Incidents of Interest in Navigation Season of 1866.
Nov. 23, steamship MILWAUKEE and propeller LAC LA BELLE collided in the St. Clair river; the latter a total loss, with two lives.
Detroit Free Press
December 23, 1866
Steamer MILWAUKEE, damaged by collision with the Propeller LAC LA BELLE in the St. Clair River, November 1866. Property loss $5,000.
Casualty List for 1866
Buffalo Commercial Advertiser
February 26, 1867
THE LAC LA BELLE CASE. - On the night of November 23rd 1866 two fine steamers, the MILWAUKEE and the LAC LA BELLE collided in the St. Clair River, near Saunder's House. The LAC LA BELLE sinking in two minutes, and two lives lost. On Tuesday, nearly five years from the date of the collision, the suit which resulted between the vessels was decided in the United States District Court by Judge Longyear. Assessment of the damages being abrogated and thus both vessels having been at fault. The night was light and the vessels saw each other many hundred feet away. To a landsman it seems a wonder that a collision should ensue under such circumstances, but to a navigator aware of the difficulty in determining the speed at which vessels are approaching, the uncertainty which often attends signals, and the confusion and panic which are apt to prevail when there becomes danger of a collision the occurrence of these accidents seem less surprising. In the one in question, the officers of both boats undoubtedly believed they did their whole duty and held themselves blameless. - Detroit Tribune.
Port Huron Times
June 15, 1871
Brothers James and Joseph Evans found themselves trapped in a flooding engine room moments after the steamer MILWAUKEE drove its bow into the side of the propeller LAC LA BELLE. The accident happened early in the evening of Nov. 23, 1866 on the St. Clair River, about three miles above the flats where the river empties into Lake St. Clair.
Joseph Evans said the water rushed into the LAC LA BELLE's engine room with such force that he and his brother dropped what they were doing and dashed for the ladder leading to the main deck. James, who served as chief engineer, never made it. He drowned in the swirling waters. Joseph escaped by a strange twist of fate. He said the water rose up over his head and carried him back from the gangway to an almost certain death. Then as the boat settled in about 25 feet of water, he said the water carried him back out through the open gangway. He found himself in the river where other members of the crew pulled him to safety.
Steward Henry Rudd of Buffalo also was killed. He was crushed when he fell between the two boats while attempting to jump to the deck of the MILWAUKEE. The ship's clerk, a Mr. Davis, was nearly crushed to death when the bow of the MILWAUKEE crashed through the side of the wooden wall into the captain's cabin, where he was working. He climbed up on a chair and reached through a window where he grabbed the MILWAUKEE's rail. As the MILWAUKEE pulled away, Davis held on and was pulled through the window to safety.
A general unfamiliarity with the St. Clair River by one, if not both pilots probably contributed to the crash. Both boats were out of their element. Both were regularly used on trips between ports on Lake Michigan. The MILWAUKEE had been at Detroit dry dock for repair and was returning to MILWAUKEE with a cargo of pig iron and coal. The LAC LA BELLE. which mostly carried passengers and freight between Michigan and Wisconsin ports, was laden with iron ore. copper. potatoes. cedar posts. fish and ship's knees on a trip downstream to Cleveland.
The two boats crashed at a bend in the river at about 6:30 p.m. A board of inquiry determined that the MILWAUKEE was too close to the American side of the river when it struck the LAC LA BELLE on the port side.
Captain Trowell, master of the MILWAUKEE, said his vessel had been aground in the flats and had just gotten free minutes before the accident.
"We saw the broadside lights of a downbound steamer and blew two blasts on the whistle to notify that we would pass on the starboard (Canadian) side." Trowell said he heard no answer but watched in horror as the LAC LA BELLE turned so that the two boats were on a collision course. Wheelsman William Walker, who was in the LAC LA BELLE's pilot house with first mate Alex McFarland, said the mate "blew one blast of the whistle and told me to port the wheel." Neither Walker nor McFarland explained the rum. It appeared that McFarland was attempting to pass the upbound Milwaukee on the wrong side rather than try to squeeze between the approaching boat and the river shallows on the Michigan side.
"Seeing that tile steamer was heading right for us. (McFarland) blew again one blast. When he saw that a collision was inevitable. the mate ordered the wheel hard a starboard. Two minutes later the boats met with great force, the steamer striking us about .40 feet from the bow."
The gash in the LAC LA BELLE's side sent the steamer to the bottom, in 25 feet of water, in about three minutes. The ship sank to the promenade deck, coming to rest upright. Smoke was seen rolling from the doors and windows of the sunken boat's forward cabins. The crash had knocked kerosene lamps from the walls and tipped over a wood burning stove.
Captain Trowell said he pulled his crippled boat alongside and his crew ran a hose out and put out the fire. "Our own boat in the meantime was discovered to be on fire. The crew extinguished the flames with buckets."
A board of inquiry ruled that both pilots shared the blame for the crash. The MILWAUKEE was operating too close to the American shore and the mate of the LAC LA BELLE was in error when he attempted to pass the MILWAUKEE on the wrong side.
The LAC LA BELLE was raised and repaired. The ship was lost in a gale on Lake Michigan in 1872. (Article by James Donahue, weekly series run in paper.)
Port Huron Daily Tribune
January 2, 1996
. . . . .
Steam paddle MILWAUKEE. U. S. No. 16619. Of 1,039 tons. Built Buffalo, N.Y., 1859. Home port, Buffalo, N.Y. DISPOSITION:-- Lost 1868.
Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States,
1790 to 1868. The Lytle - Holdercamp List