The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By R.G. Plumb
There is no better or more interesting method of recapturing the past than to browse through the newspapers of a given period. This can best be illustrated by a study of the periodicals of Chicago, Green Bay and Milwaukee covering the beginnings of Lake Michigan navigation. In fact the amount of space devoted to marine affairs in comparison with other news material was far greater than it is today. The reason is obvious, since the day of the telegraph and the railroad was not yet at hand and the editor had to rely on the arrival of the boat from Buffalo or St. Joseph to bring him the latest on such matters as the national campaign for president or the War in Mexico. Thus on June 8, 1838, the Milwaukee Sentinel thanked Captain Pratt of the steamer Anthony Wayne for his kindnesses in delivering papers from the East and the officers of other craft are repeatedly praised for bringing up the latest news via Chicago. Later a gift of pickled lobsters is acknowledged from the captain of the Great Western, and on another occasion whitefish from Mackinac are gratefully received. In exchange for these courtesies the papers were not slow in “puffing” the boats and the captains, giving each craft a complimentary notice as it arrived or left port.
The boats of the period 1830-50 fall in two distinct classes, the sailing vessels including the larger ones trading down the lakes, and the smaller ones serving the lake itself and the steamers. Prior to 1835 there was little travel on the lake for the very good reason that most of the territory had not been opened up to settlement until after the Indian treaties had been made. True, there was a very old settlement at Green Bay at which the first steamer on the lakes, the Walk-in-the-Water, had made a visit in 1821 and where other early steamers made calls during the succeeding years, generally bringing troops or supplies for the Wisconsin forts. Then at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) a schooner or two a year could take care of the necessities of that station. The ill-fated expedition under command of General Scott had, during the Black Hawk insurrection, called at Chicago in 1832. It consisted of the steamers Sheldon Thompson and William Penn, carrying cholera-infested soldiery. Outside of these sporadic expeditions the trade on the lake was limited to a few little schooners. When the white man began settlements at such points as Milwaukee, Racine, Southport (Kenosha), Little Fort (Waukegan), Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers in the period from 1834 to 1837, the growth of Lake Michigan marine began in earnest.
The first to claim attention in the pioneering days were schooners. John P. Arndt of Green Bay had built in 1832 the first schooner, the Wisconsin, noted in the list of arrivals at Milwaukee and other ports until lost at Death’s Door in 1847. Two years later the Solomon Juneau, named after the founder of Milwaukee, was built at that place, a sturdy boat of 60 tons. The Hiram and the Fly, tiny craft, opened up trade to Southport and the Llewellyn and the larger Oregon brought the first settlers to Manitowoc. The former boat is also listed as making trips to Green Bay and to St. Joseph, the latter the earliest settlement on the eastern side of the lake, together with the Swan and the Helen. The Knickerbocker, Merchant and brig John Rogers engaged in the Green Bay-Detroit trade together with the schooners Jefferson and Mississippi.
The Sentinel in August, 1838, rather humorously remarked, “The Schooner Nekick (in plain English Otter) Captain W. Brooks, came into port last week. She is a new vessel, built at Sheboygan, well fitted for passengers and her captain (who has not heard of Captain Brooks of the old Jessie Smith?) is a fine fellow.” The Nekick advertised in the Green Bay Democrat two years later for a prospective trip to Detroit.
What were the usual trade routes of the later thirties? Harbor improvement had been undertaken at Chicago in 1833 and at St. Joseph three years later, but slight work had been done at Milwaukee until well along in the forties. Therefore the ports of call had to be served by lighters or barges while schooners rolled in the waves some distance out. Only at Green Bay could they enter the river mouth. Outside of the trade between that port and Chicago already mentioned, the most traveled route was between Milwaukee and Chicago. Steam vessels made too infrequent visits to serve the needs of those two communities. For instance at the port of Milwaukee in 1835 there were two steamboat arrivals and that of eighty schooners, a number increased five years later to 126 steamboats and 127 sail vessels.
This busy trade was served between the two towns by the schooners Ocean, Western Trader, Solomon Juneau, Victor and General Thornton. The Ocean made a trip to the mouth of the Kalamazoo while the Jessie Smith was listed as visiting Sheboygan and the N C. Baldwin carried on the trade to St. Joseph. In 1839 the Eliza is the first trading schooner mentioned as visiting Manitowoc whereas the Clarissa added Sheboygan to her calls and the Western Trader called at Michigan City.
