Maritime History of the Great Lakes
G. P. Griffith (Steamboat), burnt, 17 Jun 1850
Full Text

Steamer G.P. GRIFFITH, bound up on the morning of the June 17, 1850, when about 15 miles east of Cleveland, took fire and burned to the waters edge, as near as can be estimated a full 275 persons lost their lives by fire and water.
      Casualty List for 1850
      Erik Hyle's private papers
      . . . . .

      Our citizens have been very highly excited by this dreadful calamity. We are so directly interested in the safe navigation of the Lakes that it possesses additional interest to us. We have as yet not seen sufficient facts to justify us in coming to a conclusion as to whether there was carelessness or culpable negligence on the part of those having charge of the steamer. We confess there is something in the circumstances as we learn them, that leads us to believe that there was not sufficient care exercised on the part of the night watch.
Under ordinary circumstances it seems to us that the fire would have been discovered and could easily have been extinguished. Yet we are not disposed to cast censure on any one. It may be that every possible precaution was observed and that it was entirely unavoidable. But we believe as we have often stated in these columns that more stringent enactments should be passed and enforced, in order that the lives and property of those navigating the Lakes should be rendered secure against the occurrence of those astounding calamities. Does any doubt that 350 good life preservers would have saved nearly all on board ? The
boats should be compelled to have them.
      They should be managed by officers of experience and well provided with everything essential to the preservation of life. Of what consequence is a few dollars to the traveller, when he can be rendered secure by its expenditure ? The travelling public generally are willing to pay to be carried safely.
      When once on board the steamer their lives are at the mercy of those entrusted with the management of it - they are not expected to understand navigation -- they should not be required to carry with them what every boat should "be compelled to have." If it is urged by steamboat proprietors, that the expense of Life Preservers would be a burden, then we say, increase the price of fare. Make travellers pay for their additional security. Wh have now
had we should think enough accidents on our Lakes to warrant the adoption of more effectual measures to secure the safety of the traveller. Let something be done quickly.
      Verdict of the Coroner's Jury, &c.
      (from the Cleveland True Democrat. Extra, June 18.)
      Eds. True Democrat: I send you such facts as come under my observation respecting the burning of the steamboat G.P. GRIFFITH. An unusual light was seen in the direction of the lake, between 4 and 5 o'clock A. M. by some of our citizens, some of whom ventured to drive to the lake to learn the cause of it. When the alarm was given there was as you can easily infer, no want of disposition to fly to the relief of the sufferers. We were able by ten o'clock
to draw from the bottom of the lake about one hundred and fifty bodies. Most of the persons who survived having been saved by the mate with a boat from the saw mill of Mr. Canada. Some swam ashore.
      Up to the hour of ten the lake was so smooth and clear that we could see bodies as they lay upon the bottom, and so closely had they jumped in upon each other that when in one instance, one body was hooked and raised, eight others followed, holding fast to each other.
      It seems that while the boat was running, her motion drew the flames toward the stern, but as soon as she struck, the breeze from the lake took effect, and forced the flames forward, to where the passengers were assembled, with such rapidity that they were forced almost at the same instant to make the leap.
      The consequence was that the good swimmers were carried down and drowned by those who could not swim. It would seem as tho' they had sunk as one solid mass in one general embrace, and that too in only eight or nine feet of water.
      Mr. Holley and his room mate made their escape by sinking down and swimming under those who were struggling above, as far as they could swim without breathing.
      A Mr. Spencer, of Ashtabula, stayed on the boat until he saw a space, clear through which he could swim out into the lake, and then made his escape by swimming around those who had so hastily jumped in before him.
      The citizens appointed a committee for the protection of property providing for the survivors, and disposing of the bodies of the dead. We did as we would be done by. Some of the good people of our city complained of your burying all foreigners who had no trace of name or home in one common grave and in their clothes. We have only to say that our citizens had notice early enough to have been on the ground before they were put in the grave, and as it was, they were covered with nothing but leaves when they were making their comments, and could easily have been removed if there had been any disposition to do better, instead of talking about it. I was glad to hear the Mayor of your city say that under the circumstances we had done the best that could be done.
