Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Nahant (Propeller), U18766, fire, 29 Nov 1897
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      Steamer NAHANT Badly Damaged And Docks And Ore Cars Destroyed Last Night.
Escanaba, Nov. 30. - The most destructive fire ever witnessed in Escanaba occurred last night, when Dock No., 4. owned by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company, was totally destroyed. The fire started in the hold of the steamer NAHANT, which was lying alongside taking ore, and soon communicated to the dock.
      Two lives were lost. The dead are: Jacob Bossart, fireman of the NAHANT, of Cleveland O., and ----- Harold, deck-hand of the NAHANT, of Cleveland, O. The Company's private water pumps were unable to cope with the flames, and owing to the location the fire department could not reach it. The loss will approximate $340,000. This includes the dock and 30 ore cars on the boat will reach $40,000. The dock, owing to the depression in the ore trade, will not be rebuilt.
      Buffalo Evening News
      Tuesday, November 30, 1897 1 - 6

      . . . . .
Fire which started in the steamer NAHANT, loading ore at No. 4 dock at Escanaba on Monday, got such firm headway that it communicated to the dock and did $300,000 damage. The boat was destroyed. Two of the crew were burned to death. The NAHANT is owned by C.E. Behham of Cleveland.
      Port Huron Daily Times
      Tuesday, November 30, 1897

Capt. C.E. Benham of Cleveland, managing owner of the steamer NAHANT, which was destroyed by fire at Escanaba Monday, had only $3,000 insurance on his five-eighths interest in the vessel. The insurance entire was only $6,000 The No. 4 ore dock at Escanaba, as well as the vessel, is almost a complete loss. The railroad loss on dock and cars is put at $150,000. The dock was 46 feet high and 1,500 feet long and had 250 pockets, with a capacity of 32,750 tons of ore. As there has been a larger dock capacity at Escanaba than the ore trade of the past two or three years has required, it is stated that the dock will not be rebuilt.
      The Marine Review
      December 2, 1897

      . . . . .
      Steamer NAHANT destroyed by fire at Escanaba November 30, 1897. Owned by C.E. Benham, Cleveland. Tonnage 1,600 and valued at $16,000.
      Total Losses on the Lakes, 1897
      Marine Review
      December 23, 1897

      . . . . .

An interesting story of the days of the wooden freighter concerns the old NAHANT, which burned while tied to a dock in Escanaba, Michigan, one zero night in November, 1897. This tale I have heard Captain William P. Benham tell many times, and Bill was the master of the NAHANT at the time.
The NAHANT loaded coal at Conneaut, Ohio, for Detour, Michigan. As it was late in November, Bill was having difficulty getting a crew together. His father was principal owner of the NAHANT, and he was on hand in Conneaut as she loaded. The captain and the owner, son and father, discussed the shortage of crew as the last of the coal was stowed aboard.
There were the usual bunch of bar flies hanging around the waterfront saloons, but few of them cared to sail on the NAHANT so late in the season. Maybe another reason was that she had one of those old single cylinder high pressure steam engines which not only puffed all the time, but actually barker! It is said of the NAHANT that when she came into Ashtabula Harbor during the night she would wake up every living thing, man or beast, in the town, so great was her barking exhaust. It was hard for men to sleep under such a stack out in the lake.
A waterfront character known as Little Jake was among the bar flies ashore. Bill's dad knew him, and his unsavory reputation for consuming strong drink. He cautioned Bill not to take Little Jake aboard under any circumstances, as he knew he would be of little help. Then the elder Benham left for Cleveland by train, leaving Bill and the NAHANT still short of crew.
Desperately Bill sauntered into bar after bar, searching for men, and he did pick up a few here and there, at a bonus. By now the NAHANT's cargo was fully loaded and she was waiting to sail. Time was running out for Bill. Finally he was short but one fireman. In a last desperate effort Bill signed on Little Jake, in spite of his father's cautioning. Bill was certain that Jake could be handled once he got him aboard ship. Jake was a good fireman, if he could be kept away from a bottle, and Bill would see to that! The NAHANT sailed that evening for Detour. It was beastly cold and no one ventured often out on deck. They reached Detour and unloaded their coal, then crossed over to Escanaba to take on a final cargo of iron ore. As often happens to iron ore on zero nights on the upper lakes docks, when the NAHANT arrived everything was frozen up tight. Bill just tied her up and got ready to go to bed, when Little Jake opened the door and blew in.
He put the bite on the old man for a few dollars advance wages. Bill wasn't to be fooled by that racket. He refused bluntly. Jake remonstrated, hoisted his foot off the deck and showed Bill the sole. It was worn entirely through. "I just gotta get me some shoes, cap'n," pleaded Little Jake, "my feet can't keep warm up here in this cold with just cardboard in these here holes."
Now Bill is a plenty tough skipper, but he is a softie when it comes to things like this. So Little Jake got his advance, not much, but enough for a pair of new shoes. Bill also gave him a very strong talk about not buying any liquor. Jake quickly promised and hurried ashore. Bill turned in.
Several hours later he was awakened by a man singing hilariously and with great volume. Bill knew it was Little Jake returning to the NAHANT. Maybe he had his shoes, but certainly he had found some liquor. But he came aboard, things quieted and the captain dozed back to sleep. But not for long.
The next thing he heard was some one shouting at the top of his voice, "Ahoy, NAHANT, you're afire, get out."
A sort of yellowish flickering red light flooded his room. The captain jumped out of bed and looked back aft. It was blazing high! Things happened pretty fast after that. Bill roused what men he could find still asleep forward, and by that time they could just get down the ladder before it was too late.
It must have been a jim dandy fire because it quickly spread to the wooden ore dock. All the fire hoses were frozen up tight and a grand blaze was more or less enjoyed by all. Two other steamers at the dock moved away to cooler spots. I believe Bill said that the NAHANT's lines burned away and she drifted until a tug managed to push her on the beach across the bay. And there she burned herself out, and ended her days.
When daylight came Bill looked over his crew. Little Jake was not among them. They found him later on, or what was left of him, lying on the springs of what had been his bunk.
When Bill telegraphed his dad after the fire, he said that he guessed that maybe one of the firemen had accidentally knocked over a lantern they kept on the deck in their room, and started the fire, but he wasn't too sure.
(This was part of a presentation entitled "Historic Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes" given by Dana T. Bowen to the Detroit Propeller Club on October 10, 1951.)
      Inland Seas
      Spring 1952 pps. 5-7

Steam screw NAHANT. U. S. No. 18766. Of 1204.18 tons gross; 1038.10 tons net. Built Detroit, Mich., 1873. Home port, Cleveland, Ohio. 213.3 x 35.0 x 16.2
      Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1897

Item Type
Reason: fire
Lives: 2
Hull damage: $40,000
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 45.74525 Longitude: -87.06458
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Nahant (Propeller), U18766, fire, 29 Nov 1897