The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By William A. McDonald
At the opening of navigation at Detroit in the Spring of 1860, Captain Selah Dustin and his associates, owners of the side-wheel steamboat Dart, were uncertain as to where they would operate their boat. The preceding season had been a poor one and the Dart was deeply in debt.
Early in April, announcement was made that the Dart would go to the Sault (St. Marys) River and engage in towing. Some of the local steamboat operators were of the opinion that the report was intended to divert attention from the real objective. Their hunch was borne out when later in the month the Dart was advertised to leave S. P. Brady’s Dock at Detroit on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for Port Huron and Lexington. Fares to any river port were set at from 5¢ to 50¢ depending on distance and extra accommodations. The owners of the Dart had been eyeing the lucrative business enjoyed exclusively by the steamboat Forester on the river run and decided to cut in.
Now the Forester had a competitor and a war was on. The usual tactics employed in competition soon started. Bumpings and scrapings were almost daily fare, none of the incidents caused much damage and were accepted as part of the opposition game. As the season progressed, the popularity of the Dart began to exasperate the owners of the Forester. Near the end of the season the rivalry culminated in three attacks in one day that indicated the animosity of the opposition, and almost ended disastrously for the Dart (330 tons), a much smaller vessel than the Forester (503 tons), and quite unequal to the mode of warfare.
On December 4, 1860, under the heading “Steamboat War — Serious Consequences,” the Detroit Daily Advertiser reported the events that had occurred on the previous day.
The Dart had left Port Huron on the morning of December 3rd, to cross to Sarnia. Just before reaching the dock she was run into by the Forester, which struck her amidships and broke in the bulwarks. When the steamers left Sarnia, the Forester ran across the bow of the Dart and struck her, tearing away the stem and turning it to one side. The injuries were not severe enough to require stoppage and the Dart kept on course across the river and landed at Vicksburg (now Marysville). While she lay at the dock, the Forester came downstream and aiming directly at the Dart’s stern, ran into her with tremendous force, cutting through the stern and into the hull for a full 16 feet.
The rudder was carried away, the cabins wrecked and her hull cut down to within a foot of the waterline. With a little more headway the Forester’s long bow would have split the Dart in two. The crash was terrific and consternation and fear reigned among the passengers and crew, as they feared the Dart was sinking. Women passengers in the upper cabin fainted. A seaman asleep in the lower cabin was struck by the bow of the Forester and thrown several feet into the cabin. His escape from death was considered almost miraculous. The wheelsman in the pilothouse was severely injured when struck by the steering wheel, which rotated rapidly due to shock communicated through the rudder chains. But for a narrow margin of 18 inches the Dart would have sunk on the spot. The steamer managed to stay afloat and was brought to Detroit the same day, lashed to another vessel. She was through for the season.
The Master of the Forester claimed that the collision was an accident, the engine had gotten on center and was immovable, and that his vessel could not be checked or backed. Captain Dustin of the Dart complained to the U. S. Inspectors at Detroit and demanded an investigation. In his complaint he accused Captain Ward of the Forester with incompetency and recklessness in managing his boat, to the detriment of the river business and endangerment to the lives of passengers and crew of the Dart. The Inspectors suspended Captain Ward’s commission, pending a decision on the charges. It was thought that their action and the results of the investigation to follow would have a salutary effect and that all steamboat officers would be more careful in the future.
During the winter of 1860/61, the Dart was thoroughly repaired and was again in good shape. In March of 1861, her owners announced that the engine shafts and wheelhouse would be lowered and tow posts installed, and that she would engage in towing between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The announced intention so similar to the one made the previous Spring apparently was not accepted by some of her possible competitors. They undertook to put the Dart out of competition entirely.
On April 2, 1861, the Advertiser reported that two attempts had been made in one week to sink the Dart at her dock, at the foot of Woodward Avenue. On Friday of that week, the watchman aboard heard water rushing into the hold and discovered that a plug had been removed.
The mischief was discovered and was remedied in time to prevent her sinking. On Saturday night another attempt was made and the boat was not so fortunate. At daylight on Sunday the hull was found full of water, a plug had again been removed. The Dart had sunk to her guards and she would have gone to the bottom, but the hawsers to the dock held her up. A pumping engine was procured and got her afloat again. The newsman naively goes on to remark that “some evil disposed person must be responsible for removing the plugs for the purpose of sinking the boat. The object to be subverted by such ends is not plain and must have been motivated by malice. There is no clue to the perpetrator.”
The owners of the Dart must have had all they could take and decided to get out of the passenger business. At a stockholders’ meeting in Port Huron on April 23, 1861, it was decided to have “the Dart engage in towing until she pays for the cost of refitting and is out of debt, instead of assessing the stockholders for the amount. No alterations will be made to change her status as a passenger boat.”
The story ends with an item in the marine column of May 29, 1861: The sidewheel steamer Dart passed up on the 28th and presented a decidedly patriotic appearance. The top of the wheelhouses were tastefully painted red, white and blue. The Dart was towing the British schooner Ayr and the American schooner Emeu.
* * *
Both the Dart and Forester were wood hull, side-wheel steamboats with vertical beam engines; both had berths for overnight passengers.
Dart — 330 tons, 160x23x8 — built at Detroit in 1853. Dismantled in 1863 — machinery installed in City of Toledo, built 1865, at Toledo, Ohio.
Forester — 503 tons, 195x26x9 — built at Newport (Marine City) in 1854. Dismantled and made a barge 1867 — machinery installed in Alpena, built 1866, at Marine City, Michigan.
About the Author: John Borman was born and raised on Put-in-Bay and knew Captain Parker all his life. John even helped raise three of Captain Parker’s grandchildren and wrote, “I am very proud of them!” Borman has many fond memories of riding alongside Parker in his wheelhouse.