      To give any accurate description of this dreadful scene is impossible. It beggars every effort at description. Two men related to me the parting scenes with each of their families. As a dernier resort, they each of them handed overboard their wives and beautiful children, while each begged of the father not to put them into the water. But, said they, what could I do ? From the fire there was no hope of saving them, but from the water there was.
      Several children were saved who are the only survivors each, of the families to which they belonged.
      The Mr. Holley, spoken of above, E.C. Holley I think his name is, in the course of the forenoon, offered a reward of five hundred dollars for the recovery of a belt containing twenty-three hundred dollars in bank bills. The mate, after a description of the belt, arose and said he had it, and declined the reward, but finally took one hundred at the urgent solicitation of Mr. Holley. The belt had floated out of the owners pocket, and the mate picked it up as he was coming towards shore. Mr. Holley found his trunk, hat and boots on
the shore, took them and started on the scow for Cleveland, and thence on his way to Missouri, where his family reside.
      About 3 P. M. the body of Daniel Donovan, or Donhovan, was recovered. On his person was found a gold hunter watch and chain, two gold rings, about five dollars in specie, and seventy-five dollars in bank paper.
      His friends, the mate says, are in Detroit. His money is in the hands of Mr. George Skiff, of Willoughby.
      The body of Mr. J.R. Munson, as is supposed from the ticket found in his pocket, had taken from it about one thousand dollars, which is now in the hands of the Coroner.
      The body of some person was found, on whose shirt is marked Franklin Ford, or Franklin Leonard, read differently by different persons. On his person was found $25, which is in the hands of the Coroner.
      Several bodies of persons to whose names no clue could be obtained, had small amounts of money
      I send you the evidence before the Coroner's jury and the jury's verdict.
Yours, &c. -----
      Samuel Mc Coit, 2d. Mate, says the man at the wheel informed him that the boat was on fire on the upper deck. We then examined and found it to be on fire on the underside of the main deck. He called to the first mate, and they examined and tried to put it out. The fire increased so fast we had to desist.
      Mr. Evans, First Mate; I was called by the 2d. Mate saying the boat was on fire. We found the fire was between the pipes and water jackets. I then assisted in trying to put out the fire, but we soon found it was impossible to master it. The boat was then headed for the shore; it struck the bar about twenty rods from shore, and the flames instantly spread all over the boat. The fore part of the boat was not on fire before that. We always supposed the boat to be well, (or well as any boat on the lake.) secured against fire.
      D.R. Stebbins, 1 st, Engineer, says: I was on duty, it was my watch attending to the engine. I had just oiled it. I did not discover the fire until the 2d. Mate gave the alarm. I then discovered the fire to be under the deck, (main deck, I suppose,) by looking through two auger holes. It then appeared to be one sheet of fire on the under side. We got the hose in operation in less than three minutes. It did not seem more than ten minutes before the fire drove the away. I am part owner in the boat, and believe that she was well secured from
fire. I can hardly imagine how she took fire; but it is my impression that the fire caught at or near the bulkhead, near the freight hold. Suppose that there were 250 passenger and 26 hands. The boats were prepared to launch, but were not let down while the boat was in motion, because he thought they would be swamped and made useless, but when the time had arrived for lowering the boats, the fire had increased so fast, that they could not get to them.
      We, the undersigned jurors, inpaneled and sworn on the 17th day of June, in the year 1850, at the Township of Willoughby, in the County of Lake, by Samuel Brown, Coroner of aforesaid County, to inquire and true presentment make, and in what manner a number of persons whose bodies were found in and on the shores of Lake Erie, in the north-west corner of the aforesaid township, and on the 17th day of June, in the year 1850, came to their deaths; after having heard the evidence and examined ninety-seven bodies, we do find that the deceased came to their deaths by drowning, by jumping off the steamboat G.P. GRIFFITH when on fire.
      Given under our hand, at the time and place of the said inquisition above mentioned.
      H.A. Sharp. Nathan Corning. Clinton Parker.
      J.H. Boyce Ransom Storms.
      Daily Queen City, Buffalo
      Thursday, June 20, 1850

      . . . . .

