The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Niagara (Steamboat), fire, 24 Sep 1856


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Stmr. NIAGARA, cargo merchandise and passengers, burned off Port Washington, Lake Michigan, 60 lives lost.
      Buffalo Commercial Advertiser
      January 31, 1857 (casualty list)

      . . . . .

      ANOTHER TERRIBLE DISASTER ON THE LAKES
      STEAMER NIAGARA BURNED
      FIFTY LIVES LOST.
      ------------------
We learn by a despatch received by J.C. Harrison, of this city, this morning that the steamer NIAGARA, of the Chicago and Collingwood route, was burned yesterday afternoon about four o'clock off Port Washington, and between fifty and sixty lives lost.
We have no particulars save the following: The NIAGARA left Collingwood on Monday afternoon about 2 o'clock, with 80 first class passengers and a number of emigrants, which, together with the crew, would make between 150 and 200 souls on board. About 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon she took fire off Port Washington, and was burned to the water's edge. The wreck was towed into Port Washington last evening. About 50 lives are reported lost; among others the clerk, Mr. P.W. Heley of this city.
Capt. Fred Miller is among the saved, also the engineer, John Leonard, who was not on board at the time of the accident.
The NIAGARA was built ten years ago in this city, and owned by General Reed of Erie. She has been heretofore an unusually fortunate boat, and was well guarded against fire. We shall probably have further intelligence by telegraph before we go to press.
      LOSS OF THE STEAMER NIAGARA
      ---------
      Daily Sentinel Extra
Milwaukee, Sept. 25.- We are pained to be obliged to record another dreadful lake disaster in the loss, by fire, of the steamer NIAGARA, of the Collingwood Line, last night off Port Washington, about twenty miles north of this city. We are indebted to Mr. William Snow, of the firm of Snow & Williams of this city, who came up on the TRAVELLER last night, for the following particulars:
The NIAGARA, Capt. F.S. Miller, took fire on her passage from Collingwood to this port, when within about four miles of Port Washington, and some 25 miles from this port, and in a very short space of time, was entirely consumed, and sunk. The light was plainly seen here at 7 o'clock last night.
The steamer TRAVELLER, Capt. Sweeny, bound here, fortunately came to the assistance of the burning boat, and the Captain, officers and men, gallantly exerted themselves to save lives, and with success.
The following is the list of those saved by the TRAVELLER; many others, it is said, were picked up by boats and vessels which came in sight: Henry Ainsworth Royalton, Vt; J.B. Curtiss, Steuben Co., N.Y.; Henry Loce, Washington, Vt.; Wm. Hoag, Buffalo; Jno. Hill, Collingwood; H. Chambers and lady, Hamilton; J. Locke, Waterbury, Vt.; Henry Locke, Waterbury, Vt.; Lewis Hart, Utica, N.Y.; J.P. Kennedy, Utica, N.Y.; C.D. Westbrook, Green Bay, Wis.; Dr. S.H. Allen, Concord N. H.; Jas. Robinson, Knox Co. Ill. Hugh Kennedy lost his wife and daughter. Three dead bodies at Port Washington, all ladies. One lady with a ring marked " Z.D.G."
The NIAGARA had a very large load of freight, all a total loss, not a pound of anything saved - Crew saved - Capt. F.S. MIller, third mate, name unknown, Engineer Nickinson, waiter, W.J. Thourbour, Fireman, A. Snyder, J. Gordon, Robt. Gillespie, A. Curry, A. Dill, waiter, Daniel Osborne.
The propeller ILLINOIS took up a large number. There were several sailing vessels that did good service.
It is reported that John B. Macy was on board, also J.R. Goodrich of this city. The water was so cold that on one could live in it.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Thursday, September 25, 1856

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      BURNING OF THE NIAGARA. - We give all the particulars of this painful catastrophe, which have come to hand. The names of 66 persons have been ascertained. The hulk of the steamer sank a mile and a half from shore in 7 fathoms of water. Boat valued at $75,000.
      Conneaut Reporter
      October 2, 1856