In 1840 Two Rivers is added to the list of ports regularly visited, principally by the schooner Liberty, a midget of twenty-four tons under the command of Captain Guyles. Muskegon and the mouth of the Grand River (later Grand Haven) also became points touched by such craft as the Ranger and the Marvin. Another east shore village, Manistee, was served soon after quite regularly by the 145-ton schooner Bonesteel. Practically all of these craft were registered as bringing in lumber and shingles and usually returned in ballast, although at times freighted with supplies for the small communities. This was the case in December, 1847, when the little schooner Citizen, Captain Joseph Edwards, the first craft built at Manitowoc, brought a load of provisions to that village for the long winter ahead.
The year 1841 saw an increasing trade, marked by trips of the McFarlin, Captain Andros, to Muskegon, the Columbia and the Ocean to Sheboygan, the Manitowoc to Two Rivers as well as the schooner Van Buren, then commanded by the veteran Captain Henderson. White Lake was visited this year by the Ranger while the little settlement at Manitowoc was the goal of the Wenonah, Columbia, Memee and Drift. The larger craft, Henry Norton, 154 tons, appeared in Milwaukee with sixty passengers from Buffalo, showing that all emigrants did not arrive under steam.
It was that September that the schooner Dolphin went ashore at Death’s Door, the crew being rescued by the fine seamanship of the Yankee, although Captain Morgan blamed the Gazelle for failing to lend a hand. This was only one of the many disasters that befell the feeble craft as they traversed the harborless lake. The Sentinel mentions one day in the fall of 1842 three craft ashore at or near Milwaukee and four at St. Joseph. While in many instances the crew got ashore when their boats were beached, not all were so fortunate. The schooner Milwaukee went down that same fall of 1842 with the loss of nine lives, while the little Ocean that had traded at Milwaukee, Racine and nearly all west bank ports followed her to a watery grave two years later, and the Wave carried her crew of thirteen to the bottom the same fall. The schooner Jefferson met her fate near St. Joseph and an unnamed capsized schooner was located bottom up in the middle of the lake.
The years 1845-7 saw the addition of such craft as the Gallinipper, E. Henderson, Toledo, Crook, Liberty. Eagle, Traveler, Baltic and Planet, all noticed in the lists with the usual ports of call. Through it all the crying need for proper refuge against storms is noted by the papers, as when the Sentinel of Milwaukee recorded in November, 1847:
The schooner E. B. Wolcott of Sheboygan went ashore at that port in a gale Monday night. The schooner H. Merrill also went ashore and Captain Woodward was drowned in the act of jumping from the sinking craft to the dock.
Then it was the Gallinipper that was reported the next year as having capsized and righted to survive three more years before finally going down. The Tribune, a 278-ton schooner not a year old, disappeared and was reported as located in eighty feet of water in Traverse Bay the next spring. The Lasalle was reported missing late in the fall of 1849 and though it was late in November, the sturdy old Vieau went out to search for her until it was determined she had capsized near Racine.
Despite these handicaps the trade went on. The Eagle and the Raleigh were reported as carrying 8000 bushels each of wheat to Buffalo in ’47 and the Lawrence 11,000 bushels the next year. It was the schooner Eagle that planned to run regularly between Sheboygan and Milwaukee with passengers and freight, since it was explained that the steamers often refused to land persons or freight destined for the former port because of lack of proper harbor facilities. The Baltic, though a small craft, was reported as having brought thirty-five passengers from Manistee late in the season of 1848, proving that sail was the resort of travelers where steamboats did not venture. The same year the little vessel Crook is remarked as having stopped at the newly settled village of Kewaunee on the west side of the lake.
The chances that these early navigators took is evidenced by such passages registered in the newspapers as that of the Eliza, which arrived in Milwaukee with sails all split, and that of the Cherubusco which came into the same port on December 11, 1848, from Green Bay with canvas frozen stiff after having experienced, as the Sentinel tersely put it, “considerable difficulty.” There was always a last necessary trip to make before winter set in, one final load that had to be delivered, be risk what it may. Finally, however, the fleet was hauled in for repairs and the hardy sailors busied themselves with new shipbuilding, making ready for another season. Such a fleet is recorded at Milwaukee in the winter of 48-49 as one steamer, four brigs, two barques and twenty-seven schooners.
