The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Gerald C. Metzler and Charles E. Herdendorf
John Millard was an enigma … one day a scoundrel and the next a life-saving hero. His Cleveland cohorts in the 1880s might better have described him as a drunkard and swindler, yet all would agree he was a true hero with remarkable athletic abilities.
John Millard Finds his Calling in the Water
John was born on the outskirts of Syracuse, New York, not far from Lake Onondaga. His family was nearly destitute and to make things worse, his father died when John was only five years old leaving his mother the burden of raising two young sons alone. There were good times though, when John’s mother would take the boys to the lake and teach them how to swim. John excelled, learning to dive deep and remain underwater for two and a half minutes.
In 1838, John’s family moved to Oswego, New York, and he got his first taste of the Great Lakes. Six years later, the family was again uprooted, this time answering the call of mercantile opportunities that burgeoned in Cleveland following the opening of canals to the Ohio River and eastern markets. Once settled, John enrolled in Cleveland’s Bank Street Academy under Professor John Fry. One of his classmates, George W. Gardner, a future Cleveland mayor, recalled that John’s heart wasn’t in his studies as he preferred to hang around the flats, recovering objects that had fallen from the docks or passing boats and settled on the bottom of the Cuyahoga River.
Patrolling the river in a small rowboat, John used a long pair of grappling tongs of his own design to retrieve all sorts of articles lost by dockworkers and seamen. In the murky Cuyahoga, he would often have to resort to diving to secure the lost booty. This, of course, provided much entertainment for onlookers to whom he would sell his treasure trove for a modest profit. Soon his salvaging and peddling enterprise consumed most of his time and formal education ceased.
John Millard Becomes “Pig Iron” Miller
The life of a Cleveland peddler in the mid-1800s was not very lucrative. In desperation, John resorted to chicanery to survive. On days when his returns from the river were sparse, he would stroll along the dockside warehouses to see what had been stockpiled on the wharfs, especially oblong blocks of crude iron from the nearby smelting furnaces. Waiting for night to cloak his return, he would shove small piles of these “pigs of iron,” coal, and other commodities into the river to be “discovered” by him the next day. John took pride in outwitting the warehouse owners and his coup came in selling the salvage back to them.
It was the Irish dockworkers who first became suspicious of his clandestine forays. Rumors spread rapidly throughout the waterfront and soon the name “Millard” was transformed to “Miller,” prefixed by “Pig Iron.” John took a liking to the nickname and came to prefer it to his given name.
Silas Merchant, one of the duped warehousemen, decided to set a trap for Pig Iron. Caught in the act, John was convicted of his roguish activities and spent time in the state penitentiary. Upon his release from prison, John returned turned to Cleveland and worked as a diver. He supplemented his income by modeling at an art school. The Cleveland Leader noted that he was of medium height, possessing a magnificent physique, and “rugged as a bear.”
Pig Iron’s Honorable Side
There was a noble side to Pig Iron that manifested itself before his conviction. He performed a highly publicized act by courageously recovering victims from the wreck of the G.P. Griffith. The burning of this sidewheel steamer off Willoughby, Ohio, still ranks as the third worst loss-of-life disaster on the Great Lakes.
At 3:00 a.m. on June 17, 1850, a raging fire broke out between the twin stacks of the steamer, perhaps caused by highly flammable, experimental engine oil or by ignition of a large quantity of undeclared friction matches in the freight, but the true reason is still shrouded in controversy. The vessel was en route from Buffalo to Toledo with some 300 English, German, and Irish immigrants hoping find new lives in the Midwest. Captain Charles C. Roby was about five miles off the coast when he was alerted of the danger and immediately ordered the vessel turned toward the shore. It seemed he would make it before the fire consumed the ship.