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      FURTHER ACCOUNTS OF THE BURNING OF THE NIAGARA
      From The Chicago Journal Of Sept. 25.
The terrible news reached this city this morning, by a telegraphic dispatch to the Collingwood Office, and later by the steamer TRAVELER, from Sheboygan, of the conflagration of the steamer NIAGARA, bound for Chicago, with a loss of from fifty to seventy-five passengers. We immediately proceeded to the TRAVELER, and gathered the following particulars from passengers who were on board, and brought down by that boat. The following is a statement of the affair, as furnished us by J.H. Allen, of Concord, N.H., who was on board the NIAGARA:
The regular boat, the KEYSTONE STATE, did not leave as usual, owing to her having been badly damaged by the storm. The NIAGARA took her place, and left last Monday, at 2 o'clock, with about 150 to 175 passengers. She proceeded as far as Sheboygan, and left there about 25 passengers principally steerage.
The boat left Sheboygan about 2 o'clock, and about two hours afterwards, while four or five miles off Port Washington, fire was discovered by passengers in the cabin proceeding from the engine room. The alarm was instantly given by the passengers, but such consternation seized every one, that no efforts seemed to be made to stay the conflagration. In a few moments the whole cabin was in flames. Capt. Miller was asleep at the time in his cabin, having been up all the night before. He was immediately awakened, and rushed out on deck.
Attempts were made to use the hose, but it was found to be useless. Several of the passengers after recovering their presence of mind somewhat, began to break down the doors and other wooden work and to throw it overboard. The two boats upon the hurrican deck, were immediately ordered to be lowered, but in the excitement and confusion, they were thrown overboard and immediately capsized, and were rendered useless.
The stern and quarter boats were lowered and all capsized but one, into which about twenty passengers got in and were saved. Large numbers of the passengers, paralyzed with fear at the first announcement of the fire, jumped overboard and were drowned instantly. Mothers threw their children overboard and then wildly jumped themselves. Everyone seemed perfectly insane with fear and threw themselves over without the slightest attempts to save themselves. Our informant states that he jumped overboard and swam under the wheel where he found the Captain and five others clinging to it. The TRAVELER was about ten miles distant and upon discovery of the fire immediately put off to their rescue. She succeeded after much effort in rescuing thirty of the passengers. All the saved give him great credit for his noble conduct. The TRAVELER towed the NIAGARA some distance but was unable to bring her into shoal water and so left her.
Capt. MIller stopped at Port Washington to take care of those who were saved. A majority of the passengers were women and children. The plank life-preserver were all thrown overboard and many were found clinging to them. At the time of the fire there was a heavy ground swell, but it was not very rough. The wind blew very cold.
      In regard to the origin of the fire painful rumors are in circulation, but we forbear at present giving them.
We are indebted to C.C. Wheeler, Esq. Clerk of the TRAVELER, for the following statement.
The propeller ILLINOIS picked up about thirty passengers and landed them at Port Washington. When we left it was impossible to get their names. Several sail vessels came promptly to the assistance of the NIAGARA, and did good service in saving life. The Life Boat from Port Washington was promptly on hand and rendered timely aid. It is impossible to tell how the fire originated. When first discovered by the officers of the TRAVELER, she was completely enveloped in a cloud of smoke. The fire appeared to burst out forward of the wheel on the larboard side. It is supposed that it first broke out near the to seek their fortunes. One was found upon the wheel and the other was picked up senseless about half a mile from the boat, clinging to a ladder. After nearly two hours work, he was recovered.
      Amid all these terrible affairs it gives us pleasure to cronicle the act of Mr. A. A. McGaffey, of Toronto, who went down to the TRAVELER this morning, and seeing the destitution of the sufferers gave $100 towards their comfort.
It is impossible, at the present time, to get a list of those lost, inasmuch as the list of the boat was lost.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Saturday, September 27, 1856

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      FROM THE NIAGARA. - Capt. Dickson, of the propeller ILLINOIS, which arrived here yesterday, reports that there is no doubt of the loss of the Clerk, Mr. Heley, and the Steward, Mr. Clark, both of this city. Mr. Heley endeavored to save himself on a raft, which had been hastily constructed. The raft, however, like the boats, was swamped by a rush of passengers, and all went down together. Mr. Heley was seen to go down by the wheelsman, who was on a fender close by. Capt. Dickson says Capt. Miller informed him that he had no more control over the passengers than a flock of wild pigeons. They rushed into the boats as fast as they were attempted to be lowered, and swamped, all save one. The crew however, exerted themselves to the utmost, as long as there was an opportunity to do anything. Capt. Dickson picked up same 24, whom he landed at Port Washington. He said that it was barely half an hour after he discovered the smoke issuing from the gangways of the steamer, before nothing was left of her but the naked hull.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Monday, September 29, 1856

