Burning of the Washington.
A new and elegant steamboat called the Washington, was burned on Lake Erie, opposite Silver creek, June 16th, 1838. In the early part of the preceding night, the Washington passed the steamer North America, while the latter lay at the town of Erie. On the following morning, about three o'clock, when the North America was within three miles of Buffalo, the helmsman discovered a brilliant light, which appeared to rise from the bosom of the lake in the direction of Silver creek. The North America was immediately put about, and steered for the scene of the apprehended disaster. On approaching the spot, about six o'clock, the burning hull of the Washington was found driving before the wind, about four miles from land, and not a living object could be discovered on board. The surface of the lake was literally covered with hats, bonnets, trunks, baggage and blackened fragments of the wreck.
The intense anxiety of those who beheld this fearful scene for the fate of the passengers and crew of the Washington, was partially relieved by the discovery of several small boats near the shore, in which it was supposed that some who had embarked in the Washington were probably saved. In fact, the alarm had been given at the town of Silver Creek as soon as the flames were perceived from the shore, and all the boats that could be found were sent to rescue the sufferers. There were only three skiffs, however, which could be employed in this service; but these, together with the yawl of the Washington, were the means of saving all who could be found on the steamer, and all who were still floating on the water when the skiffs arrived. But, in the meanwhile, a number, variously estimated from thirty to sixty, had perished. Six dead bodies, those of two women and four children, were picked up by the boats near the burning wreck. One man died of his injuries soon after he reached the shore, and a child was found dead in its mother's arms when taken out of the lake. The mother survived, though she was insensible when found in the water, clasping her dead infant to her bosom.
The origin of the fire is not well explained, but it appears that the flames broke out in the immediate neighbourhood of the boiler. The helm was immediately put about, and the head of the boat directed to the shore, but within a few minutes, the wheel ropes were severed by the fire, and the boat became an unmanageable wreck. Had iron rods, instead of ropes, been used in the construction of the steering apparatus, [p. 131] it is highly probable that every individual on board would have been saved, for in that case the boat could have reached the shore without difficulty. The surviving passengers unanimously testified that no blame could be attached to Capt. Brown, the commander of the "Washington. The names of the victims, with the usual allowance for defective reports, are subjoined.
Persons Drowned or Burnt to Death.— Capt. Clemens, of Dudley, Mass. ; Conrad Shurtz, and William Shurtz, wife and three children, Clinton, N.Y.; Wm. Sheld, St. Lawrence; Mr. Baker, wife and three children (one child of Mr. Baker was saved.) A Scotchman, name unknown, lost three children, together with his mother and sister. Several of the survivors, whose names are not given, were badly burned before they left the boat.
The Washington was built at Ashtabula; she was not more than six months old, and had made but one trip before the one which was interrupted by this deplorable accident.