The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Great Western (Steamboat), burnt, 1 Sep 1839

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      The Steamboat GREAT WESTERN of Huron, the largest and one of the best boats upon the lakes, was burned at the wharf at Detroit on Sunday evening, the 1st. inst. She had just arrived from Chicago, and was making a stop at Detroit of two or three hours, when she was discovered to be on fire. Before anything could be done to arrest the flames, they had spread over the boat, scarcely giving those on board time to get on shore. No lives were lost. Many of the passengers lost their baggage; and we understand that the books, papers and money in the Captain's office were lost. The fire engines did not reach the wharf in time to save any portion of the boat's upper works; it is said however, that the hull will be saved, as well as the engine. The fire caught from the boiler furnaces.
The GREAT WESTERN was built for the Upper lake trade; she was nearly 800 tons burthen, and had great room as welL as burthen for freight, and accommodations for about 300 cabin passengers, in her cabins and state-rooms. Her cost is said to have been from $80,000 to $100,000. She was not insured, though some stockholders had effected insurances on their shares.
      Capt. Augustus Walker, who built and commanded the GREAT WESTERN, has before built at least six boats: the SHELDON THOMPSON in 1825, the LADY WASHINGTON, a large and splendid boat built in 1833 and wrecked on her second trip, the UNITED STATES and the COLUMBUS, which, as well as the SHELDON THOMPSON, have been successful and profitable boats; the VERMILLION, built last year, and the GREAT WESTERN which was new in May, now burnt.
      Every one who knows the difficulties which Capt. Walker has contended with, and the energy and perseverance which he has exhibited, will deeply regret a calamaity which falls thus heavy upon him. We trust he may be enabled to rebuild the GREAT WESTERN, and to command, next season, the best boat in the United States.
      Cleveland Daily Herald & Gazette
      Tuesday, September 3, 1839 p.2 col.1

      . . . . .

The Burning of the Great Western - A friend has permitted us to copy the following extract of a letter from a highly respeetable citizen. The letter is dated
      "Detroit, Monday morning, 6 o'clock.
Last Sunday at 5 o'clock, the steam Boat Great western made her appearance from the upper Lakes. She came in under full head of steam, rounded to in beautiful style, and advertised to leave for Buffalo at 8 o'clock. About ½ past 6 an alarm of Fire was heard on board, and in less than ½ hour she was in a complete blaze. Every exertion was used to extinguish the flames, but to no purpose. I have just come from on board. A good part of her machinery may be used again; but I judge from present appearance the hull will not be worth much, the wpole interior just now presents the appearance of a bed of charcoal.
The alarm was so sudden, and the fire spread with such rapidity, that scarcely any thing was saved. Even passengers had not time to save all their baggage. It is said the fire commenced under the fire beds, and some of the passengers say it was on fire during the forenoon."
      Cleveland Daily Herald & Gazette
      Tuesday, September 3, 1839 p.3 col.1

      . . . . .

      Loss of the GREAT WESTERN by Fire.--This magnificent steamer, which but a few hours since rode by our city in great majesty, and was gazed at by hundreds of admiring spectators, is now, excepting her hull, a heap of smoky ruins. She arrived from Chicago, having made a speedy and successful trip, about six o'clock on Sunday afternoon, and was to leave for Buffalo at eight o'clock. The baggage of numerous passengers had been deposited on board, and every preparation had been made for her departure. A few minutes before she was to have left, fire was discovered under her boilers, in the hold. Every exertion was made by the hands on board to extinguish it, but in vain. The flames communicated rapidly to the cabins above, and an alarm was given, which soon brought to the scene, our efficient fire department, and multitudes of citizens. The engines were soon at work, and through the well directed and efficient efforts of the firemen, the flames were subdued, but not until the entire upper works of the boat were destroyed, and her hull completely damaged. The fire having originated in the firemen's room, under the boilers, in the hold, communicated to a great portion of the hold, which rendered it almot impossible for the firemen to reach it with their hose, and great was accordingly done to that part of the vessel, though it is believed that her hull may be repaired. The engine was but slightly injured. Competent persons who have examined her, believe that she can be repaired for $40,000. The passengers all escaped, not however without the loss of part of their baggage. We learn that a gentleman from New Orleans, lost a considerable amount of money. The entire furniture of the boat was consumed. There being about 30 cords of wood in the hold, all of which were on fire, the use of the engines was required until midnight. We learn there was an insurance of $5000.
Captain Walker meets with heavier misfortunes, and bears them better than any man we know of.--When we last saw him yesterday, he was busily superintending the clearing of the wreck, and we heard him express his purpose to proceed immediately to the reconstruction of the floating wonder, in which he had taken so much and such just pride. Detroit Daily Advertiser
      September 3, 1839

The GREAT WESTERN, one of the most splendid Steam-boats in the world, caught fire while lying at the wharf in Detroit, on the evening of the first, and notwithstanding every exertion, her upper works were entirely destroyed, indeed so rapid was the progress of the flames, that much of the baggage on board was lost. We are glad to learn that neither the hull nor machinery sustained much damage, and that the boat will be refitted, but sorry to hear that there was no insurance on her. Capt. Walker was principle owner. He has been peculiarly unfortunate, this being the third steamboat of his that has been lost by fire and shipwreck. To his indefatigable industry and enterprise, the travelling public has been much indebted, and we are happy to hear that he is yet in no wise disheartened. The GREAT WESTERN will rise like the Phoenix from her ashes to be again the " Pride of the Lakes."
      Daily Buffalonial
      September 5, 1839