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      DETAILS OF THE BURNING OF THE NIAGARA
      STATEMENTS OF PASSENGERS
      ----
      We extracted from our Western exchanges, the following additional news concerning the recent terrible calamity on Lake Michigan:
      From the Chicago Tribune, Sept. 26.
As soon as the fire was discovered, Capt. Miller, who was asleep, was called and the steam pumps set to work. A few moments after this, the passengers became aware that the boat was on fire, and a scene ensued, which, said a passenger, "beggars all description - consternation seized upon almost everyone and men, women and children rushed to and fro about the boat, shouting and crying." Not half a dozen passengers gave any aid to the crew, and but few attempted to make provision for their own or friends escape. It was but a short time from the first discovery of the fire until the shole upper cabin was in flames. During this time a large number of passengers had jumped overboard without anything to support them in the water, and in a few moments sank. Mothers threw their children into the lake and wildly sprang after them. The water was intensely cold, and none but the hardiest persons could live in it but for a few moments. A large number of passengers, before the steamer stopped, in spite of the appeals of the mate, got into the stern boat and lowered it, when it instantly swamped, and all in it were drowned. Another portion of the passengers filled the starboard quarter boat, and lowered that also, and all found a watery grave.
Before the upper cabin was in flames, a portion of the more self-possessed of the passengers wrenched the state-room door off, and threw them into the water, together with tables, chairs, stools, &c., and upon these many of those in the water saved themselves. After it had become useless to remain on board any longer, the 2nd. Engineer, carpenter, and a portion of the crew, together with number of passengers, twenty-two persons, lowered away the larboard quarter boat, and pulled to the shore, where the passengers were landed, and the crew returned with the boat to render any assistance they might be able. Captain Miller, with a number of others, saved themselves by clinging to the wheel, and were picked up by the boats.
The steamer TRAVELER, propeller ILLINOIS, schooner DAN MARBLE, and two small schooners, and the life-boat at Port Washington, came to the assistance of the NIAGARA, and made every possible exertion to save life. Their boats were all manned and lowered as soon as they came near enough the burning wreck to be of service, and kept at work until nearly 9 o'clock at night, when all the persons who could be found in the water after thorough searching for a considerable distance round the wreck, were carried into Port Washington.
A small schooner saved six persons; the schooner DAN MARBLE saved quite a number. The names of the persons we have not obtained.
The propeller ILLINOIS picked up some thirty persons, and landed them at Port Washington, but when the TRAVELLER left it was impossible to obtain their names. It is supposed that but two woman were saved, though there were some twenty on board. There is little doubt but that nearly all the crew were saved. The passenger list of the boat was burned, so that it will be difficult to obtain a correct list of the lost, particularly of the steerage and deck passengers, but our next issue will probably contain an accurate list of the saved.
Mr. George Heley, it is feared, is among the lost. He had been Clerk of the NIAGARA ever since she has run. He was well known in this city, and was greatly respected by all who knew him. Mr. Heley's son, (Henry) who was second Clerk, was picked up by one of the TRAVELER's boats, and taken to Port Washington, where he was left in a critical condition.
As to the origin of the fire a painful rumor is in circulation, but we forbear to give it as there seems but little probability of its being true. The most reasonable supposition is that the fire caught in the "fire room," and had made such headway before being discovered as to render all attempts to extinguish it futile.
We are informed that Capt. Miller exhibited great presence of mind, and acted promptly and for the best throughout the terrible scene, and that his men behaved nobly, doing their duty to the last and standing by their ship as long as a chance was left to save her, and several of them were badly burned about their faces, arms and breasts in their efforts to master the flames.
There were over three hundred life preserver on the NIAGARA, which together with life stools and floats, would be sufficient, if properly used, for the temporary safety of nearly five hundred persons. Captain Miller informed Mr. Wheeler, however, that he did not think a half a dozen life preservers or stools had been put in requisition by the passengers, so great was their terror and haste to jump overboard.
      From the Milwaukee Sentinel, Sept. 26.
Below we give the statement of Mr. C.D. Westbrook, of Green Bay, who is among the saved. He says:
I was in the after saloon about 4 p.m. when the cry of fire was made, and I saw the flames bursting out from the lining to the engine room. I went forward immediately.
Saw there Mr. John B. Macy, who was much excited. Heard him say, "We are lost !" Mr. Macy went aft and I saw him no more, and think he is lost. A friend who was with me, L. Mattice, engineer of the Fox River Improvement, had his wife and two children with him. He went to look after them. I suppose thsy were all lost.
The man at the wheel called for help, and I went up to the wheel-house and helped to head the boat towards shore. We were two or three miles out and about four north of Port Washington, the wind blowing fresh down the lake. The engine stopped in about five minutes after the boat was headed for shore, and the boat drifted rapidly. I went back to the deck and got a plank, and took it aft of the wheel, and clung to the boat till very soon driven away by the flames.
About thirty of the crew and passengers got off on planks from the forward deck, and the boat soon drifted away from them. They were probably all picked up by the boats from the vessels which had come to our assistance. A boat put off from the stern with 22 persons on board. In this boat were several children, thrown in just as she put off. The life-boat was thrown into the water from the deck, and upset. A crowd of people jumped for it and it rolled over, all being drowned except four or five who clung to the bottom of the boat. These were taken up by boats from the steamer TRAVELLER.
Ropes were attached to the guards aft, and let down, and a large number of persons, mostly women and children, slid down the rope, and hung there in clusters, clinging to each other, till the ropes were burned off, and were all drowned, as I believe. A spar was passed in among them when they fell into the water, but none of them seized it.
After the flames came so near that I could not stay on board, I threw my plank into the water, and jumped for it, but several others immediately jumped into the water and struggled for the plank, and I left and swam away till I reached a cabin door, upon which I got back to the side of the steamer, and got hold of the supports to the guards. I was there with Capt. Miller when the rope gave way and let the women into the water. He passed spars among them. We soon after went into the wheel, from whence we were taken by the TRAVELER's boat.
      From the Milwaukee Wisconsin, 26.
The following is an extract from the statement of Mr. Harvey Ainsworth, of Royalton, Vt. As soon as the alarm of fire was given, he says:-
Men, women and children rushed on deck, with horror depicted upon their countenances, and numbers rushed to the guards and sprung shrieking into the water, to be buried in their liquid graves. Mr. Ainsworth gathered his family around him, and, unaided, uncoiled the large hawser at the bow, and threw it over the guards.
He then let his wife and children down, and finally descended into the noose of the hawser, himself, and hung fast until the flames had burned off the rope, and let him drop into the water, he then got hold of a boat upside down, to which a number of poor drowning wretches were hanging, in the last agonies of death. He thinks that a least a dozen persons were hanging to the boat when he seized hold. One after another of these dropped off, until only himself remained. He then succeeded in getting three men (Mr. Chambers, of N.B., J.P.
Kennedy and Hugh Kennedy) in the boat with him. The four persons were finally picked up by a small boat from the schooner.
Mr. Ainsworth thinks that there were about 100 cabin passengers on board when the boat left Sheboygan, beside a large number in the steerage. Mr. A. lost all his baggage, and about one thousand dollars in money.
Mr. Ainsworth states that the conduct of Capt. Miller was well calculated to quiet the terror and save the lives of the passengers, and that her was the last man to leave the burning wreck of vessel.
Of the pecuniary loss by this terrible disaster we learn nothing, though it cannot be less than from $200,000 to $300,000, it is nothing in comparison to the fearful loss of human life.
The case of Mr. Ainsworth is a peculiarly hard one. His party consisted of his wife and three children, the eldest girl of 15, his father, and his brother's wife, the husband of the latter having left the boat at Sheboygan, to go by land to Baraboo, expecting to meet the party there.
      Captain Miller's Statement.
In the Sentinel of the 26th, we find the statement of Captain Miller, taken at Port Washington, from which we extract the following:
The Clerk informed me, after leaving Collingwood, that he had on board 105 tons merchandize and passengers' baggage, 21 horses and several wagons, and about 75 cabin passengers. On arriving at Mackinac, we took on six more; does not know the number of steerage or deck passengers; the weather was fresh, northerly; arrived at Mackinac on Tuesday at 12 o'clock noon; left 20 minutes past 3 o'clock P.M., and arrived at Two Rivers about half past 10 o'clock A.M., on the 23rd inst., on arriving there stopped at Manitowoc about half past 11 A.M., and landed some passengers and things; one or two came aboard at this place; left Manitowoc and arrived at Sheboygan, and landed 15 horses, some wagons, and quite a number of passengers, and some merchandize; left Sheboygan about half past 2 o'clock, P.M.; went to my state room to lay down; was not called up, but on getting up, discovered that the boat was on fire, and suppose it was about the stove pipe, aft; I first met the 3rd. engineer and told hime to get the hose on to the pumps. I then turned to go forward, and found the hall full of smoke; I went to the pilot house, gave the signal to the man to put up; the boat was headed towards the shore; the engine then stopped; was about five miles from shore, and four to five miles from Port Washington; I left the pilot house; the first mate then came forward; I ordered him to get the axes, and man the small boats and get them over; mate replied that the stern boat was over and capsized; we then went to work and broke the state-room doors off and threw the overboard; I then went aft to the larboard side and kicked the doors off and threw them over, together with wash stands, chairs, and everything I could get hold of; I remained aft as long as I could, then went below to the wheel, when was taken off by the TRAVELER's boat, and taken on board.
Additional persons known to have been saved: M. Deviny, Boston; J. MIller, Chicago; Edward Lane; J. Collins; D. Lyons; Cornelius Ryan, Montreal; A. McKay, residence unknown.
Names of those certainly lost: Almon Atwood and wife, Charlotte, Vermont; M.J. Clark, steward, Buffalo; Hon. John B. Macy, Wisconsin; Harvey Ainsworth, Royalton, Vermont, lost his wife, three children, father, and sister-in-law.
The hull of the NIAGARA is sunk one mile and a half from the shore in seven fathoms of water. She was valued at $70,000.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Monday, September 29, 1856


