The year 1841 was made notable by the appearance of the Vandalia, the first propeller on the lakes, and the first screw steamer ever built for business purposes. A Canadian ship owner at Brockville, Ontario, hearing that Ericsson's steamer wheel was on exhibition at the iron works of Hogg & Delameter, in New York, asked an Oswego friend, then visiting in New York, to inspect this model. The Oswego gentleman had no particular knowledge of machinery, and asked Capt. James Van Cleve, of Lewiston, N.Y., a lake navigator, to go with him to see Ericsson's new wheel. Van Cleve examined the model carefully, and, after a two-hours' conversation with the inventor, became a convert to the new method of propulsion. Ericsson offered Van Cleve a half interest in his patent for the northwestern lakes if he, Van Cleve, would place on Lake Ontario, within a year, a steam vessel equipped with the new wheel. Van Cleve assented to this proposition, and a written contract was drawn up on the spot.
This interview took place in December, 1840, and Van Cleve returned to Oswego, where he interested several other gentlemen with him, and in 1841 they built the propeller Vandalia, of 138 tons. She made her first trip in November, 1841, and proved a success in all weathers.
An Appalling Calamity. -- The most appalling calamity occurring during the season of 1841 was the burning of the steamboat Erie on the night of August 9, off Silver Creek, Lake Erie, and in the same waters where the steamer Washington 2nd, had burned in 1838. The Erie had come out in that year, was of 497 tons burden, and was commanded by Capt. T. J. Titus up to the time of her loss. She had been in ordinary at Buffalo for a few days to receive fresh painting, and started out at about four o'clock in the evening for Chicago; although the wind was blowing fresh, everything promised a pleasant and prosperous voyage. When about 33 miles from Buffalo, off Silver Creek, a slight explosion was heard and almost immediately the whole vessel was enveloped in flames. Some cans of turpentine, it was conjectured, had ignited.
Captain Titus, who was in command, rushed from the upper deck to the cabin where the life preservers were kept, but flames hindered his progress, and he quickly gave orders to the engineer to stop the boat.
The passengers, driven by the flames, plunged madly into the water, catching at anything which might lend assistance in floating. Many went down immediately and were seen no more.
The steamer DeWitt Clinton, 20 miles astern, discovered the fire and came up, reaching the Erie at about 10 P. M. She was instrumental in saving many lives, but in spite of all efforts over 100 persons were drowned.
The steamer Lady from Dunkirk and the steamer Chatauque also came up soon after and together they towed the burned hull of the Erie to within four miles of the shore where she sank in eleven fathoms of water.
The loss of property was heavy. She had on board the first large invoice of merchandise of the season, amounting to 30 tons, worth at least $20,000. Immigrants on board had about $180,000 of specie, and the boat cost over $75,000; making in all a loss of nearly $300,000. The Erie was owned by C. M. Reed, of Erie, and was one of the finest steamers afloat on the northern lakes.
The Theft of the Milwaukee. -- During the later thirties the steam- boat Milwaukee came out. She was built mainly for speed, and had a powerful low-pressure engine, the first on the lakes. She was owned jointly by parties in Buffalo and Milwaukee, between whom in course of time arose a fierce legal controversy regarding their several interests. Arriving at the port of Buffalo, this boat was taken up the river as far as possible and laid up in ordinary under the watchful care of a trusty ship keeper. The Milwaukee people kept quiet for a time, in the meantime concocting a scheme by which they expected to surprise their Buffalo friends. They employed Capt. Lester H. Cotton to secure possession of the boat, and he organized a small and trusty crew, which on a summer's night in 1841 got on board the boat, seized the keeper, gagged him and confined him where he could give no alarm, got up steam, cast off the moorings, and quietly passed down the river and out into the lake. Once in the lake, they gave the Milwaukee all the steam she could carry, and away she went, at a speed too great for any other boat on the lakes to overtake her. At Silver Creek pier they released their prisoner, made straight for Put-in-Bay, where they took on plenty of wood for fuel, and passed on rapidly up to Milwaukee, where they ran her hard into the bar inside the mouth of the river. Here she lay for a few years, until purchased by Oliver Newberry, of Detroit, who placed her engine in a new steamboat called the Nile, built by himself, and that was the last of the Milwaukee.