      INCIDENTS. - The Toledo Blade of Wednesday last, furnishes the following sketch of Captain Roby:
      With all the later history of the valley - and especially with its seasons of adversity, in which he was an actor and participant Capt. Roby's name was prominent. His early life was spent here. For many years he was a clerk in the employ of Gen. Hunt. From 1836 to '38, he was in the mercantile business at Perrysburg. Failing in consequence of two successive fires, he afterward became steward on the PERRY, and this was the commencement of his career in steamboats From this station he was advanced to that of commander of the steamer INDIANA, which he ran during two seasons, very acceptably to the travelling public. He retired from the INDIANA - opened a store at Perrysburg, and for the four years previous to the present spring, was engaged in the mercantile business. Last season, he bought a controlling interest in the steamer J.D. MORTON, which was under his command until the close of navigation. During winter in company with Mr. Studdiford, of Monroe, he built the steamer WAVE, which for a couple of months ran under his command, between this city and Sandusky. In the meantime, they purchased the controlling interest in the steamer GRIFFITH, of which Capt. Roby took command on her last trip down from this city. Pleased with the idea of again being in command of one of the best steamers on the lake, he took with him on this trip, his wife, mother and child. Mrs. Roby with characteristic kindness, had invited several of her friends in Perrysburg to accompany them, which invitation fortunately was declined. Alas ! who among her numerous friends (for no lady had more) supposed that her departure on this trip, was to be their final, earthly seperation.
      Capt. Roby seems to have been peculiarly the sufferer of disasters by fire. In his first business operations he lost two steam mills by fire at Perrysburg the INDIANA, a boat which had been under his command, was destroyed by fire. Last year the DEFIANCE, a schooner owned by him, was nearly destroyed by fire, and lastly the GRIFFITH, was thus destroyed. We cannot realize that he, and his wife, and that his beautiful child are no more. But alas ! the painful reality is forced upon us. Earth is no longer their abiding place. Their voices are stifled in death, and their spirits have fled as we hope to a brighter world.
      (The same paper furnishes the following incidents): -
      The fire was first discovered emanating from the chests enclosing the chimneys of the boat. These, from some reason, had not been used as water jackets during the present season, but were filled with clay. The boat was three miles from shore, when the fire was discovered. The crew strove vainly to extinguish it before awakening the passengers. When they were all finally aroused, all hope of saving the boat was gone, she was headed for shore, and from a knowledge of the coast, the Captain and crew, felt the most perfect assurance of being able to save all on board. This is the reason why the boats were not manned. The Captain had gathered his family, consisting of his wife, child, and mother, around him, and assigned the care of his daughter to Donovan and his mother to her son Henry Wilkinson, intending to save his wife himself. They stood ready to jump into the lake, whenever the boat had sufficiently neared the shore, to render their escape probable. Unfortunately, at the distance of half a mile from shore, she struck a small sand bar, which fifteen feet in either direction would have been avoided. Swinging upon this, she was presented lengthwise to the wind, which spread the flames along her whole length. The Chief Engineer found it impossible to stop the engine, and pursued by the flames, the passengers jumped by twenties into the lake, thus in fact, drowning each other. The paddles being in motion, afforded no aid, and unprepared entirely for being stranded at this distance, no effort was made to throw over any floating articles. The Captain kept his position, until the choice to die by fire, or risk the chance of safety in the water was all that was left him. Then each leaped into the lake. Young Wilkinson with his mother Donovam with the Captain's daughter Abby, and lastly, the Captain and his wife.
      Henry Wilkinson says that his mother fainted in his arms, and sunk. Finding he could not save her, he swam ashore, which he reached with much exertion. Donovan swam some distance with Abby, until it is supposed she died in his arms Leaving her then, he was enabled to catch hold of a person ahead of him, who turning, beheld who it was, and thus addressed him, "Donovan - if you hold on to me, we cannot either be saved. I am nearly exhausted." The noble fellow loosened his hold, fixed an earnest and dying glance upon the individual who adressed him, and sank beneath the surface. Capt. Roby and his wife were seen to sink into the lake, in each other's embrace, though their bodies were found asunder. The Captain, it is said was not a good swimmer. From all accounts, during the whole scene, the Captain was perfectly collected, though he was prevented from affording assistance to any save his family, by the frantic cries of his wife, who clung to him, and was distressed beyond measure for the safety of her child.
      Mr. Palmer it is supposed swam ashore and died upon the beach, of exhaustion his body was found there.
      Little doubt is entertained of the fate of Mrs. Studdiford. She was never seen to come from her state room, and it is supposed perished amid the flames. Large quantities of bones of those who were thus destroyed cover the wreck.
      Capt. Choate, was among the last to leave the wreck. He says that when he left, nearly all who had jumped overboard had perished. He jumped as far as he could and was able to reach shore.
      Mr. Stebbins, the Enginer left the boat soon after she struck, and was able to reach shore.
      POOR PRICE. - The funeral of Price, the colored barber, who was drowned off the GRIFFITH, was numerously attened this morning. Poor Price ! who of our citizens that knew his characteristics, will ever forget him. He "was a fellow of infinate jest." He was a good musician, and always in requisition by our citizens, and by the citizens of other towns for twenty miles around, to play for dancing parties, and call cotillons. He was an original. No man could more effectively do up the duties of crier for an auction, or a public meeting, and no one could listen to his waggeries without being moved to mirth. Alas ! Poor Price ! He was invited to take a trip to Buffalo, and is brought home to his family a corpse. He leaves a wife, mother, and several children, whom he took great pleasure and pride in supporting well, by his diversified and needful labors, and who will long and deeply mourn his loss.
      Daily Queen City, Buffalo
      Monday, June 24, 1850

