The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Erik Heyl
A silly title for a steamboat story! Yet, most appropriate and fitting for the following tale! Some years ago the writer was trying to locate a picture of the City of Buffalo, the last of the Palace Steamers of the Great Lakes. She was built in Buffalo in 1857, was in service between Buffalo and Toledo from the end of July 1857 until early October of the same year when she was laid up, the panic having prostrated shipping. Still laid up in 1858, she was put on the Buffalo and Cleveland run in 1859 and continued on it until late in 1861. In 1863 she was dismantled, her machinery shipped to New York to be put into the Morro Castle, while the hull was converted into a bulk freighter, propeller driven.
Numerous inquiries addressed to various museums and historical societies failed to locate a picture of City of Buffalo as a passenger steamer, although the Rev. Edward J. Dowling, S. J., did send to the writer a picture of her as a freighter. All hope of ever coming across a portrait of her as a Palace Steamer had been scuttled, when a message came from Buffalo Historical Society that a photograph of an engraving or woodcut had been located, which showed a white, side-wheel passenger boat clearly bearing the name City of Buffalo. It goes without saying that no time was lost in getting a copy of that print.
But! Even a superficial glance showed that the artist who was responsible had only a vague idea of the architecture of a boat. But aside from this, the picture just did not look like the style and kind of work produced in the 1850’s; the entire layout did not look right. Furthermore, some of the details of the boat simply did not fit in a vessel built in the late 1850’s. For example, the name was in big lettering on the bow, not on the wheelhousing; the pilothouse was a typical, middle-1870 Arabian or Moorish ornamental bird cage; the paddle wheels seemed to be recessed into the hull. To sum up, the more that print was examined the greater were the doubts it raised as to its authenticity.
The writer finally mailed the print to Captain Hamilton of Kelley’s Island, figuring that he should be able to make an identification. Captain Hamilton promptly wrote, admitting that he was stumped, also expressing his opinion that the picture was an out and out fake. However he did not want to run into shoal water by expressing a final opinion, so he had forwarded the print to Mariners’ Museum, figuring that if anybody could identify this boat, Mariners could.
Several months passed, when one fine day the writer received an important looking package from the Library of Congress. When the package was opened — yes, you guessed it — here was that same print in all its glory, together with a letter, saying that the Library of Congress had received the enclosed print from Mariners’ Museum, who were unable to identify the subject, and could the Library please help out?
Undoubtedly the Library staff spent time, effort and toil before giving up the chore as a bad job. Then they sent the print to the writer, and would he please give them a hand? Chickens came home to roost!
Where do we go from here? There must have been some good and valid reason for having this engraving made. If it was not a magazine illustration, or used for advertising, what could it have been used for?
The writer finally contacted Mr. Robert W. Bingham, the former director of Buffalo Historical Society, and explained the impasse. Pay dirt was struck, as Mr. Bingham remembered the picture, describing it in detail and explaining that it appeared on a sample sheet of vignettes of various designs published by the American Bank Note Company. These vignettes were used as the central designs on bank notes issued by various banks. Undoubtedly the name on the bow of the steamer was chosen to impress some Buffalo bank, undoubtedly also, this name was on a slug, so that any other name could be used instead which would be appropriate to the location of a prospective customer.
While the mystery of this print has been solved, no picture of the City of Buffalo, as a Great Lakes Palace Steamer, has yet been found. We did find however, an effusive word picture of her in the Buffalo Morning Express, of July 25, 1857. It is a question which we leave for the readers to answer, — which shows the greater imagination, the dreamed up engraving or the flowery newspaper description which we here quote:
“Space will not permit us to designate all the beauties and improvements which are lavished upon the City of Buffalo, nor to dilate upon the minutia which go to make her perfect. But the more important features we will sketch as well as we can where all is so complete and beautiful.
“To enlarge upon her exquisite model would be useless, after what we have said in former articles upon her, or to praise the power and finish of her engines, or the speed she is capable of attaining, would be superfluous. All these and much more may be briefly summed up in saying that she surpasses all preconceived ideas of the perfection of steam ships.
“Mr. Cleaveland Forbes, the agent of the Michigan Southern Railroad, has done himself great honor by his successful superintendence of the beautiful ship. She is an honor to our city and bears its name; may she be always prosperous.
“We will begin with her hull, and briefly point out the peculiar improvements embodied in it, which make her a remarkable craft. In the first place, it is strongly built, with every addition to strengthen which science or experience could invent. It is divided into five separate compartments by solid timber bulkheads, which render it impossible to sink her; it is enclosed by a band of solid wrought iron five inches in width and nearly an inch in thickness. Substantial arches are thrown through her length, which renders her as staunch as wood and iron can make her.
“The boiler room is made perfectly fire-proof, as a salamander safe. The bottom of the ship is covered with a bed of plaster, on which are laid half-inch iron plates. In the centre of the room are the furnaces and boilers, which are surrounded by a casing of boiler-iron at a distance of two or three feet, thus forming a gallery, which may be entered through an iron door, and through which easy access is gained to any part of either boiler. On the outside of this boiler-iron jacket, is another passage between it and the sides of the ship, of some three feet in width. By this method of construction, an air chamber of five or six feet separates the fires from any part of the woodwork, and this air-chamber is divided into two by the casing of boiler-iron. By an ingenious arrangement, the fire-room itself is included in this casing. This room is air-tight, and fed by flues running down from the deck. When these are turned on at full blast, a torrent of cold air is poured into the room, which makes it cool enough for comfort. The air-chamber around the boilers is continued up around the smoke-stack to above the hurricane deck, so that equal safety is obtained through the wood-work of the cabins.