Progress of Settlement. -- In 1841, the country bordering on the lower lakes was already pretty well settled, and works for the improvement or formation of harbors had been commenced at most of the important points on Lakes Erie and Ontario. The upper lake region was but thinly settled, and there were no good harbors on Lake Huron, and but one, the harbor of Chicago, on Lake Michigan. Settlers were, however, pouring in rapidly, and there was even then a large and constantly increasing commerce between the lake ports, especially from Buffalo to Detroit and Chicago. Communication with Lake Superior could only be had by portage around the Sault Ste Marie, but the great mineral wealth of the Lake Superior country was attracting attention, and a survey for a ship canal had been made in 1840.
Loss of the Post Boy. -- The schooner Post Boy with ten persons, including passengers and crew, was lost with all on board, in Lake Michigan, in October, 1841. She had left Chicago, where a keg of powder was shipped, and it is supposed must have exploded. The victims of this disaster were all citizens of Michigan.
Over Niagara Falls. -- Three men in a small boat went over Niagara Falls. The names of two were Jehiel Kenney and John York. They had started to cross over from Schlosser to Hudson's tavern, two miles above Chippewa. Soon after they left, their cries were heard, but they were beyond rescue. The boat was loaded with six barrels of whisky, and being struck by a squall, she sunk. Kinney had kept a tavern eight miles below the Falls.
An Unknown Wreck. -- Capt. Jacob Francisco, of the schooner De Witt Clinton, reported finding the wreck of a vessel 20 miles south of Port Stanley, with both masts gone and the bow sprit badly sprung. Her spars and sails hung over the side, and both davits were gone. An anchor weighing 700 pounds was taken on board the Clinton. The name could not be ascertained, but all hands were, beyond a doubt, lost.
Other Events of 1841. -- In November the steamboat Rochester, when about 40 miles from Buffalo, en route from Cleveland, was overtaken by a storm and sprung a leak. She put back for the latter port, on her arrival had two feet of water in the hold, which the constant use of the pumps could not gain upon. Had she remained out a short time longer she would have gone to the bottom. The steamer New England was out in the same storm, but by good seamanship on the part of Captain Oliver, she arrived safely at Buffalo. The schooner Amerlica, of 60 tons, which loaded with produce at St. Joseph, went ashore 20 miles from that port, and with her cargo became a total loss. She was quite an old vessel, and had sailed for many years on Lake Erie. March 27: Schooner Margaret Helm leaves Cleveland, the first departure of the season: Steamer Burlington burned at Queen's wharf, Toronto. April 28: Schooner Eliza Ward in command of Captain Nicholas, ashore in a severe storm near Chicago: schooner Victory sustains injuries during a storm on Lake Michigan. August 9: Steamer Erie burned near Silver Creek, Lake Erie. Over a hundred lives lost. September 10: Schooner J. A. Barker ashore near Sandy Town: schooner Louisa Jenkins, in command of Captain Travers, wrecked at Dunkirk: schooner Savannah, of Silver Creek, sunk near Conneaut. October 14: Schooner Havre in command of Capt. H. B. Hawley ashore near Conneaut. Owned by C. Deming & Co: 17, schooner Dolphin, in command of Captain Morgan, ashore at Death's Door. Crew rescued by the Yankee, in command of Captain Wells: schooner Britannia, 100 tons burden, foundered on Lake Ontario: owned by Calvin Cook & Counter and T. Dodge & Co., of Kingston, and freighted with staves from Hamilton to Montreal: schooner Savannah, sunk on Lake Erie, raised and towed to Conneaut: schooner Maria, in command of Captain Goldsmith, totally wrecked on a rocky reef 20 miles from Mackinac: owned by Mr. Kinney, of Buffalo. November: Steamer Odd Fellow wrecked on a reef two miles east of Gravelly Bay: owned by William Baker, and had been on a trading trip to Canada, having on board a cargo of chestnuts valued at $500: 17, schooner Onondaga ashore near Manistee river. Had on board 6,000 bushels of wheat for Oswego: 25, brig Richard Winslow in command of Captain Beckwith, ashore near Chicago. Insured for $4,000. Brigs Oceola and Illinois wrecked on Lake Michigan. December 3: Severe storm on Lake Michigan. Schooners McFarlan and Harrison ashore at Racine; brigs Wave and H. Pearsons ashore near Southport.
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Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.