      . . . . .

      MORE INCIDENTS. - The following interesting incidents connected with the late disaster we find in the Detroit Tribune of Saturday:-
      Mr. STEBBINS. - We learn from some of the passengers, that Mr. Stebbins of Maumee, the first engineer, was perhaps the most useful man in the terrible times on the GRIFFITH. He stood by his post till the last moment possible. When she struck, he immediately swam to the shore, being a man of great phyical vigor, he was the first on land, and accidently fell in with a small skiff on the beach, which he instantly launched, and put of in, to the burning wreck. He picked up and brought to shore three loads, which constitute a large portion of the saved.
      CAUSE OF THE FIRE. - The only explanation we have heard of the origin of the fire, is the statement that the tanks for water, around the pipes where they pass through the decks, were dry, the water having been drawn off some ten days since, for some cause not stated.
      REMARKABLE INCIDENT. - Among the saved was a German child, a child of some of the emigrants, only about three years old. His clothes were entirely dry; and our informant supposes the skiff picked him from some float. The infant has no father, mother, brother, sister, friend or acquaintance, or any other person that knows who he is or whence he came.
      REMARKABLE. - Dr. H. Reed, of Bellefontaine, took off his coat and boots, dropped himself from the bow of the GRIFFITH, just as she struck the sand bar, and swam to the shore, near half a mile, never before having swam ten feet in his life, and not knowing that he was capable of swimming one rod. He thought to himself if others could swim, there was no reason he could not. He made the effort, and succeeded beyond all his expectations. The incident above shows what coolness and decision can do for a man at such a time. Mr. Reed lost $112 from his vest pocket, and had the good fortune to have it picked up floating near the shore.
      LUCKY. - C.F. Holley, of Savannah, Missouri, in swimming ashore, lost a belt containing all his money, $2,300, twice and recovered it again. Losing it a third time, he was so much exhausted that he concluded to let it go, and content himself with saving his life. As good luck would have it, a man immediately behind him, picked it up and brought it safely to the shore. He offered the man $300 however, it was accepted, the finder having been left by the accident entirely destitute.
      COOLNESS. - A man by the name of S. Cooper, who from his appearance, we should call a Scotchman, just from Scotia, had in his care a young woman named Mary Murry, and a girl about 12 years old. When he awoke and got dressed, after the alarm, the girl was missing, and by diligent search he was unable to find her. After the boat struck, and all hopes of remaining longer on board was over, he took off his thick coat and put on a linen one, threw Miss Mary overboard, and jumped in after her, and swam with her to a float sufficient to support her, at a distance from the fire, and then started for shore himself, confident the young lady would be safe till a small boat could come out. Reflecting that he had lost his hat when he jumped overboard, and that he was liable to the headache if he remained in the sun without it, he deliberately swam back to the burning boat, found his hat, ( a white round crowned wool one, and then swam ashore. Very soon after he reached the shore; Mr. Stebbins arrived with his first swiff load containing Miss Mary.
      Daily Queen City, Buffalo
      Tuesday, June 25, 1850

      . . . . .