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      L E T T E R F R O M C A P T A I N M I L L E R
      To the public - Since my arrival at Chicago, I have frequently been asked about an annonymous letter which was found by the steward in his office, after the NIAGARA left Collingwood on her last trip but one, and in order to give the whole matter to the public, I now write this communication.
The Green Bay boats, running between Collingwood and Green Bay, are, and could not be depended on, and therefore the passengers bound to Green Bay, were frequently obliged to take passage on the Chicago boats, but with the understanding that if they got off at Mackinac, that there would be two dollars and a half refunded to them on their delivering up their tickets to Green Bay - or they would be landed at any port in the west shore of Lake Michigan but no money refunded; this, it appears, created a good deal of dissatisfaction with
those people who did not understand steamboat matters, and I have frequently been asked if we could not act as agents and forward them to the place to which they had paid to go. My answer has always been, that we are only paid servants and had to go by instructions, &c., but as is usually the case in such matters, there would be a great deal of grumbling, and a supposition on the part of those grumbling, that it was the officers of the steamer who were trying to defraud them, and that it was intentional on the part of the whole line, but those who
really understood the matter, of course never attached any blame to the Chicago Line.
The trip before last, on leaving Collingwood, we had quite a number of those disaffected ones, and while laying at the dock, the steward, Mr. Clark, found it his room, on his desk, the following letter, and handed it to me:

