The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Ernest H. Rankin
Over the years, shipwrecks on Lake Superior have been a favorite topic for many writers. During the early days of navigation on this Lake, starting in the 1840s, the vessels were comparatively small — many of them lacking the staunchness required to withstand the storms of the Lake — and wrecks were frequent. It is unfortunate that photography, as a universal art, hadn’t yet been developed.
While the artists and draftsmen have left sketches, paintings and drawings of some of the ships of this period, they are all too few and lack the details that would be provided by photographs. Of immediate regret is the lack of a picture of the Independence, the first propeller to churn its way over the waters of Lake Superior.
From what is known about the Independence, it was 119 feet long, her beam 26 feet, draft 9 feet 7 inches, and it was of 262 tons burden, This would indicate that it might have been somewhat “tubby,” lacking the graceful lines of many of the steamers built in the second half of the nineteenth century. One authority on early Great Lakes shipping advises that the Independence, during its short career, was frequently in trouble, going ashore on several occasions. It was built at Chicago during the Winter of 1844/45 and taken over the portage at Sault Ste. Marie during the Summer of 1845. It has the distinction of being the first propeller to be built on Lake Michigan as well as the first American steamer to sail upon the waters of Lake Superior. Undoubtedly, during the few years that it was engaged in trade, it carried its full share of cargo between the Sault and the few Lake Superior ports which were then in existence.
In those days most merchandise was shipped westward in barrels — salt pork, beef, beans, flour, clothing, boots — the simple staples and requirements of life for the miners. In addition there would be a deck load of hay, and food for the mules and oxen at the mines, as mining took preference over farming and few crops were grown. The overflow of passengers — those who were unable to obtain berths — had to make themselves as comfortable as they were able, on the crowded deck along with the hay, pigs and cattle en route to the mining locations. Life aboard ship was much easier on the return trip to the Sault, for the cargo consisted almost entirely of heavy barrels of copper, some fish and bundles of furs, and there was plenty of room for the few passengers who chose to return to their eastern homes. It was a tremendous task to transfer a vessel from Lake Huron over the mile-long portage to Lake Superior, with a difference in level of approximately 20 feet between the two Lakes. It was necessary to build a large cradle to hold the ship upright and it required six weeks or more, working from dawn to dusk, to move the bulky mass, inch by inch, on rollers over the planked roadway, from Lake to Lake. Over the years, and before the first ship canal at the Sault was opened for traffic during June, 1855, quite a few vessels — both sail and steam — were transferred across the Portage. The steamer, Sam Ward, was the last to make the “land-sailing,” this being accomplished in the Summer of 1853, the first season of canal digging, the human moles excavating immediately in its wake as it was slowly moved towards Lake Superior.
Of particular interest to this writer is the wreck of the Independence.
It went to its watery grave early in the morning of November 22, 1853, about a mile or so above the rapids in St, Marys River at the Sault, this town being at the east end of Lake Superior. This interest is not because of a bent for writing on shipwrecks, but, had things been otherwise, the writer might not have been around to relate the story as contained in newspaper and family records. Without any question the best narrator of almost any disaster is either a survivor or an eyewitness. The survivor is right there on the spot and possibly went swirling away on a piece of wreckage to be tossed on a rocky shore.
Among the several survivors of the Independence was the ship’s clerk, or supercargo, Jonas W. Watson, who lived to tell the tale, and in due course became the maternal grandfather of the writer. Had the calamity occurred several weeks earlier, the full story of this event would have been carried in the Lake Superior Journal which was then being published at the Sault. However, as was the custom of the era, the Journal had locked up its office and Editor J. Venen Brown had gone “below” for the Winter. Therefore we must be content with Grandfather Watson’s account handed down through his son, Edward, and written by him some years after the wreck occurred. At the time of the wreck Edward M. Watson was 13 years old, having been born at Cleveland on September 28, 1840.
Jonas W. Watson was born in Queens County, Ireland, on June 8, 1815. He became a sailor when a lad and sailed to Canada in 1832, landing in Cleveland, Ohio, about 1840, bringing along with him a Canadian born wife. The Annals of Cleveland disclose, under date of October 25, 1848, the following:
Watson is a living witness of what industry, economy and integrity will do. A few years ago he had a basket on his arm, selling apples in this city. He rented a 3 by 5 room, got a few traps and commenced business — put up an elegant building, and we hope his customers may be legion — his pockets full — Watson deserves success. He has earned it. ‘What cannot a man accomplish, if he will but try! ‘
Another brief paragraph appears under date of April 30, 1850:
W. Watson is a man of enterprise. He once bought candy by the pound and sold it by the stick. But by industry and economy, he is now enabled to manufacture it on a scale sufficiently large to supply the whole western country.
It is not a matter of immediate record as to why or when Watson assumed residence at the Sault; however, it was shortly after 1850. At this time the fame of the great mineral wealth of the Lake Superior country was spreading like wildfire to the lower lake ports and the eastern cities. New avenues to fortune were being opened for the aggressive, and like many others, Watson undoubtedly visioned a bright future for himself and his growing family in this new land of promise.
The story of the wreck of the Independence comes to us from two sources: first, that of Jonas Watson, a victim, which was related to the editor of the Journal some five years after the occurrence, and the second, written by the son, Edward Watson, some years later. In general their stories coincide to a considerable extent; however, over the years, their narratives were unquestionably enhanced through many tellings — which is ever an attribute of family folklore.
