Burning of the Phoenix
This terrible accident occurred about four o'clock on the morning of the 21st of November, 1847, on Lake Michigan, within seventeen miles of Sheboygan. The fire was first discovered under the deck, near the back end of the boiler ; but it soon spread in every direction through the boat. There were more than two hundred passengers on board, and it soon became manifest that, with the means of escape which offered, not more than one-third of them could be saved. The excitement, consternation and despair which then prevailed among so
many people doomed to a horrible death, cannot be depicted by any human language. About thirty of the passengers betook themselves to the small boats, which would contain no more, and they were taken up by the steamer Delaware, which soon hove in sight, but not in time to save those who remained on board the Phoenix, more than one hundred and sixty persons, all of whom were drowned or burnt to death.
The commander of the Phoenix, Capt. Sweet, was just recovering from a severe illness, and was still confined to his state-room, at the time the vessel took fire. He escaped, however, in one of the small boats, and was taken up by the Delaware. A large number of the passengers were Hollanders emigrating to the West. The following relation was given by Mr. House the engineer. Mr. House remained at his post until the flames fairly drove him into the water. Seizing a broad-axe, he separated with a single stroke a rope which sustained a piece of timber called a "fender," used to prevent the sides of the boat from chaffing against a wharf. As soon as this fender fell into the water, Mr. House leaped after it, but in his first efforts to get hold of it, he only pushed it further from him ; and at that moment, a tall and vigorous emigrant jumped into the water, and endeavored to gain possession of the piece of timber, to which Mr. House trusted for his own preservation. However, the Hollander could not swim, and before he could reach the piece of wood he disappeared under the water, leaving Mr. House in uncontested possession of the frail support. When it is considered that this accident took place in the latter part of November, and that the water of the lake was almost in a freezing condition, some idea may be formed of the effort required when the chilled and benumbed passengers were laboring to keep themselves afloat on the various articles of cabin furniture, &c., which had been thrown overboard for that [p. 179]purpose. Very few of them indeed were able, in such trying circumstances, to support themselves on the surface of the lake until assistance arrived. Mr. House soon discovered that the piece of wood which he had detached from the boat was not sufficient to sustain him, but he fortunately obtained possession of a state-room door, which drifted within his reach, and by attaching this with his neck-cloth to the fender, he formed a raft, large and buoyant enough to assure him of preservation from drowning ; but his sufferings from the cold were almost insupportable. When he first betook himself to the water, he was surrounded by many others, who were striving hard to prolong their existence until relief might providentially be afforded ; but one after another sunk, chilled and exhausted, into the long sleep of death. Very soon he found himself almost companionless on the bosom of the lake. In this frightful and agonizing situation, tortured almost beyond endurance, with both mental and corporal anguish, he remained for two hours. At last, when almost tempted to abandon his raft, and precipitate himself on that fate which seemed most likely to overtake him eventually, he discerned the lights on board of a steamboat which was rapidly approaching. Two or three persons were still clinging to settees, boards, &c., and he exhorted them in the most earnest manner to retain their grasp a little while longer, as relief was at hand. He addressed himself particularly to a lady, who had hitherto sustained herself on a floating settee with admirable heroism ; he directed her attention to the approaching boat, which was now scarcely a furlong distant ; but alas ! her emotions at the prospect of deliverance seemed to overcome her more than the fear of death itself ; for at this instant she swooned away, lost her grasp on the bench, and sunk to her final [p. 181] resting place under the deep, blue waters. When the approaching steamer, which proved to be the propeller Delaware, arrived at the spot, Mr. House was the only person found alive. The propeller had already succored those passengers who had escaped from the burning steamer in the small boats. All who had remained on the Phoenix, and all who had thrown themselves into the lake, with but one exception, had perished.
At this time the blazing vessel presented a most awful and sublime spectacle. The hull was a complete bed of fire, which, bursting in flames from the sides, at times streamed far out over the waters, and then curled aloft, till flame meeting flame, the combined fiery current rushed furiously upward till it appeared to be lost in the clouds. When Mr. House, alone on his raft, beheld this grand, but dreadful object, the shrouds and rigging were covered with human beings, who sought safety there rather than in the waters. Their terror-marked features were lighted up by the ghastly glare of the flames, and as the fire reached them in their retreat, one after another fell, shrieking, into the fiery furnace below. One man reached the cross-trees (an elevated position on the mast), where he lashed himself, and there he remained till all his companions had fallen, and the mast went by the board; but in the meantime he was roasted to death by the fervid heat. While the boat was burning, and all prospects of relief were cut off, some betook themselves to quiet prayer, others shrieked for aid, or uttered phrensied exclamations of despair, and others bowed in meek submission to the fiat of an overruling Providence. As the flames advanced, one voice after another was hushed in death, and finally a stillness, awful and profound, told the horrified spectator that the scene of suffering was finished.
This disaster is supposed to have occasioned a greater loss of life than any other steamboat accident which ever occurred on the American lakes. The greater number of those who perished were the Holland emigrants, whose names are unknown. Mr. House, the engineer, who related the particulars contained in this narrative, was personally acquainted with some of the American passengers who were lost, and their names only are preserved in the following list, given by Mr. H. himself.
Passengers Lost.— Mr. West, lady, and child, of Racine, Wis.; Mr. Heath and sister, of Little Fort ; Mrs. Long and child, of Milwaukie ; S. Burroughs, of Chicago; D. Blish, Southport ; two Misses Hazelton, of Sheboygan ; twenty-five other cabin passengers, names unknown to Mr. House ; six or eight steerage passengers, and about one hundred and fifty Hollanders.
[p. 183] Officers and Creav of the Boat Lost.— D. W. Keller, steward, of Cleveland, Ohio ; J. C. Smith, saloon keeper, of Buffalo, N. Y.; N. Merrill, second mate, of Ohio city ; W. Owen, second engineer, of Toledo, Ohio; H. Robinson, porter, Chicago; J. Nugent, fireman, of Buffalo. Deck Hands.— T. Harsey, T. Ferteau, of River St. Clair; J. Murdock and A. Murdock, of Canada ; George ---, cabin boy; H. Tisdale, of Cleveland, (body found ;) wheelsman, name not remembered ; L. Southworth, of New Bedford ; and two colored cooks, of Detroit.
The names of those saved were Capt. Sweet, Ohio city; Mr. Donihoe, clerk, River St. Clair; engineer, M. W. House, Cleveland; wheelsman, A. G. Kelso, Ohio city ; deck hand, J. Moon, Cleveland ; fireman, Michael O'Brien, Buffalo ; second porter, R. Watts, Cleveland.
The Phoenix had as large a load of passengers and freight as she could carry.
The loss of life was the largest which ever occurred on the lakes, and the property lost was immense. It is supposed that those one hundred and fifty Hollanders had considerable money with them, as they were seeking a location in the "West ; but how uncertain is life ! It is indeed mournful to record this sad catastrophe.