What of steam navigation during these years? Green Bay and Chicago had the lead in the early part of the thirties. Green Bay was served usually by the Sheldon Thompson, 241 tons, then over ten years old and a survivor of the Chicago expedition of 1832. When she arrived on her first trip of 1837 in Green Bay, the Democrat of that city published the following card:
The undersigned passengers on board the steamer Sheldon Thompson from Detroit to Green Bay during a trip of considerable difficulty feel great pleasure in offering their testimony to her merits as an excellent sea boat and to the handsome and becoming conduct of Captain Brundage. The undersigned in the belief that the boat is perfectly safe and seaworthy publish this card for the newspapers more particularly for the reason that the opinion of the public, which has for some time been unfavorable to her reputation, may be corrected.
Twenty names were subscribed, among them some prominent Wisconsin pioneers. Sad comment when the fact remains that the craft was broken up the same fall.
The Michigan and the Pennsylvania, somewhat newer and larger boats, called at the Bay the same year and the next spring the newly constructed Buffalo of 613 tons was greeted gratefully by the citizens who in turn were given a free excursion on the bay. These craft called at Milwaukee en route to Chicago and were supplemented by the Thomas Jefferson, the Constellation, the Madison and the De Witt Clinton in 1838, several of which stopped also at Racine when business required it. These same western ports then welcomed the largest craft then engaged in the trade, the new Illinois of 755 tons, commanded by Captain Blake. This was the property of the Newberry interests, whereas the Madison was one of the pioneers of the Reed Line. The former boat had cost the then extravagant sum of one hundred thousand dollars to build and equip. Chicago built a little steamer, the George Dole, to run on the St. Joseph route, but it evidently did not prove a successful venture since it was soon converted into a barge.
The steam craft on the lakes, some eighteen in number at that time, had been run by a Steamboat Association in 1834, which planned the schedules and fixed the rates. As usual such cooperation was too good to last and by 1836 the boats were running wild again and often at cut rates. The association was revived in 1839 and the Green Bay newspaper mourned the fact, fearing that the economies effected by the combination would cut down the number of trips to that port. Steam craft, poorly powered, suffered nearly as much as the sailing vessels, from lack of proper harbors. In October, 1838, the 443-ton Constitution was driven back to Chicago after having reached a point thirty miles south of the Manitous. “This,” said the Milwaukee Sentinel, “is another instance of the want of harbors on Lake Michigan and consequent risk of life and property.”
In 1839 the Reed Line was running the Jefferson, Madison and Buffalo while independent owners advertised the New England, Anthony Wayne, De Witt Clinton, Constitution and Pennsylvania. Then in May came the first visit of the new Great Western, then the largest boat on the lakes, measuring 780 tons. She burned at the dock that winter but Captain Walker had refitted her and she was greeted by the encomium, “In smooth water she’s fine, in a sea she’s a steamer.” Despite boisterous weather she made a trip in eight days. The next spring she brought up the lakes a large party on a fourteen-day excursion at a rate of $30 for the round trip. 1839 also witnessed visits of the Chesapeake, with her popular Captain Howe, and the same year Green Bay papers note a visit of General Scott on the Illinois while they also advertise the little steamer Fairport to take passengers down the lakes.
The Madison attempted to draw trade by advertising that she could save time by not stopping at Green Bay. Her list of competitors was increased during the early 40’s by trips of the Vermilion, De Witt Clinton, Missouri, and Bunker Hill. The last named boat, it was noted, had brought New York papers to Milwaukee in six days after publication, a feat for that era. The Illinois got as far as Sheboygan on her last trip of the season, and the weather proving inclement, she returned to Chicago to lay up. It was this same boat that in the spring of ’43 advertised the new cut rates, as low as five dollars steerage for the trip from Buffalo. In the meantime the rails had nearly reached across Michigan and the 140-ton Huron was put on the St. Joseph-Chicago run to connect with them. For those desiring a trip to Green Bay, the Soo and the Manitous, the Buffalo, Captain Allen, offered a reasonable priced excursion from Milwaukee or Chicago. The papers noted in September of the same year the arrival of the Constitution, delayed twelve hours by storms at the Manitous and bringing the largest load of passengers that had arrived so far on any craft.
