A Brief Notice of the Sail Vessels and Steamboats that navigated Lake Erie more than fifty years ago.
Francis A. Dewey, Cambridge, Michigan, January, 1881. (Report of the Pioneer Society of Michigan Vol. IV, published 1883 Pgs. 79, 80 and 81)
My father owned and kept the tavern called the "Canal Coffee House," situated near the harbor in the village of Buffalo, N. Y., for several years previous to the autumn of 1829. He sold out in 1829, and joined the emigrants then moving to the distant west, Michigan. The writer of this sketch, who at that time was eighteen years of age, has a vivid recollection of many scenes and incidents that occurred during the few years of his residence in what was then a small village, but now the large city of Buffalo. One of the pleasant pastimes of my leisure hours was to watch and notice the staunch and trim built schooners as they departed from, or entered the harbor of Buffalo.
My father was the owner of a coasting vessel named the "Niagara". I took much pride in being one of the number to assist in navigating this craft over the well remembered and oftentimes stormy Lake Erie, where many pleasant days and weeks were passed with wholesale winds, wet decks, and cheerful sailors.
It was my good fortune to know a large number of the sail vessels and steamboats, and their captains, that sailed Lake Erie between the years 1820 and 1829. It is a pleasure to me now, after a term of more than fifty-one years has passed away, to bring the cheering memories of the lake vessels to view; for by their aid, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin received many of their early settlers. The first sail vessel that navigated the lakes was the Griffin. She was built on the Niagara River, in 1679, by La Salle, a Roman Catholic missionary. The Griffin was sixty tons burden, and on the 7th of August, 1679, she started out on her first voyage for the north-west. She arrived at Detroit on the 11th of August, 1679, and passed on for Mackinac, where she arrived in good order. La Salle left Mackinac in the Griffin on the 2d of September, 1679, for Green Bay. He there loaded the vessel with a valuable cargo of furs and dispatched her eastward. On her way east she touched at Mackinac, and that was the last ever known of her. She was lost, and this may he regarded as the first marine disaster upon the lakes. The first steamboat that navigated the lakes was the Walk-in-the-water. She was built at Black Rock in the year 1818, and arrived at Detroit on her first trip, on the 27th day of August, 1818. Captain Job Fish was the commander. Her speed was about eight miles an hour in fair weather. For about three years she made successful voyages from Buffalo to Detroit and back. Mr. Slocum, who was one of the officers of the boat, told me that on the last trip of the Walk-in-the-water, on a dark night, with a terrible gale of wind, the boat came to an anchor at Pointe Abino, twelve miles from Buffalo; there was a heavy swell, the rudder struck a rock and was unshipped. The captain, having no wish to lose his vessel on Canada rocks, ordered all steam up, the cable was slipped, and with two long hawsers run out aft on the starboard and larboard quarters, to aid in steering, made headway for the sandy shore of Buffalo Bay, where this wonder of the lakes was successfully beached; a sailor took a line ashore and made it fast to a tree. No lives were lost. This was the last of the Walk-in-the- water.
The second steamer on the lakes was the Superior, of 400 tons burden, launched at Buffalo, in the year 1822. Captain Rogers was master. Afterwards Captain Sherman had charge. In 1823 the Chippeway, of sixty tons, was built, Captain Armstrong in charge. This boat was unfit for rough weather. In the year 1826-27 the Niagara, of 250 ton5, Captain William S. Pease, and the Henry Clay, of 300 tons, Captain Norton, were built at Black Rock; the Enterprise, of 300 tons, built at Cleveland, Captain Wilkinson; the Pioneer, of 100 tons, Captain Miles, built at Buffalo; the William Penn, of 300 tons, built at Erie, Captain Wilkins; the William Peacock, of 200 tons, Captain Hanson, built at Barcelona in 1828. They were all side-wheel steamers, steering with a wheel at the stern of the boat.
There were eight steamboats for freight and passengers on Lake Erie before the year 1829. The above mentioned boats had no cabins or state-rooms on deck. They usually carried twenty to thirty cords of wood for fuel. All but one sailed from Buffalo, stopping at every port, weather permitting, until they reached Detroit. The first steamer with state-rooms or cabins on deck was built by Oliver Newberry, at Detroit, in 1833. She was called the Michigan, of 475 tons burden. Captain Chesley Blake was in command.