“The forward main deck is fitted up with iron cattle-guards in a manner much better than any former boat has been arranged. The figure-head is a large gilt Buffalo, natural and in good taste. She has two fire engines, one worked by steam, the other, just forward of the baggage room, worked by hand, with sufficient hose ready reeled for an emergency. The baggage room is large and well contrived, composed of strong oak lattice work. The engine room is a model of convenience, and shows the finer parts of the grand engine to great advantage. Everything about the boat is finished in excellent style, even to the brass hand-rails and capstan-heads. The ladies private cabin, on the after main deck, is excellently arranged; it is handsomely furnished with rich brussels carpets, rosewood furniture, upholstered with fine plush. Beneath the ladies’ cabin is the nursery, with every facility required for the care of children, with bath and wash-rooms and water closets. Everything which could minister to the comfort of travelers is consulted, even to the most trivial matters. The nursery is well lighted by day by the stern-lights, and at night by lamps. Passengers, upon going on board, enter a fine reception room furnished with sofas, marble-topped tables, etc., and in the centre is a pretty fountain. The Captain’s and Steward’s offices are off from this room.
“Proceeding up the grand stairway, at the first landing, on the floor, we notice a large brass Buffalo, and overhead a handsome mirror and splendid landscape painting. This introduces us to the grand cabin, lighted by skylights, and a splendid stained glass dome at the further end.
On either hand the doors open into the state-rooms. The cabin has an arched ceiling, which, together with the panels, are ornamented by gilt mouldings, the white and gold making a very rich appearance. This cabin is like a gallery as we look down into the cabin below. Several splendid chandeliers light it by night, the centre one of which is double, the lower portion lighting the ladies cabin. The furniture is of the richest rose-wood, with damask and plush upholstering; the carpets are costly brussels, and the tout ensemble magnificent. The fairy palaces of the imagination were never so gorgeously furnished; nor could the famous barge of Cleopatra, with its silken sails, rival this noblest of steamers; fable becomes a reality as we look at her fair proportions and exquisite fittings; and the bridal chambers might be the envy of an empress — so beautiful are they, in all that luxury or good taste could desire. The furniture of these rooms is superb, and a happy couple can be as secluded as they desire, the intention being to allow meals to be served in them to those who desire privacy.
“Proceeding forward, we digress into the pantry, a neat room, well designed for its purpose, with a handsome oak case at the back end to display the silver, of which there is a superb dinner and tea set. Directly under this is the kitchen, where an unrivaled cook, upon an excellent range, prepares the rich and rare viands, which distinguishes our steamers from all others in another particular. Messrs. Dudley & Sons had charge of fitting up this department, as well as the plumbing, and a large and beautiful water-cooler, which stands in a recess off from the dining room and gentlemen’s cabin. Crossing to the opposite side of the boat, we find a capitally arranged and fitted up wash-room and barber shop, with a bath-room attached. Reentering the dining-room, which is handsomely furnished with oak chairs, etcetera, we are struck with the perfect neatness prevailing; everything is in order, and the waiters come and go about their duties as noiselessly as mutes.
“The old fashion of a long table, crowded with voracious passengers, is dispensed with. The tables are placed across the cabin, and parties of friends can be together, with their own servants, and be served as if they were at home. This is an improvement which all readers see the benefit of.
“The state-rooms are neatly and handsomely furnished, with washing utensils, fine bedding and handsome curtains; the ventilation of these rooms is superior on board the City of Buffalo to that of any other boat. Extending her entire length, next to the ceiling, is a handsome open wood work, which allows the free passage of air, while it cannot be removed or allow the passage of any person. — Besides being an advantage it is highly ornamental.
“The officers of the boat are men of tried capacity and courage. Commodore Perkins is an amiable gentleman, and an able officer. Mr. Bowles, the purser, will be found to be a capital gentleman, whom the public will appreciate by becoming acquainted with. The Steward, Mr. Logan, is peculiarly fitted for position, and is, besides, an accommodating gentleman.
“The carpets and upholstery are from the establishment of A. T. Stewart & Co., New York.
“This review does not do the City of Buffalo justice, nor is our vocabulary equal to describe the splendor and convenience of this crowning triumph of marine architecture.
‘We must not take leave of our subject without describing the suit of colors bestowed upon the boat by an association of friends. The city government was appealed to to make some recognition of the compliment paid the city by naming her after it, but with their usual felicitous stupidity they offered a paltry $100 towards a suit of colors. This was refused by the gentleman who applied, and they purchased a set at a cost of $1,000.
“The suit comprises the broad pennant of Commodore Perkins, the Union Jack, the Whip, which is ninety feet in length, the Ensign for the mast-head, with “The City of Buffalo” thereon, and the Stars and Stripes — an ensign which is about sixty feet in length by fifteen feet in breadth. These are made of the heaviest and finest silk which could be procured, and the colors, blue, scarlet and white, are exceedingly brilliant. We have never seen any suit of colors which could approach them for magnificent richness. Readers cannot form an adequate idea of what we have attempted to describe without seeing for themselves, and we advise them to make an examination. Commodore Perkins and his officers will take pleasure in showing visitors the thousand attractions brought together in this fine steamer.”
Not being able to see for ourselves, it seems a pity that neither are we able to see this fine vessel accurately through the eyes of a contemporary artist.