      Safety of Steam Boats- The information contained in the following article, copied from the Rochester Democrat, relative to the construction of the machinery and management of boats, is valuable as being derived from Capt.
Van Cleve, whose practical knowledge and long experience in the steam navigation of the lakes, have placed him at the head of his profession.
      Loss of the Griffith.
      The recent heart rending calamity on Lake Erie should rouse the public mind to a searching inquiry into the cause of the so frequent occurrence of similar disasters: and to some effort to secure themselves against their fearful consequences. Why is it that on Lake Ontario no accident has ever occurred which has caused the loss of a single life by fires or explosion?
      This fact is certainly very remarkable; and its ready explanation is worth of attention. Our Captain Van Cleve whose experience (?)boat that navigated the lake to his magnificent "Bay State" of the present day, informs me that the public inference of neglect or blame on the part of the officers and persons in charge of steamboats in these cases of fire, is in general erroneous, and that in most cases the blame should attach to the builders and owners, and is attributable to the construction of the boat and machinery. The proprietors of the Lake Ontario steamers heve from the first adopted as a rule when contracting for an engine to direct the construction of their boilers with special reference to security against fire, by the addition of water chimneys extending from the top of the boiler in the hold of the vessel up through all the upper cabins and from two to four feet above all her upper works. These chimneys contain a space for water from four to six inches in width, which is constantly forced through them from the engine to supply the consumption of water by the boilers, so that no neglect of the engineer can by possibility prevent the chimney being always supplied and filled with water, they being part and parcel of the boiler itself. Now a few hundred dollars expense in the construction of the Griffith's boilers, conforming them to the above plan, would in all probability have secured her against that calamity and its consequences. A bare smoke pipe extending from the top of the boiler in the hold of the boat encircled by what is called a water jacket, is the usual construction -- and such was the construction of the Griffith. This plan is always dangerous; for these jackets must be filled by hand, and if neglected being empty, they burn and become leaky- when in most cases (and such it seems was the fact with the Griffith) they are filled with clay, and are rendered evidently and certainly unsafe. There is just the same difference in point of safety between the two cases, as in having a stove pipe unprotected pass through a partition or any joiner work and the same pipe enclosed by a surface of water three inches thick. This is a familiar illustration of the whole thing.
The plan adopted on Lake Ontario has thus far safety and success to recommend it to the consideration of the public and to the attention of law makers, who have failed to reach or to apprehend the source of the evil. Laws have been enacted compelling steamboats to provide themselves with buckets and fire engines, and hose which in the panic and consternation of such occasions, are never used, and are utterly useless as all experience has shown. Let the law compel the general adoption of Lake Ontario plan, which is justified by success, until a better can be discovered. It is time full time, that attention was given to this subject.
The proprietors of the steamers on Lake Ontario also deserve commendation and imitation in another particular viz: in regard to the employment of commanders and engineers. They have never regarded mere wages, but have
secured men of the highest qualifications for their particular department, at whatever charge, and their engineers have the invariably been employed by the year.
      Oswego Commercial Times
      Monday July 8, 1850

      Another Disaster at the Wreck- The scows engaged in raising the Griffith were capsized in a squall on Monday afternoon. One man, Wallace Ames, of Fairport was drowned. There were nine men and a boy saved by clinging to the rigging of the wreck. The scows, were this, are righted and the work progressing. Cleveland Plain Dealer 3d.
      Oswego Commercial Times
      Monday July 8, 1850


Item Type
Reason: burnt
Lives: 275
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ohio, United States
    Latitude: 41.4995 Longitude: -81.69541
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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G. P. Griffith (Steamboat), burnt, 17 Jun 1850