Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Superior (Steamboat), aground, 30 Oct 1856
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Steamer SUPERIOR, cargo supplies and passengers, lost rudder and drifted ashore on Lake Superior, in a severe gale. Total loss. 35 lives lost.
      Buffalo Commercial Advertiser
      January 31, 1857 (1856 casualty list)

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      STEAMER LOST. - By a gentleman from Lake Superior, says the Detroit Tribune we learn that the steamer SUPERIOR, Capt. Jones, from Chicago for Superior City and intermediate ports, is supposed to be lost. She passed through the canal, bound up, Oct 29th, and it is supposed she went down the next day or night, somewhere near Grand Island, with all on board. Vessels have been partially around the lake since, and nothing has been heard of her. She had about 30 passengers. There was a severe gale on the 30th, which strengthens the surmise.
The SUPERIOR was an old boat, and would not be able to stand a very heavy storm
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Wednesday, November 12, 1856

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      The steamer SUPERIOR, reported lost, is safe in Chicago.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Thursday, November 13, 1856

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      We learn from a private despatch dated Detroit, Nov, 14, that the loss of the steamer SUPERIOR, in Lake Superior, is but too true. The despatch says that she was wrecked off Pictorial Rocks and thirty-five lives were lost. Only
nineteen were saved, among whom the only officers were the mate and engineer.
We shall probably have further intelligence by telegraph before going to press.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Saturday, November 15, 1856