Suddenly, the ship lurched and came to a halt on a sandbar 1,800 feet from safety. As the flames enveloped the vessel, the passengers and crew were ordered to abandon the ship by leaping into the chilly lake. Only the best swimmers made it to the shore, some 40 passengers and 30 crewmembers. All but one woman was lost. Many of the immigrant ladies aboard were burdened with heavy garments, which they often wore to conceal gold and silver coins which they planned to use to start their lives in America. Many of the immigrants couldn’t swim and, in the darkness and confusion, hundreds drowned. The captain and his family were lost as were other families who, clinging together, plunged into the lake and in seconds were lost forever.
When word of the disaster reached Cleveland, many residents boarded vessels or traveled overland to aid the survivors. Among the volunteers arriving on a harbor tug was Pig Iron Miller who immediately undertook the nauseating task of recovering bodies from the lake bottom. For the next three days, he labored raising boatload after boatload of lifeless forms. Later, when asked by a reporter with the Cleveland Herald (January 29, 1883) to describe the scene beneath the surface, he replied, “Now and then I would find as many as six or seven ladies all clinging together. Some of the dead wore a peaceful look, while others had an expression as if the spirit had quit its tenement of clay only after an awful struggle.”
The bodies were so numerous that it was decided by the rescuers to bury the dead on the beach, not far from the charred remains of the steamer. A common grave, 30 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 8 feet deep was dug for this purpose. The human remains rested, unmolested under the sand until May 1860, when erosive waves exposed some of them. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (May 29, 1860) reported, “…the water of the lake washed away the earth from some of the graves … and human hyenas broke open the boxes, scattering the remains around the beach, in search of some valuables that might be found.”
Pig Iron’s Civil War service
When the Civil War erupted, Pig Iron was quick to volunteer for the U.S. Navy. He served as a seaman onboard the 20-gun, screw-steamer driven frigate, USS Niagara. For several months, the Niagara pursued one of the most elusive and deadly Confederate blockade runners on the ocean — the CSS Alabama.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the USS Niagara was dispatched to Charleston, South Carolina, where she captured the blockade runner CSS General Parkhill in May 1861 while attempting to make Charleston from Liverpool. Through the summer, she gave similar service at Mobile Bay. In the fall, she engaged Confederate defenses along the Florida coast, being holed twice above the waterline. In June 1862, she sailed to the Boston Navy Yard for repairs and was back in service by October 1863. The Niagara steamed from New York in 1864 to spy on Confederate warships then being fitted out in Europe. She roved the English Channel, the French Atlantic Coast, and the Bay of Biscay in search of blockade runners. In August, she took the steamer Georgia, a former Confederate warship, off Portugal. In February and March, with USS Sacramento, she lay at FerroI, Spain, to prevent the Confederate ironclad Stonewall from departing, but the much more powerful Southern ship was able to make good her escape.
The CSS Alabama was a screw sloop-of-war built in 1862 for the Confederate Navy at Birkenhead, England, by Laird Company. She served as a successful commerce raider, attacking Union merchant and naval ships over the course of her two-year career, during which she never anchored in a Southern port. The Alabama wreaked havoc on Union shipping. In 1862, the Alabama sank, burned, or ransomed 26 ships, 37 in 1863, and three more in 1864, with a total assessed value of $5,176,164. Although the Niagara never caught up with her, the Alabama was sunk in June 1864 by the USS Kearsarge outside the port of Cherbourg, France.
Pig Iron’s Legitimate (?) Career in Maritime Salvage
When the war was over, John again returned to Cleveland, which, by 1865, was experiencing rapid industrial growth which spurred a lively maritime industry. Pig Iron’s underwater talent was constantly in demand. Living at the rear of 23 Division Street, he was readily available to handle emergencies. By removing entangled towlines from propellers, he saved many vessels the added expense of dry docking. When the harbor tug Ida I. Simms abruptly sank at her dock, Pig Iron burrowed in the mud and forced chains under her hull so she could be raised.