The first propeller to arrive at Detroit was the Vandalia, of 138 tons. She arrived in the year 1843.
The first ship on the lakes was the Julia Palmer, of 300 tons, Captain Robert Wagstaff. She was built at Buffalo in 1836.
In continuation I will name some of the vessels that were in commission on the lakes between the years 1820 and 1829. The three largest were the Erie, the brigs Union and Michigan. They rated less than 100 tons each. In 1827 the Michigan was sent over the Niagara Falls with a collection of animals on board, in view of 5,000 spectators. There was the Canadian brig Wellington of Moy, the Commerce, Constitution, Red Jacket, Nucleus, Austerlitz, United States, Bolivar, Amaranth, William Tell, Marengo, Louisa Jenkins, Andrew, Governor Cass. The Good Intent was wrecked twice and the crew drowned. The Lady-of-the-Lakes, of 75 tons, Captain Tim.Walker, was a clipper-built, top- sail schooner. Every part of this vessel was in the best of order. The Captain was a gentleman sailor, who took as much pride in navigating Lakes Huron and Michigan, with the imperfect charts, as any other seaman. His system of management was very complete.
I will not omit to mention a trim built vessel with black hull, painted ports, long raking masts and black yards. Her cabin was ornamented and decorated on all sides with cutlasses and swords, and around her masts were boarding pikes. On her main deck was the monitor gun, on the quarter deck was the swivel gull, mounted for use. The complement of men in uniform was sixteen. This was the successful United States Revenue Cutter "Alexander J. Dallas." She was built at Erie, Pennsylvania, in the year 1816, and was commanded by Captain Keith. The writer hereof, as ex-midshipman, had charge of this gallant monitor of the lakes for the term of five months, when she was laid up in winter quarters in Buffalo harbor.
I will now mention some of the dauntless and heroic captains who navigated the lakes fifty years ago, omitting those whom I have already named: Captain John Fellows, Captain Rogers, Simeon Fox, Captain Jordan, Seymour Whitaker, Captain Burnham, West, Whitaker, Captain Miller, Harry Whitaker, Captain Wells, John Fleeharty, Captain Reed. Gilman Apleby, C. C. Burnet, Samuel Chase, Morris Hevyard, Augustus McKinstry, Captain Napier, Zephaniah Perkins, Judah Ransom, J. W. Webster and C. C. Stannard. The above named gentlemen were of a class of men, for intelligence, integrity, faithfulness and nautical skill, fully the peers of those who have paced the quarter deck in the last thirty years.
In the autumn of 1826, in one of the occasional gales of Lake Erie, a Canadian schooner, named the Dauntless, of Walpole, ran into Buffalo harbor for safety. The marshal of the district was notified to arrest the Captain for some misdemeanour. He went on board the vessel to take the captain into custody. The skipper said he had some orders to give to his men before he left. He went up the rigging to the masthead; he then gave orders to his men, and the close reefed jib and the double reefed foresail were hoisted in sailor style, the lines were cast off right in the teeth of that fiercely blowing gale of forty miles an hour. The vessel gracefully careened on her side and headed for the lake. The marshal not being a sailor, it was afterward told that he gladly gave twenty-five dollars to be landed on the breakwater of the harbor. The captain held his course for the British possessions.
It would not be just, in this brief sketch, to omit one of Michigan's own pioneers from the catalogue of sailors, one who rendered valuable services to the army in the war of 1812, in furnishing supplies with his boats, especially to Commodore Perry's fleet both before and after the naval victory on Lake Erie. It is a pleasure to me to record the name of our esteemed friend and historic pioneer of Monroe county, the dauntless Captain Luther Harvey, who in 1824 sailed the 'Fire Fly', and often made the trip to the then almost unknown harbours of Lakes Huron and Michigan in safety. With his skill and care all seemed to be safe on his ship. For nearly thirty years he was a captain on the lakes, and with his management in the most fearful gales seldom did an accident or loss occur. The last harbor of that patriot and noble-souled pioneer was at Monroe, Michigan. There, at his quiet and memorable residence, at the age of eighty-six years, he laid down to sleep his last, long sleep, and then and there was entombed, a pioneer of the lakes and Monroe, the esteemed citizen, the cordial and genial friend of the writer.