those of us who were saved, reached shore with great difficulty."
      Buffalo Evening News
      July 17, 1902

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Item Type:
Reason: fire
Lives: 58
Hull damage: $70,000
Cargo: $25,000
Freight: marchandise
Remarks: Total loss
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 41.908055 Longitude: -82.508888
William R. McNeil
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Northern Indiana (Steamboat), fire, 17 Jul 1856