Editor Warren Isham wrote Watson’s story as follows:
. . . the Independence had just left the Sault, bound up, and had proceeded two miles on her course, when she was instantly blown to pieces, and went down, with a portion of those on board, while of the remainder, some clung to a portion of the wreck, and others were blown high in the air, and fell into the water. Of the latter, Mr. Watson . . . was one. He does not know how high he was blown, but Capt. [John] McKay, who was standing on a portion of the deck which was not blown away, and who was saved, told him that he saw him go up, amid the light and glare which flashed upon the darkness, to the height of two or three hundred feet. That he must have gone very high would seem to be manifest from the fact that he fell into the water some eight or ten rods from the wreck.
If Captain McKay’s statement can be accepted as to the height to which Mr. Watson was blown when the boiler exploded, he can well qualify as being Lake Superior’s first astronaut! Mr. Watson’s cabin was directly over the boiler and he was asleep in his bunk at the time of the explosion. Unlike the present-day astronauts, who ride aloft in comparative safety, encased in a capsule, Watson’s vehicle was a mattress.
The newspaper account goes to say,
It is wonderful that his breath was not beaten out of his body in the fall, if he was not otherwise injured. And it is equally wonderful that he should have survived in the water for a full half hour before assistance came to his relief, as he lay perfectly passive, and simply floated, having a sort of confused impression that all his limbs were broken. Upon waking to consciousness, he found himself in contact with a bundle of compressed hay, and with it was floating fast towards the rapids (in passing which he would have met inevitable death) when he was picked up and saved. He was badly chilled, but was readily restored, and, strange to say, was able to walk about the next morning. He remembered being rolled upon the bottom, after his fearful descent, the water being about eighteen feet deep. . . .
Seven persons were lost, all of them going down the rapids, the remains of some of them being afterwards picked up forty or fifty miles below. . . .
Records disclose that there were only six passengers aboard on the night the Independence’s boiler exploded. During the summer months, and especially in the spring, the few vessels which were then engaged in trade on Lake Superior were invariably overcrowded with passengers anxious to get to the mines, sleeping in every available nook both below and on the decks. Had this event occurred several months earlier in the season the loss of life might have been considerable. While the records do not disclose the exact cause of the boiler failure, a satisfactory explanation can be assumed. The Independence had backed away from her dock at midnight on November 21, getting well out into the Lake before turning. In reversing the single cylinder engine it had stuck on dead center, using no steam from the boiler. Meanwhile, down in the boiler room, the firemen were heaping vast quantities of wood into the firebox under the boiler to provide a full head of steam so that the ship might proceed rapidly up the Lake. These two factors — too much steam and no outlet for the pressure —probably caused the boiler to explode.
The story, as told by the late Edward M. Watson of Marquette, adds some interesting side lights:
Father finding the store business too small to support his family, went sailing on a Lake Superior steamboat as supercargo or clerk, his first boat being the Napoleon. He was afterwards on the Independence and the Peninsular. He was on the Independence when she exploded. The explosion blew the whole stern of the boat into splinters and the boat sank immediately, but the mattress under Father protected him and when he recovered consciousness, he was lying on the bottom of the river, twenty-five feet from the surface. He could feel the gravel with his hands and began to struggle and swim and soon found himself on the surface, which was covered by splinters. He was quite a time finding anything large enough to support him, He finally ran across a bale of hay and was trying to get a position on it that wouldn’t roll him off when he was seen by Mr. Houston, the 2nd engineer, who was floating on a piece of upper deck. He called out to him and persuaded him to abandon the hay and swim to his raft.
They were picked up by the boats of the steamer Baltimore just above the rapids and had a second narrow escape from death. It was late in November, the weather being extremely cold, the ground covered with snow and with only his nightshirt on, Father must have had a cold time of it. They gave him a hot drink and put him to bed on the Baltimore and he came home to us next day. Houston had a most remarkable experience, he was down in the hold trying to pry the engine off the center when the explosion took place and declared that he swam out through the side of the boat or where the side of the boat ought to have been.
He was steamed to such an extent that his entire skin came off and I put in many an hour that following winter greasing his body and covering it with cotton batting and oil to take the place of his old hide until he could grow a new one.
Father kept him that winter, in gratitude for his assistance in rescuing him. . . .
This was the epoch of homemade remedies, relied upon to cure most anything. The doctors of this era didn’t have recourse to the wonder drugs or the antibiotics of today and nothing was sterile. one can well wonder as to the grease and oil used, which 13-year-old Edward applied to the body of the scalded engineer. Was it bear fat or goose grease, or the sperm whale oil which was used in the lamps? Or it could very well have been engine grease and oil such as was used for the steamboat engines! And one could also wonder as to the cotton batting — possibly from the stuffing of a quilt or pillow. Houston really must have had a tough “old hide” to recover from the treatment!
In 1855 Jonas Watson, with his family, removed from the Sault to Marquette. Here he engaged in the mercantile business, the son, Edward, taking over the business upon his father’s death in 1875.
About the Author: Mr. Ernest H. Rankin, Executive Secretary of the Marquette County Historical Society, is a former Clevelander and was a Charter Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society when it was founded in 1944. Now residing in Marquette, Michigan, he has written many articles for INLAND SEAS and for his local papers on subjects relating to Great Lakes history.
Mr. Rankin is also the Editor of Harlow’s Wooden Man, quarterly publication of the Marquette County Historical Society, now in its second year.