In 1844 there arrived the newly built Nile of 600 tons that was to be welcomed and praised until her untimely end at the foot of Wisconsin Street, Milwaukee, four years later. Other new liners were the rebuilt Wisconsin, the propeller Hercules and last but not least the gigantic 1136-ton Empire, now under command of Captain Howe. Passengers were a grateful lot in those days. They composed a poem to the Hercules and to her captain, Fred Wheeler. On an excursion trip aboard the steamer Indiana a gold watch was presented to the captain. The next Fourth of July, 1848, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court was aboard the Empire and was prevailed upon to act as chairman of a celebration in Lake Michigan, of which one W. B. Denmore was the orator of the day and Captain Howe made fitting response. Nor were narrow escapes from disaster overlooked, as witness the card:
The undersigned passengers on board the steamer New Orleans from Chicago to Buffalo tender their thanks to Captain Brundage for the nautical skill with which he managed the vessel during the severe gale on Lake Michigan and for his attention to their comforts during the trip.
The undersigned passengers on board the steamer Wisconsin on her trip from Buffalo to Chicago April 26, 1845, render this acknowledgment to Captain S. Card for his uniformly courteous demeanor and attention to their comfort, for the very excellent brass band and cotillion music that added much to the enjoyment of the trip.
Yet all was not always so bland and lovely, as witness an unsigned contribution from “two ladies whose names can be obtained from the printer” stating that they desired “to make due acknowledgment of the austere treatment they had received from the captain and also from his steward” of another passenger boat.
The Steamboat Association was again in control in 1844 with a fixed rate between Buffalo and Chicago of fourteen dollars cabin class and seven dollars steerage, but within a year or so independent operators were cutting that rate to as low as four dollars steerage. The tide of immigration from Europe was now at its height and the Sentinel makes mention of the piers being congested with boxes and bales and newcomers’ belongings after a visit of the Nile and the Empire on the same day. The year 1846 brought the first trip of the Niagara, the new 1084- ton Reed liner, which ran in conjunction with the Madison and the Louisiana. Independent liners of that year numbered the St. Louis, Boston, Hercules, Saratoga, Oregon, Wisconsin, New Orleans, Cleveland and Samson while the Columbus furnished bi-weekly service to the Bay from Buffalo.
1847 was a momentous year on Lake Michigan. It witnessed the great harbor convention at Chicago attended by hundreds from the East, among them such notables as Horace Greeley, Thomas Corwin, Schuyler Colfax and Thurlow Weed. They came by boat and many excursions were arranged, the passengers using their cabins as their hotel while in Chicago. At that gathering a young Whig congressman, named Abraham Lincoln, arose and made a few remarks not considered of sufficient moment to be reported fully in the press of the day. The People’s liner, A. D. Patchin, was added to the list of down lake carriers that year. Also passengers on the Empire expressed their gratitude to the captain and the line for their accommodations and in the fall those who survived the November storm on the Hendrick Hudson added their praise for the seamanship of her crew. It was the same month that the propeller Phoenix, loaded with emigrants from Holland, burned just north of Sheboygan, entailing a loss of one hundred and ninety lives. It was one of the saddest catastrophes of the lake, whole families perishing with all the belongings that they were bringing with them to their new homes.
The little settlements along the lake were now of a size that was demanding service and in 1848 Captain Ward ran the Pacific on a triangular route, touching Chicago, Southport, Racine, Milwaukee and St. Joseph. Later in the fall he put the Sam Ward on the same run, so that daily service was possible. On the west shore the two hundred ton A. Rossiter, built at Chicago, was placed on a Chicago-Sheboygan route. Later in the season it extended its run to touch Manitowoc and in the spring included Green Bay on its schedule. The Buffalo boats by this time had made it a practice to stop at Sheboygan and Manitowoc at the bridge piers, when business and weather permitted. Reed had added the new Queen City to his line, replacing the older Madison, and in 1849 brought out the Keystone State. The leading independent liners of the year were the Globe, Great Western and Nile. The Grand Haven, Milwaukee and Sheboygan triangle was now served by our old friend Captain Howe with the 200-ton Champion, working in conjunction with the Pacific, which now touched at New Buffalo, while the new steamer J. D. Morton made occasional trips to Manistee. The year 1849 ended with the usual severe storms, wherein the Nile went ashore off Milwaukee and the Keystone State broke her arches on the east shore. Rates were again in confusion, the Michigan offering a trip from Green Bay to Buffalo for ten dollars cabin, five dollars steerage. As a further incentive to citizens to patronize her, the captain arranged the usual free excursion on the bay. Then if the residents of the Bay desired to visit Chicago there was the 763-ton Lexington advertising her occasional trips.
Thus the two pioneer decades came to a close and Lake Michigan was ready for the humming days of the fifties.
This article first appeared in Inland Seas in Summer 1949. 1949 was the only year that Inland Seas published less than four issues; only two were published, Spring and Summer.