      Look out! - Save yourself, the boat will be burned tonight; everything
      is in readiness, we have made ample preparations to take care ourselves.
      (signed) A. PASSENGER

I immediately called the engineer, Mr. Leonard into my room, showed him the letter, and also Capt. Dick, of the lower lake steamer PEERLESS; when, after a consultation, we concluded to set a strict watch, but yet without showing any kind of alarm. My wheelsmen were constantly travelling about the boat, but saw nothing that would lead them to suspect any person. Every fear, therefore, died away, and we thought nothing further of the matter.
Now, I am confident that the boat did not take fire from the machinery, nor from the boilers, as every portion of her fire-hold was fire-proof. My opinion is, that the fire was caused by some combustible material stowed under the shafts, but the nature of which we were unable to tell, as packages frequently come so disguised that we cannot tell what they are; but it must have been something of that kind, from the fact that it enveloped the boat in flames almost instantly; and when first discovered, it was impossible to subdue it.
I cannot, at present, write more, as I am now on the eve of leaving the city to return to the wreck, nor do I think more is necessary.
      Fred Miller.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Tuesday, September 30, 1856

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Media Type:
Text
Newspaper
Item Type:
Clippings
Notes:
Reason: fire
Lives: 60
Hull damage: $35,600
Cargo: $20,000
Freight: merchandise
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original:
1856
Subject(s):
Local identifier:
McN.W.2585
Language of Item:
English
  • Wisconsin, United States
    Latitude: 43.38722 Longitude: -87.87564
Donor:
William R. McNeil
Copyright Statement:
Copyright status unknown. Responsibility for determining the copyright status and any use rests exclusively with the user.
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Niagara (Steamboat), fire, 24 Sep 1856