The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Weekly British Whig (Kingston, ON), 9 Oct 1856

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[Chicago Times 28th]

As we have already stated in our account of the burning of the Niagara, a rumor has been in circulation that the disaster was caused by an incendiary - some fiend in human form, who, for some real or fancied wrong, done to him by the officers or crew of the boat, took this method of revenge. The foundation of this rumor was the fact that an anonymous letter had been received by Mr. M.J. Clark, the steward of the boat, warning him of the writer's intention to burn the boat, and to look out for his own safety. The following letter from Captain Miller gives a statement of the whole matter, and also quotes the anonymous letter referred to, now in his possession. The reader will have to form his own opinion, as to whether the burning of the Niagara was the work of an incendiary, or the result of an accident:

"To the public - since my arrival at Chicago I have frequently been asked about an anonymous letter which was found by the Steward in his office, after the Niagara left Collingwood on her last trip but one; and, in order to give the whole matter to the public, I now write this communication.

The Green Bay boats running between Collingwood and Green Bay, are not, and could not be depended on, and therefore the passengers to Green Bay were frequently obliged to take passage on the Chicago boats, but with the understanding that, if they got off at Mackinac, there would be two dollars and a half refunded to them on their delivering up their tickets to Green Bay - or they would be landed at any port in the west shore of Lake Michigan, but no money refunded; this it appears created a great deal of dissatisfaction with those people who did not understand steamboat matters, and I have frequently been asked if we could not act as agents, and forward them to the place which they had paid to go to. My answer has always been, that we were only paid servants, and had to go by instructions, etc., but, as is usually the case in such matters, there would be a great deal of grumbling, and a supposition on the part of those grumbling, that it was the officers of the steamer who were trying to defraud them, and that it was intentional on the part of the whole line, but those who really understand the matter, of course never attached any blame to the Chicago line.

The trip before last, on leaving Collingwood, we had quite a number of these disaffected ones, and while laying at the dock, the steward, Mr. Clarke, found in his room, on his desk, the following letter, and handed it to me:

"Look Out! Save yourself, the boat will be burned tonight; everything is in readiness - we have made ample preparations to take care of ourselves."

(Signed) A Passenger

I immediately called the engineer, Mr. Leonard, into my room, and showed him the letter, and also Capt. Dick, of the lower lake steamer Peerless; when, after a consultation, we concluded to set a strict watch, but yet without showing any sign of alarm. My wheelsmen were constantly travelling around the boat, but saw nothing that would lead them to suspect any person. Every fear, therefore, died away, and we thought nothing further of the matter.

Now, I am confident that the boat did not take fire from the machinery, nor from the boilers, as every portion of her firehold was fire-proof. My opinion is that the fire was caused by some combustible material stowed under the shafts, but the nature of which we were unable to tell, as packages frequently come so disguised that we cannot tell what they are; but it must have been something of that kind from the fact that it enveloped the boat in flames almost instantly; and when first discovered, it was impossible to subdue it.

I cannot at present write more, as I am now on the eve of leaving the city to return to the wreck, nor do I think more is necessary."

Fred. Miller, Late Master Steamer Niagara.


A Letter From A Canadian At Chicago

(To the Editor of the Globe).

Dear Sir, - I have just seen several persons from the wreck of the Niagara. It appears, from what I can learn, that the boat took fire about four o'clock in the afternoon of the 24th inst. The fire originated in the freight-hold, about thirty feet behind the boilers, there being a bulkhead between the boilers, and the place where the fire was discovered. It is impossible to ascertain the cause of it. There were five small boats on board, quite sufficient to save all the passengers, had they been safely launched; but the passengers, in attempting to lower the stern boat, (which was capable of carrying fifty persons,) capsized it. Three of the quarter-boats were capsized. One was got into the water right side up, and took twenty two grown persons and some grown children to the shore. There were also over two hundred life preserving planks on the upper deck. A great many were thrown overboard, and picked up by persons in the water, several of whom saved their lives by this means.

Those I saw think Captain Miller did all that man could do to save the lives of the passengers, by advising and helping them to planks and state-room doors, etc., till the fire forced him to jump overboard. He then swam to the wheel, and stayed there, till he, with five others, were taken off by a boat from the steamer Traveller. One of the cabin-boys took a stick of wood under each arm, which floated him till picked up. Six of the crew were saved on the gang plank - one woman was lost off it. The water was so cold that many became benumbed, lost their hold, and were drowned. The schooner Mary Grover, while her yawl was away, threw a line to those she passed. Four persons caught hold of it, and let go the plank, but were not able to hold the line, and were drowned.

I heard some of the crew speak, with tears in their eyes, of the kindness of Mr. Leach, of Toronto, purser of the Peerless, in giving them money to buy shoes and clothes, of which they were destitute. Mr. A.A. McGaffey, of Toronto, gave one hundred dollars to those landed at Port Washington. Such kindness deserves the highest praise.

Yours etc., S.W.

p.S. - It is said that an anonymous letter was left in the steward's room the trip we came up, which was her last, stating that she would be burned that trip. The steward and clerk are lost.

Chicago, Sept. 27th, 1856

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9 Oct 1856
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  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
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Weekly British Whig (Kingston, ON), 9 Oct 1856