The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Lac La Belle (Propeller), U15803, sunk by collision, 23 Nov 1866

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      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

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      Propeller LAC LA BELLE, cargo iron and copper, sunk by collision with the steamer MILWAUKEE in the St. Clair River. Two lives lost. Vessel a total loss. Property loss, hull $60,000, cargo $50,000
      Casualty List for 1866---Buffalo
      Commercial Advertiser
      February 26, 1867

      . . . . .

      Propeller LAC LA BELLE, of 909 Tons, owned at Milwaukee by Engleman & Co. Bound from Ontonagon to Cleveland was sunk by collision, November 1866. Vessel a total loss. Two lives lost. Loss to ship $60.000 insurance $45,000. Loss to cargo $70,000, insurance $50,000.
      Marine Casualties on the Great
      Lakes 1863-1873 U. S. Coast Guard

      . . . . .

      The popular Lake Superior propeller, the LAC LA BELLE, owned by Messrs. Robert Hanna & Co., of Cleveland, collided with the steamer MILWAUKEE, Friday afternoon, four miles above the St. Clair Flats. James Evans, the engineer, and Henry Rudd, head waiter of the propeller, were killed, and at last accounts the LAC LA BELLE was lying where she sunk, with two feet of water in her cabin. The propeller was bound down, on her last trip of the season, and the MILWAUKEE is charged with the responsibility of the accident. Engineer Evans, who lost his life, was a resident of Cleveland, and the other victim, Henry Rudd, we learn, belonged in this city.
      The officers of the LAC LA BELLE furnish the Detroit Advertiser with the following statement in regard the the collision:
"Before rounding the bend in the St. Clair River about two miles above the Flats, a steamer was discerned ahead, which subsequently proved to be the MILWAUKEE, with the proper lights burning, and the LAC LA BELLE kept on her usual course.
      After rounding the bend, the steamer was kept close to the American shore, and blew her whistle once, which was a signal to the MILWAUKEE to take the starboard or right hand side of the river. The two steamers kept on. After signalling the MILWAUKEE, the wheel of the LAC LA BELLE was put a-port, and then a second signal was given. At this time the wheel of the latter was put still more a-port, and she was run as close to the shore as was considered prudent.
      Shortly afterward the MILWAUKEE struck the LAC LA BELLE on the port side, about 40 or 50 feet from the stem, with terrible force, cutting her almost in two, and crushing her timbers, etc., like so much paper. She reeled slightly and the damage being great she speedily filled and sank, inside of five minutes. She went down in about 20 feet of water, and now lies with a portion of her upper works only exposed above the water.
      From the movements of the MILWAUKEE it was supposed that she desired to pass on the port side, but as the LAC LA BELLE was then close to the American shore, it was impossible, especially as her wheel had been put hard a-port, and she was swinging, to change her course in time to prevent a collision.
      When the MILWAUKEE struck the LAC LA BELLE she penetrated her side so far that for a time she was unable to extricate herself. The captain of the former, aided by Captain Spaulding of the latter, had lines made fast from one boat to the other and by this means the passengers and crew, with two exceptions, were transferred from the ill-fated steamer to the MILWAUKEE and conveyed to this city, where they arrived at a late hour.
      Buffalo Daily Courier
      Monday, November 26, 1866

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THE LAC LA BELLE CASE. -- On the night of November 23rd 1866 two fine steamers, the MILWAUKEE and 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. Assesment of the damage being abborgated and thus both vessels having been at fault. The night was light and the vessels saw each other many hundrew feet away. To a landsman it seems a wonder that a collision should ensue under such circumstances, but to a navigator aware of the difficulties 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 occurrance 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

Monday last for a visit to the wreck of the steamer LAC LA BELLE, to recover more of the property sunk with that boat, returned late last night, having been quite successful in her trip. She brought down 20 tons of mass copper, belonging to the Central and Copper Cliff Mines, and 100 ingots of the Pennsylvania Mine. A large dry goods box, supposed to contain clothing or something similar, was also recovered. The box is marked "C.C. Williams, Detroit."
      There yet remains one large mass of copper weighing some 6 tons, besides several smaller pieces, which may be recovered. The work of raising the copper is enormous, it being necessary to drag the pieces along the deck to the hoisting apparatus, by means of tackle and blocks, slung and arranged by the diver alone at a depth of 23 or 24 feet under the water. The diver says that the damage done to the hull proper of the LAC LA BELLE, by the collision, is not so serious as was first supposed, or as appears from the damage to her upper works.
      Detroit Free Press
      June 16, 1867

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Steam screw LAC LA BELLE. U. S. No. 15803. Of 1,187 tons gross. Built at Cleveland, Ohio, in 1864 by Ira Lafrienier. 216.1 x 37.1 x 19.7 Twin screws. Lost Lake Michigan, 1872
      Herman Runge Notes

Media Type:
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Reason: sunk by collision
Lives: 2
Hull damage: $60,000
Cargo: $70,000
Remarks: Raised
Date of Original:
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Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
William R. McNeil
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Lac La Belle (Propeller), U15803, sunk by collision, 23 Nov 1866