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      By the arrival of the propeller GEN. TAYLOR at Detroit on Friday morning, from Lake Superior, we have the intelligence of the total wreck of the steamer SUPERIOR, of the Chicago and Lake Superior Line, off the Pictured Rocks, on Lake Superior, and the loss of thirty-six lives! Below will be found the statement of Mr. A.J. Foster, a passenger on the ill-fated boat, as furnished to the Detroit Free Press.
      We left the Sault on the morning of the 29th of October, at 7 o'clock, the weather looking favorable; 1 o'clock afternoon, wind blowing fresh from south-west. About 10 o'clock wind hauled to north-west and blew hard, making sea very fast. I was sitting in the cabin. She made a list over to leeward. Passengers all rushed out to windward, clinging to the rail. They all thought she was sinking. Capt. Jones came along and said, "Make yourselves easy, we will throw over the deck load." The wheelsman said the rudder was broken. Mr. Minter and myself got the ladies back into the cabin, and seated them on the floor, it being impossible for them to stand. I then went below, where they were throwing over the freight; remained there a few moments, and returned to the cabin. As I went up, noticed
the smoke-pipes were gone. After the engine was stopped we attempted to get life-preservers for the ladies, and found them of no use. By this time she was drifting towards the rocks, as I could discern the outlines of the land. All was confusion, all trying to save themselves with doors, &c., waiting for her to strike. It was blowing very heavy, a sleety, chilly rain and snow. I noticed that Mr. Minter and sisters had got on the hurricane deck, and got hold of the life-boat. I helped my sister and a boy, Wm. Sissons, on to the hurricane deck. When we were on the way
up, she struck, and her stern swung around. The sea struck her so hard that it threatened to throw over the boat.
      I should think that we were about five minutes, when a heavy sea struck her and she gave a lurch, and her deck parted in the middle and fell in. A number of men rolled down. The deck parting drew my attention, and the first I saw of the boat, she was in the water. Supposing my sister was there, I jumped off the deck into the water, and found her. Mr. Minter and four sisters and some other persons had hold of the boat, a heavy sea capsized her, a piece of timber struck me on my head, knocking me senseless. When I came to, I found myself strangling. I reached out to grasp at something, and caught a rope. I crawled out of the water, and found it was the painter of the boat. When I got back, I found only one person having hold of the boat. The next sea threw me up in the drifting timber. I was so closely jammed among the timber and wreck, it was with great difficulty I extricared myself. I heard someone speak, and crawled upon the rocks; then I found Mr. Davis, mate, and the boy Sissons, who I had not seen since I jumped off the wreck; it was but a few moments. They were all ashore that were saved. During the night we heard someone hallooing, and thought it was someone ashore on another part of the beach; but, when daylight came, we discovered it to be persons on the wheels of the boat. They called for assistance. We could not give them any, and in a few hours all were washed off. The boy Sissons was deranged, and we had considerable trouble from the time we went ashore until he died. I forgot to to mention that as I was going up on the hurricane deck, I heard Captain Jones say, "Stick to the wreck." The officers of the boat did all they could to save the boat and passengers.
      After daylight we tried everything, and in various ways, to make a fire, but all attempts failed. We then looked around for something to eat, but found nothing but a few wet crackers, cold cabbage and dried apples. But before this time we were looking among the rubbish and drift timber to find others, and found the bodies of Capt. Jones,
Mrs. Bennett and daughter. We kept exercising ourselves during the day to keep from freezing, and at night made a shelter with mattresses and pieces of the wreck, and by that means passed the night. Sea still running high and wind blowing. Towards noon the second day, the wind lulling, and seas running down some, about 4 o'clock we launched
the boat with considerable difficulty, owing to our exhausted state. Eight persons got in the boat, and landed one and a half miles distant on the beach. Davis and two others returning, we all got in, making 13, and pulled for Grand Island, wind blowing fresh out of the harbor, supposed to be six miles off. By the time it was dark we supposed we
had got far enough. We landed after some examination for a landing place. We got ashore for the purpose of exercise to keep from freezing. Started again. The wind had increased, and we could not make headway against it, and returned to the place we had left. Then three of our men went off into the woods. Davis became alarmed for the boys. For fear of their freezing we concluded to start. We hallooed for the men, but they did not return. We supposed their chances on feet as good as ours were in a boat. We started, and found we could not reach Williams' house.
      We made the island about half-way from the light-house to Williams', a rock shore, and, for fear of freezing, we wished to get on shore, and stamp around and get warm. After rowing about, looking for a place to get up the rocks, we landed and crawled up, and stamped about until morning. Could not see anything as it was quite dark, and we
lost sight of the colored boy, and could not find him. When daylight appeared, all with the exception of the boy Sissons and two men, started to find the lighthouse, to get assistance. The snow was six inches deep, and it was very hard travelling. A part of them were some distance ahead and after travelling about three miles, met Captain
Smith, the light-house keeper coming to our assistance.
      He told me it was only a mile to the house, and he would go and get the men and boy. When he found that the boy Sissons was dead. He brought the two men along with him. We received all the attention in the power of Capt. Smith to give, and, as part of the men were able to walk, started for Williams' house, on the harbor side of
the island, eight mile distant, to reach some boat or vessel.
      We arrived at the light-house on Saturday, Nov. 1st, about noon. They all had gone across to Williams, up to the 7th, except Davis, Ganon and myself. We started and laid out that night without anything to eat; arrived at Williams' the next day about 10 o'clock. There had been no weather that a boat could go to the wreck until we arrived at Williams'. We got a boat, Mr. Davis, myself and five others started for the wreck, found everything washed away except the bodies of Capt. Jones and Mrs. Bennett. We started back. On our way, met the GENERAL TAYLOR coming to our assistance. We were taken on board, and found the remainder of the survivors. We
received all the attention Capt. Ryder and officers of the boat could give us. Mr. Williams sent some men to bury the boy.
      From The Marquette Journal, Nov. 8.
      INCIDENTS OF THE WRECK. - The snow was falling fast during the night, rendering it intensely cold and slippery upon the deck, and so dark that it was impossible to discern anything. Capt. Jones in ascending upon the pilot house
slipped and fell, bruising himself severely, yet he relaxed not his efforts in the least. At another time while standing near the gangway a heavy sea swept him overboard, but fortunately it returned and brought him back, but at length,
alas, he met a watery grave. His body was found by the survivors, at daylight, having been washed ashore before the other bodies were. From this fact it was thought that he must have nearly reached it alive. Mr. Ernst, the porter,
informs us that Capt. Jones came into the cabin where he was sitting and said "Boys, I want you to stick to the boat as long as there is anything left of her this is the fourth boat I have lost, but I shall not probably lose another. If any
of you get ashore I want you to go and tell my mother that I did all I could to save the boat." That he did do all he could there is no doubt.
      The 1st engineer, Mr. Stephen Coolahan, to whom we are indebted for most of the particulars given, informs us that it was with difficulty that he was saved He went from the deck through the cabin and met the chambermaid, who asked him if he could not save her; he said he would see. They then went aft the wheel-house to the yawl boat, in which were seated two ladies. They managed to get it afloat, but it soon capsized in the surf, and all were lost except himself, and he hardly knew how he came on shore. Chas. Ernst, the porter, attempted to swim ashore, but was much bruised by the floating timbers, and at last the life-boat struck him on the head, injuring him severely, but he managed to grasp the boat and was washed ashore with several others.
      The next morning nothing was visible but the wheels, which, being strongly made and anchored fast by the engine and heavy machinery, had not been swept away. Upon these were seen clinging the bodies of seven men, among them the two clerks and the first saloon keeper. As they were but three or four rods from shore their cries could be heard distinctly calling to those on shore to come with the boats and save them. But this was impossible, as the surf beating on the rocks would have swamped a good boat instantly, and those that were washed ashore were almost like the steamer, a wreck. One by one they dropped off into the water until all were gone. The scene is described as painful beyond description, as the survivors were within speaking distance yet without the power to render assistance. The saved suffered extremely from cold and hunger, and all of them were more or less bruised. Three days they were weather-bound and not only this but rock-bound too, as the bluff at this point rises nearly three
hundred feet, and almost perpendicular, presenting an impassable barrier.
At this time the sea subsided sufficiently for them to reach Grand Island. The patched up the boats and started, going part of the way on land and part on water. Two boys died on the way from exposure. The saved were obliged to subsist during this time upon such articles as chance threw on the shore - raw vegetables, raisins and flour being the principal articles.
      It is certain that the number of the lost is 42, and it is more likely that there are others that our informant is not aware of, that would swell the number to 50.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Tuesday, November 18, 1856