When valuables were lost overboard, the cost of Pig Iron’s services fluctuated according to three criteria: (1) the value of the lost article, (2) the ability of the owner to pay, or (3) his own personal whim. The Cleveland Herald (July 10, 1876) gave an account of one occasion when a man lost his watch in the river and offered Pig Iron $10 to recover it. Under the impression that the watch was quite ordinary, Pig Iron agreed. He submerged and quickly located the watch. Noting that the timepiece was much more expensive than he had been led to believe, Pig Iron was slightly irate, feeling he deserved a larger reward. Before surfacing, he hung the watch on a spike protruding from a piling several feet below the surface. Later that evening, his buddies along the waterfront admired John’s newly acquired, still damp timepiece.
The U.S. Government was not guaranteed any special favors. On June 23, 1876, a lantern was lost overboard from the steamer USS Michigan of Civil War/Johnson Island fame. Pig Iron recovered the light, but refused to relinquish it to the officer in command because his salvage fee was refused. The Michigan steamed out of Cleveland Harbor missing a light. However, now and then Pig Iron’s generous nature surfaced. While on board the excursion steamer Northwest, anchored at Put-in-Bay, John refused payment for rescuing a woman’s pocketbook that had fallen overboard.
Pig Iron The Showman
John’s recovery operations were often enlivened by his natural showmanship, which included horseplay. One of his favorite tricks was to submerge in the middle of the river, swim underwater to a pier, and surface unnoticed. He would wait until his audience became uneasy and frightened for his safety. Then he would swim back along the bottom and resurface, much to the crowd’s relief. His egotism did not quell at outrageous dares. Once on a tug anchored near the waterworks crib, a friend lost a $40 wager when Pig Iron accepted his dare to dive 56 feet to the bottom of the lake.
Pig Iron’s stunts were both clever and irritating. In the summer of 1867, while looking for a ride home from Detroit, he asked Captain Viger of the passenger steamer Morning Star for a free ride. When he was flatly refused, Pig Iron boasted that the Morning Star was so slow that he would be on the pier in Cleveland to greet the captain when he arrived. Pig Iron secretly stole on board and stayed hidden until the steamer was about a quarter mile from Cleveland Harbor. He sprang from his hiding place and leaped into the water. Immediately the cry went out, “man overboard.” Captain Viger was compelled to stop his vessel and dispatch a skiff to recover the man. As soon as the small boat started toward him, Pig Iron rapidly stroked for the shore. When the Morning Star finally docked, John was the first in line to greet the disgruntled captain.
Pig Iron’s penchant for jumping overboard was not limited to this single incident. In July 1876, merely on a whim, he leapt overboard from the steamer General Sherman while three miles from shore en route to the Bass Islands. John purposely avoided rescue attempts, basking in the attention he was receiving. Exasperated, the captain ordered the steamer underway, leaving Pig Iron to his watery fate. Believing John would surely drown, the captain relayed this information to a tug headed for Cleveland to be on the lookout for his body. Upon the tug’s arrival in Cleveland, the rumor of Pig Iron’s demise rapidly spread throughout the waterfront. Saddened disbelief gripped the community until shortly before midnight when Pig Iron was joyfully spotted sauntering over the Main Street Bridge.
Pig Iron’s most audacious stunt came on the day that world-renowned swimmer, Paul Boyton, stopped in Cleveland to give an exhibition of his swimming and diving expertise. Boyton had developed a rubberized suit, which increased endurance in the water. Donning his invention, he stunned the world in May 1875 by swimming the English Channel in 24 hours. Boyton was the recipient of 42 lifesaving medals from various European countries and while employed by the U.S. Lifesaving Service, he had rescued 72 people from drowning along the Atlantic coast.
On the day of the exhibition, Pig Iron finagled a ride aboard the excursion steamer carrying Boyton out into the lake. When heavy seas impeded Boyton’s success, Pig Iron sprang into action and stole the show. He gave a startling diving exhibition, leaping from the top of the steamer’s wheel- house, gracefully plunging into the lake, swimming under the vessel, and surfacing on the opposite side. Climbing back on board, again he leaped into the whitecaps, disappearing below the surface for a few minutes until his well wishers feared he had downed. Upon his reappearance, the spectators cheered wildly.
