The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), 2 Aug. 1856, page 126, 128

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THE fine steamer Northern Indiana took fire about 11 o'clock, on the morning of the 17th of July, while on her way to Toledo, and burned to the water's edge with the most unprecedented rapidity, the time consumed being little over an hour. The fire originated among the wood work around one of the chimnies. Upon the alarm being given Mr. Wetmore, the first mate, who commanded in the absence of the Captain, exerted himself to the utmost to save the passengers, and was last to leave the burning vessel, occupying his time while he remained on board in throwing doors, stools and life-preservers to the passengers who had in their wild excitement leaped overboard in crowds. The weather was pleasant, a dead calm prevailing, and it is believed, if the passengers had remained quiet, that probably not one would have been sacrificed. The steamer Mississippi left Buffalo with the Northern Indiana, and kept near her until 11 o'clock at night, when the Northern Indiana was at least four miles ahead. Capt. Langley, of the Mississippi, was standing forward on his boat with some friends, when he discovered the smoke bursting out of the starboard gangway of the Northern Indiana, and knew she was on fire. He sent word immediately to his engineer to hurry the Mississippi along as fast as possible, that the Northern Indiana was on fire. He put on the steam, and in from twelve to twenty minutes came abreast of her bows and instantly dropped his boats, they being all ready when the Mississippi reached her. The Indiana's engine was at that time stopped, and she was burning fiercely amidships and aft. The passengers were crying, entreating, imploring to be saved, and the ropes around the bows and the stern were full of people clinging for life. The boats from the Mississippi came rapidly alongside and carried off full loads of passengers.

The scene was one of the direst confusion. Women were shrieking for help, children were crying, and no presence of mind was visible. The water was covered with people and pieces of floating wreck. As the Mississippi came along, the crew threw out cork life-preservers in great numbers to those in the water, many of whom were saved thereby. One heroic fellow, named John McDonough, a hand aboard the Mississippi, seized several life-preservers, and jumping into the water swam to several men who were nearly exhausted, and gave each one, saving their lives thereby. His deed deserves something more than mere newspaper mention.

The steward of the Indiana was aft, and had jumped over, clinging by the hose. Three women were holding on to him. Finally the hose burned off, and the women still clinging to him carried him down. After great efforts to extricate himself he succeeded, the women drowning immediately. He was afterwards saved by a lifeboat.

The flames, as a matter of course, went toward the stern of the vessel, driving all who had taken refuge there into the water. Those who were forward had a longer lease of time, but all agree in saying that the principal loss of life was by drowning. When the fire was first discovered a number of the deck hands and passengers jumped into the life-boat, and fairly broke down the cranes. As soon as she touched the water, the steamboat being under rapid headway, the life-boat was drawn under the wheel and capsized. It was supposed a number were killed by the revolutions of the wheel. Every person who stayed on the steamboat was saved. No children were lost. They were let down into the lifeboats by cool and humane individuals, who preserved their presence of mind through the whole scene.

Mr. Wetmore, commander of the Northern Indiana, gave his testimony as follows: I suppose the steamer had on board about one hundred passengers. Nothing occurred of any importance until about ten minutes past eleven on Thursday morning, when we were about half way between Point Au Pelee Reef and Point Au Pelee light-house. I was on deck by the pilot-house. The engineer sent a man on deck and said he wanted me below. I supposed at the time there was some difficulty with the men. I ran below as fast as I could, it being an uncommon thing to leave the deck when outside, even for meals; when I got below, the first engineer, Farrar, was getting the hose ready in the fire-engine. He said, "Mr. Wetmore, my God! she's a fire." There was a round hole, usually covered with a plate of iron, which was off, between the engine-room and the smoke-pipe, on the starboard side. I cast my eye there, and saw a light something like the reflection of a common lamp underneath the main deck. I turned and ran to call the men. I passed some on deck, and told them to run to the engine. I passed on towards the forecastle, and found two or three men; told them to run to the engine. Then passed into the forecastle and told them the same. I immediately ran back and found the engineer had got to work with the engine, and saw the flames bursting through the hatches. I saw she was badly on fire, and ran to call the second mate for the purpose of altering her course. As I got on the promenade deck I met him. He said, "My God, Mr. Wetmore, what is the matter?" Said I, "She's burning up; get out your boat forward." I ran into the wheel-house, and helped to alter her course for the nearest point of Point Au Pelee Island, supposing she would make the island before her engine would stop. I then returned to the engine on the main deck. When I got there, the flames had driven them from the fire-engine, and she was all in flames there.