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      In no former year, says the Detroit Free Press, perhaps, have the hazards of lake navigation been greater than the present. Possibly, not so much property has been lost nor so many lives sacrificed during the season now nearly closed as during other seasons, but the vicissitudes of the past have not been more severe than those of the present. We trust the lamentable occurrence on Lake Superior, closes the chapter. The SUPERIOR was a very old boat, and has weathered many a furious storm. It seems to us that she was too old for the hazardous service in which she was engaged at so hazardous a season. Certain it is that she was not so manageable as a vessel on such a voyage ought to have been. Capt. Jones has met his last ill-luck. He has had plenty of it. The CASPIAN, the COLLINS, the ALBANY, and we think another boat, engaged in the lake Superior trade, have been lost while under his command. We doubt whether he made strenuous exertions to save himself when this calamity overtook him. We fear there may be suffering in the Lake Superior country in consequence of the loss of the cargo of the SUPERIOR. It consisted chiefly of winter supplies for different points - mostly provisions. When hitherto all the supplies have
arrived designed for the winter's use, there has never been an over-abundance; and last year, we remember, a mishap to the steamer PLANET, sent up prices at Ontonagon beyond the ability of everybody to pay.
      Buffalo Daily Republic
      Tuesday, November 18, 1856

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Capt. Michael Beffels of the wrecking schooner Experiment has just returned at Racine from Lake Superior with an interesting relic. In the year 1854 the steamer Superior was wrecked on Picture Rock. She had on board an old-fashioned hardwood safe which contained a large amount of specie. While grappling for iron in the vicinity of the spot where the Superior was wrecked, Capt. Beffels and his assistants secured the door of the safe. It was found to contain several pieces of coin of the date 1854 under the lock and bands. Capt. Beffels will return to Picture Rock and search for the safe and its treasures.
      Detroit Post and Tribune
      August 6, 1883

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J. W. Dennis of Buffalo, N. Y., writes as follows to the editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel: I notice in your issue of August 4, that Captain Beffel has just recovered the safe door of the safe that was on the old steamer Superior that was wrecked under the pictured rocks you say in '54 or '56. Now, as I am, or think I am the only survivor of that wreck, I would like to tell you a little about that safe. The steamer went on the pictured rocks the night of the 26th of October, or at 2 o'clock in the morning of the 27th. After the steamer became helpless and was rolling herself to pieces and after the smoke-pipes had gone overboard the first and second clerks got all the money and papers in the safe and worked it out of the office on the main deck and lashed it to a stanchion near the office door. How they got it I can't tell, but they did it. I was trying to get freight overboard and crawled up to the safe and made motions that I wanted the lamp or lantern that one of them held on top of the safe. Instantly two revolvers were pointed at me, and then I knew there was treasure there. I got out of range as soon as I could, and soon after the vessel struck the rocks. The head clerk opened the safe door and as he stooped to put his hand in the safe the boat with its living load went to pieces, and all perished but 16. It is a long story, the horrors of five days without food, with dying and dead strewn around us, with a winter snow storm raging and death staring us in the face is a scene that is just as vivid in my memory after 27 years as it was on that terrible night when I clung for dear life to the wreck under the pictured rocks. I had my feet so badly frozen that the toes are all off, and I am some what of a cripple. Many of the citizens of Milwaukee know me, as I built the first 1,600 feet of the outer breakwall in 1881 and 1882. My residence is 458 south Division street, Buffalo, N.Y. and if any survivors exist I would like to hear from them.
      Detroit Post and Tribune
      August 16, 1883

Media Type
Item Type
Reason: aground
Lives: 35
Hull damage: $10,000
Cargo: $15,000
Freight: supplies &c.
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 46.55745 Longitude: -86.41044
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Superior (Steamboat), aground, 30 Oct 1856