The last publicized account of his attention-getting behavior was in August 1882. Pig Iron dove overboard from the excursion steamer Gazelle about one mile off Fairport. Within minutes, the Fairport lifesaving crew were on their way to his rescue, only to be informed when they reached him that he was merely taking a leisurely swim.
Pig Iron the Life Saver
Pig Iron’s aquatic skills were often used to save lives. Risking his own life to save others compensated for most of his faults and brought him the respect of the community. He did not hesitate to volunteer even for the most perilous missions.
In a fierce gale on July 15, 1855, the small scow schooner Louise, of Detroit, capsized about two miles north of the Cleveland breakwater. The entire crew, along with her deck load of lumber, was tossed into the enormous breakers. With the exception of the ship’s cook Jane Brown, who refused to let go of the entangled rigging, the crew was able to struggle safely ashore by hanging onto floating pieces of wood.
When news of the tragedy and the imminent peril of the final crewmember reached Cleveland, Pig Iron, with the help of a friend named Stockley, boarded the old harbor tug Peter Smith and hastened to the scow. With one rope secured around his waist and another in his hand, Pig Iron dove into the water leaving Stockley dangerously perched on the tug’s bow feeding out the line. After securing the line to the Louise, the tug pulled her into calmer water and Pig Iron rescued Jane.
On November 16, 1875, Pig Iron recorded his seventh rescue when he rushed to the aid of a small girl who had accidently fallen into the Cuyahoga River from the Central Way Bridge. When he reached her, about four minutes after the fall, she was unconscious. It was only through his quick actions that the girl survived. When questioned later by a Cleveland Herald reporter about his rapid first aid technique, Pig Iron replied, “We generally roll them over a barrel to revive them. If life is not extinct, the water will flow from their mouths, and they will utter a low cry of distress.”
At 5:30 in the afternoon of July 12, 1881, a small boy ran up to Officer England, a Cleveland patrolman, and breathlessly exclaimed there was a man drowning in the lake. England quickly summoned Pig Iron and they both dashed to the lakefront where they spied the victim struggling in high waves about a quarter mile off Whiskey Island. A strong southwest wind prevented the man from making much progress toward the shore.
Without hesitation, Pig Iron shed his clothes and plunged into the water. When John reached the man, he was clinging to a log, totally exhausted and ready to slide under the waves. With a surge of his awesome strength, Pig Iron grabbed the victim and with superhuman endurance, dragged him safely to shore. The rescued man was a tailor named Mike Trieskey who boarded at No. 61 Michigan Street. He had been taking a leisurely swim, but ventured out too far. Trieskey was convinced that he would have drowned if Pig Iron had not impulsively come to his aid. Pig Iron was offered a reward, which he modestly refused. Even though he was constantly penniless, he never accepted a monetary reward for saving a life. This was his sixteenth successful rescue.
A Gold Medal for Pig Iron
Pig Iron’s many heroic acts had not passed unnoticed over the years. In 1881, the community wished to give him a memento commemorating his courageous exploits. Newspapers reflected this public sentiment and augmented his reputation by printing numerous accounts of his past public service. The clamoring for a “special medal” was deafening and the only questions to be resolved were how to pay for it and who would present it. The newspaper continued the pressure in July 1881 with the Cleveland Herald stating, “Pig Iron Miller bids fair to have a medal…“ and “There have been numberless gold medals presented to different persons who have ventured their lives to rescue others, but who has offered Pig Iron Miller one?” and finally, “…he deserves a suitable medal and the citizens of Cleveland owe it to themselves to present him one.”