      . . . . .
      By a passenger on board the BUFFALO on Tuesday evening, we learn that the steamer GREAT WESTERN commanded and principally owned by Capt. Walker, was burnt to her hull on Sunday evning last, while at the wharf at Detroit. The fire was first discovered around the pipes and in five minutes after, it had spread to every part of the boat.
      No lives were lost, but in baggage &c., the loss will probably be considerable. The cabins being above deck with the furniture, were entirely destroyed. How fortunate that the occurrance took place in port, for, if it had happened while off from land, the loss of lives must have been immense, as there were, it seems, between one and two hundred individuals aboard. Mr. Walker was principal owner and captain of the GEORGE WASHINGTON, which was wrecked and parted on Long Point some years ago, in a severe gale.
      The GREAT WESTERN was built at Huron -- was the largest boat on the lakes and had been running but a very short time.
      Erie Gazette
      Thursday, September 5, 1839

Steamboat GREAT WESTERN.--The hull of this unfortunate boat has been dropped down to the public wharf, where Capt. Walker with his crew are busily engaged in removing the rubbish, and preparing her for a trip to Huron, where she will probably undergo repairs. Her hull is but little damaged, and her engine is preserved almost entire. A great number of ladies and gentlemen have visited her since the fire, and the efficiency of the fire department of this city are subjects of commendation with all who have witnessed the miraculous preservation of the hull. We know of several firemen who, on this occasion, were exposed to imminent danger, and whose scorched faces, inflamed eyes, and blistered hands furnish the most conclusive evidence that in the hour of danger none can be more surely relied upon than the indomitable firemen.
      Detroit Daily Advertiser
      September 5, 1839

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The GREAT WESTERN. -- The Detroit Advertiser of Wednesday says Capt. Walker and his crew are busily engaged in removing the rubbish From the hull which is but little damaged. Her engine is preserved almost entire.
      Cleveland Daily Herald & Gazette
      Friday, September 6, 1839; 3:2
      . . . . .
      (From the Detroit Free Press, Sept. 3.)
About half past seven o'clock on Sunday evening, after our Monday's paper was put to press, our city was thrown into great excitement by a cry of fire from the "GREAT WESTERN," lying at the wharf of Gillet & Desnoyers. In a few moments after the alarm was given, the decks and sides of the noble vessel were in flames. The fire companies and our citizens generally, rushed with alacrity to the spot, and made every possible effort to stay the conflagration. They succeeded in keeping the fire from communicating with the adjoining boats and buildings and in preserving a considerable portion of the great steamer herself. The hull and engines, worth some $50,000, were saved. There was an insurance of $5,000 only upon the boat.
      The fire was providential and no one knows to a certainty how it originated - it is supposed, however, that it was communicated from the chimneys. She had been in about an hour from Chicago whence she had brought a full load of passengers. Her cabin passengers alone ammounted to 70. She was preparing to leave for Buffalo in about three quarters of an hour from the time the alarm was given. A large number of passengers were aboard and much of their baggage consumed. We have not learned the extent of the losses of passengers. One Gentleman from New Orleans who was severely burned in endeavoring to rescue his baggage, lost some $1,200 in cash.
      Too much credit cannot be awarded to the different companies for their unwearied labors to preserve the boat and the property adjacent to her. Captain Walker requests us to express to them his sincere thanks and heart-felt gratitude, for the great interest they felt in his behalf, and for the indefatigable exertions which saved to him so much of the noble wreck. To our citizens generally, he also feels under deep obligation for their co-operation with the fire companies upon the occasion.
      The association of ideas, to every reflecting spectator of the conflagration, was awful. How fortunate that the fire broke out while the boat was in port, was the general exclamation among the crowd. Had it occured when the boat was under way, even in the river, it would have been impossible to have saved a soul - so rapid was the progress of the flames. We ought to be thankful to providence that it happened as it did.
      We cannot but deeply sympathize with Capt. Walker for his misfortune. This is the second loss which he has sustained by the destruction of a favorite boat. He had invested in the GREAT WESTERN what property he had acquired since the loss of the GEORGE WASHINGTON, by which he was a great sufferer several years ago. The design and model of the G. W. Were his. She was a magnificent boat - his whole soul was wrapt in her, and she was as much a favorite of the travelling public upon the Lakes, as she was the pride of his own heart. Her finish, furniture, and everything about her, was of a superior character, and her patronage and success thus far during the season, has exceeded his expectations.
      Captain Walker bears his misfortune like a philosopher who is resolved to do his duty, and trust to providence for his reward. He is now clearing the rubbish from the wreck, which he intends to tow down to Huron, preparatory to a reconstruction fo the great steamer at some future day.
      Western Herald
      Wednesday, September 18, 1839
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      The GREAT WESTERN was towed down to huron Saturday by the COLUMBUS where she is to be repaired with all possible despatch. The enterprise of Capt. Walker is irreprossible. He will have his noble craft upon
the waters next spring, as commodious, swift and beautiful as ever. --- Detroit Adv.
      Cleveland Daily Herald & Gazette
      Tuesday, September 17, 1839 p2 col.3
      . . . . .
      GREAT WESTERN. -- This splendid boat - once the pride of our town, will be rebuilt. Capt. Walker and others who are good judges of such matters, say that from 20 to $25,000 will "fit her out" as good as ever she was.
      She must - she will be rebuilt, and - without delay. --- Huron Adv.
      Cleveland Daily Herald & Gazette
      Friday, September 20, 1839; 3:3

Media Type:
Item Type:
Reason: burnt
Lives: nil
Hull damage: $40,000
Remarks: Repaired
Date of Original:
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Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 42.33143 Longitude: -83.04575
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Great Western (Steamboat), burnt, 1 Sep 1839