I turned and went to the promenade deck again, and found the flames bursting through the upper deck around the engine. I then ran for my room, which was alongside of the wheel-house, to get my axes, and had hard work to back through the flames. As I came forward I met the second mate and one of the wheel men. They said they had the boat out on the cranes, but not lowered. I told them to run aft and get out the life-boat. I went immediately on the promenade deck with my axes. When I got there I saw the forward boat was crowded with men. I saw that they would be all lost unless I could get them out of the boat. I took one axe in my hand and ran forward, and told them that they would be all lost unless they got out of that boat. The engineer, Mr. Farrar, and second mate were attempting to get them out of the boat, and did pull some of them out by force. At that moment the cranes gave way, with the heft in the boat, and she went down end foremost, and spilled most of them into the water. She would hold eighteen or twenty, and was crowded to excess. When she went down I knew the consequences and did not stop to look at her, but turned round and met the men whom I had sent aft. They said they could not get aft as the flames would not let them. I turned to the passengers and begged them to keep cool and I would save them all yet. Knowing that there was almost two cords of planks about halfway aft on the larboard side, intended for safety planks, I ran to them and took the first one out urging the passengers and crew to fetch them. I did this to encourage them and for the example. I brought an arm-full, and then went back to the other side and brought a load from there. Several of the crew followed and assisted me. I kept telling them all the while that I could save all of them, if they would only take my advice.

After I had got them well agoing at this, I seized an axe and called upon the rest to assist me in cutting away the doors and panel work about the cabin, the engineer and second mate assisting me. After cutting all the panel work away which we could reach, on account of the fire, and passing them to passengers, we then rushed into the cabin and hauled out the dining tables forward. We spread these tables out full length and dropped them overboard, bottom side up, and then brought side-tables, sofas, big chairs, &c., from the cabin, all of which we threw overboard to the passengers in the water. By this time the steamer had stopped. Could not tell exactly when she did stop, but am confident she did not run over a mile from the time the fire was first discovered. After getting all out of the cabin we could, we commenced cutting the fenders away, and telling men to get on them. After cutting and getting away everything it was possible to get at, I went forward on the promenade deck. The engineers and second mate and wheelsmen went below on the forecastle deck and commenced passing everything out of the forecastle deck, boards, mattresses, stairway, rigging-boxes, &c. I saw them passing them out. At that time one of the passengers called my attention to one of the broken cane stanchions, and we tried to get it out, but did not succeed. I went down to the forecastle and took the axe and succeeded in cutting it off. Passed up the axe to the passenger, as we wished to keep it with us, and as I was getting up, a woman [c]ame to me, saying, "I am alone with four small children" (one of which she held in her arms). I said to her, "Give me the child and I will save it if I get ashore." I passed it up to my friend on deck, the passenger, and followed it. I heard the woman calling after me, and looked back, and she passed me the other three of her children. Soon after, another woman passed up one about six months old.

Previous to this, the Mississippi, which, when the fire broke out, I thought to be five or six miles astern, had steamed down to us, and had picked up the most of those in the water. By this time her boats and those of the Republic came alongside to pick them off the burning steamer. The boats were full of life-buoys, and those on board the boats kept telling the passengers to jump into the water. Many, and especially the women, were afraid to do this. A passenger said to me, "Take this child, and I will go and push them overboard." I took the child, and then had one in each arm, and three beside hanging to me. The passenger succeeded in getting off these women and some men into the water, and then I lowered the children away to them by the heaving-line. Then my friend, the passenger, went into the boat, and was the last man with me on board the steamer. I was the last person who left her. Previous to leaving her, I walked aft from fifteen to twenty feet from the stern, and stood there a moment without experiencing any inconvenience from the flames.

I then lowered myself on to the forecastle over the side to see if there was any one there, and found no one. I then lowered myself into one of the Mississippi's boats, which had just come up with no one in her but her crew; taking an oar we pulled to the stern of the steamer, and took off two men who were hanging at her rudder. We then pulled past to the leeward of her, and saw some one in the lee wheel through the flames hallooing and splashing the water. I called out to them to swim out from her if they could. They not doing it, we pulled under the lee of the wheelhouse, and then pulled into the wheel and found two ladies and a gentleman, and got them on board, and told the men to back away as there was danger of the wheelhouse dropping on to us. Not seeing any one, we pulled for the Mississippi. I thought all were saved that were in the water and whom it was possible to save, and I then asked Capt. Langley for a boat to assist in saving the wreck. He told me to take what hands I wanted. I jumped into a life-boat, taking the second mate and one wheelsman, a passenger from Toledo by the name of Anderson volunteering to go with me. I rowed to the propeller Republic and asked them to take hold of the wreck, which they promptly acceded to. They passed us two chains and the hawser, and ran down to the stern of the wreck. We made the chains fast to the rudder and then bent the lines to them, and then went on board of this propeller, and she towed the wreck into Pigeon bay, near the Bluff, where she grounded, within two hundred feet of the shore. We then left for Detroit.

From the time the steamer caught fire until she was entirely abandoned, I should think it was from an hour to an hour and a quarter. I think I could have remained on her half an hour longer, when we left her, without much inconvenience from the flames. When the flames were discovered, the utmost panic took possession of most of the passengers, and it was impossible to maintain any kind of order. They paid no attention to my frequent appeals, although I repeatedly assured them that all could be saved if they would only obey orders. It is my positive opinion that not a single person forward of the wheel, however, would have been lost had they been in a condition to know what they were about. I did not see a single person drown, but I was too constantly engaged to look after the people in the water. My impression is that not more than twenty persons were lost, and those were principally from the forward boat, which fell from the cranes in the early part of the disaster.

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Date of Original:
2 Aug. 1856
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Dave Swayze
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), 2 Aug. 1856, page 126, 128