The questions of payment and presentation of a gold medal were finally settled at a July 21, 1881, meeting of the Cleveland Board of Trade. After President Daniel Martin called the meeting to order, George W. Gardner, a member of the Committee of Arbitration and boyhood friend of John Millard, presented a resolution calling for the formation of a committee to obtain a medal. A lively debate ensued in which it was pointed out that there was nothing in the by-laws that permitted such action and that it was the United States government’s responsibility to distribute lifesaving medals. Several members jumped into the fray and after everyone was heard, a new motion was put forth calling for suspension of the by-laws and adoption of Gardner’s resolution. The motion passed unanimously:
Whereas brave, heroic acts on the part of man toward his fellow man should in every individual instance command not only the admiration of all good citizens but a proper recognition should be rendered, that each act should be commended as they are appreciated, especially where life is saved at the risk of losing a generous life and,
Whereas we have among us one who has in several instances saved the lives of those who are in imminent danger of drowning-notably one of a recent date-and at the risk of losing his own and whereas it is eminently pertinent that the Board of Trade should recognize the value of life to those vocations is such whether on land or water, that their lives are constantly imperiled as well as generous and brave deeds of those who by personal effort save such lives and,
Whereas John Miller, by his recent noble act in saving the life of Michael Triesky (who was entirely helpless in the lake and some distance from land) by swimming out to him and bringing him safely ashore and who has by his personal exertion even at great danger to his own, saved the lives of several others is entitled to the gratitude and commendation of our entire community and,
Whereas the Board of Trade is desirous of giving a practical expression of its appreciation of these heroic deeds on the part of John Miller,
Therefore be it resolved, that a committee, consisting of three members of the Board of which the President shall be chairman and two others be named by the President be appointed and authorized to produce a suitable gold medal, said medal to be properly inscribed and at a future date to be publicly presented in the Board of Trade rooms by the President to John Miller.
Pig Iron modestly accepted his medal on August 9, 1881, at the well-attended noon meeting of the Cleveland Board of Trade. President Martin gave an eloquent speech reflecting the community’s appreciation of this man of valor:
Mr. Miller, the pleasing duty devolves upon me-than which no more grateful task than I ever had the pleasure of performing-of presenting to you on behalf of the members of the Cleveland Board of Trade this medal as a slight token of their appreciation of your heroic conduct in saving life from drowning on many occasions in the past. Within the last month you have added to your laurels, in one instance, with courage and endurance rarely equaled, perhaps never surpassed.
At imminent peril to your own life, you fearlessly plunged into the angry billows and swam out a distance of over a quarter of a mile into Lake Erie off Cleveland, and gallantly brought to shore an unfortunate person, who, but for your timely assistance would in a few minutes more have found a watery grave.
Again, within a few days, at Vermilion, Ohio, you plunged into the river and brought from the bottom a man much larger and heavier than yourself, the marks of whose death grip you still bear upon your person.
The soldier upon the ensanguined field, who prompted perhaps mainly by ambition, performs an act of signal bravery, receives plaudits of an admiring world and deserves promotion in his profession. How much more worthy of admiration is he who, like yourself, without thought of glory or hope of reward, animated only by the noblest of impulses, freely risks his life in response to the cry of distress?
To you the proud consciousness of having by your heroism, brought happiness to so many homes, which but for you would have been shrouded in gloom, and thought of the many hearts that beat with gratitude to you, must be your greatest reward.
In presenting this testimonial of our admiration and esteem, we feel the acts that have called it forth are such as to entitle you to wear it with greater pride than many who proudly bear upon their breasts the insignia of royal favor, and we hope that it may stimulate others to emulate your deeds of daring in the same noble cause.
The ceremony concluded with Pig Iron giving a short summary of his life. He followed with the hope that upon his death, his medal would be awarded to another deserving person. In the months that followed, Pig Iron not only wore the medal with pride, but he thrust it into the hand of eager admirers to examine more closely.
The medal was a masterpiece, fifty dollars worth of pure gold, designed and engraved by P. L. Miles of Euclid Avenue. At the bottom of the medal and to one side was a schooner under full sail with two people struggling in the water. On the side, was a man diving to their rescue. Above this scene was a large circle containing the inscription: Presented by the Cleveland Board of Trade for Heroic Action in Saving Lives. Finally at the top, following the curve of the circle, was the name — John Miller.
Pig Iron the Swindler and Boozer
Personal friendships were often strained by Pig Iron’s facetious swindles. Frequently, he circulated fundraising petitions to equip himself with a set of false teeth or an armored diving suit. His cohorts repeatedly filled his pockets with their hard-earned money only to realize, from a toothless grin exuding an aroma of “spirits” that he had squandered it on whiskey.
Once he staggered into shipbuilder Alva Bradley’s office with tears in his eyes mourning for his wife who had passed away the night before. Pig Iron proceeded to solicit funds for a decent burial. Although cognizant of Pig Iron’s previous conniving, Bradley discarded his reservations of the pitiful narrative and gave a five-dollar donation. As soon as Pig Iron departed, Bradley sent out a message to the floating prayer-meeting vessel docked at the foot of St. Clair Street, requesting the one-armed Rev. John D. Jones to hasten to Pig Iron’s house and make the necessary funeral arrangements. No less than 15 minutes later, the grinning Reverend poked his head into Bradley’s office, snickering that he had just encountered Pig Iron’s wife and “…she’s the liveliest corpse you have ever saw and was walking down Division Street with a swinging gait as if she was hunting somebody.”
In 1877, realizing that whiskey was ruining his life, Pig Iron began attending temperance meetings at the People’s Tabernacle located on the southwest corner of Ontario and St. Clair. There he would proclaim the evils of drink, urging everyone to take the pledge. At one meeting, following a successful lifesaving endeavor, he stood up and said, “If I hadn’t been sober today, I could not have saved a precious life. God forgive me if I ever touch another drop.”
Unfortunately, Pig Iron succumbed to temptation after he received his award. His nonchalant exhibition of his medal led to a disheartening incident the following year. While drinking with a visitor at the William Tell House, Pig Iron, in his offhanded manner, gave the medal to Leonidas Custer to examine more closely. Custer skipped town with the medal. Detective John Reeves tracked down the scoundrel and apprehended him a week later in Toledo while Custer was attempting to sell the medal. Happily, it was returned to Pig Iron, but by 1885 he was again fighting his final battle with whiskey.
The Final Chapter
Pig Iron remained active in his aquatic pursuits until late in the fall of 1885 when he caught a chill while rescuing a man who had fallen off the Main Street Bridge. He couldn’t shake a severe cold that forced him to give up his diving livelihood. Destitute and bedridden for the last four months of his life, only the charity of friends supported him and his wife. It was common knowledge around the docks that Mayor George W. Gardner was the staunchest and most loyal contributor.
Only 55 years old, John Millard died at one o’clock on the morning of November 22, 1886. The official death record states that he succumbed to a kidney disorder known as Bright’s Disease. Earlier, Cleveland funeral directors Hogan & Harris had assured John that, “…if you haven’t money, we will bury you ourselves.” They kept their promise on November 24, 1886, by underwriting the cost of the funeral at St. Malachi Church and burial in St. John Cemetery. Pig Iron was laid to rest under the name “John Millard.”
Certainly, Pig Iron was controversial. Indeed, he was a criminal, swindler, and drunk, but he was much more — a respected, courageous, and selfless public servant who during his lifetime rescued 36 people from death in the water and recovered 283 victims of drowning. And he did all this with the style and grace of a master showman.
About the Authors:
Gerald C. Metzler
Jerry has been compiling data on early Great Lakes vessels of the 1800s for more than 50 years from original source documents. In addition to his out- standing historical database, he was a pioneer shipwreck diver and still assists with vessel identifications. Jerry has many early and fascinating stories of the Great Lakes in his collections. Jerry learned his skills and acquired his passion for Great Lakes history from his mentor the late Dr. Richard Wright. He is currently a maritime consultant, living in Avon, Lorain County, Ohio.
Charles E. Herdendorf
Eddie is a longtime member of the Great Lakes Historical Society and former member of the Board of Directors. He is professor emeritus of Geological Sciences at The Ohio State University and director emeritus of the Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Dr. Herdendorf has spent more than 50 years conducting research on the Great Lakes and teaching courses in aquatic ecology, oceanography, and shipwreck archaeology. He is currently president of the Sheffield Village Historical Society in Lorain County, Ohio.