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 Lake Erie Steam Boats, 1835

The following article has appeared in various lengths in a number of publications around the Great Lakes. Recently it was reprinted in FreshWater, v. 5, no. 1, pp. 16-19. This article was first published in the Bethel Magazine in January 1836. It was reprinted by the Buffalo Spectator, and from it to a succession of newspapers around the lakes.  This transcription is based on a couple of quoted copies, the Black Rock Advocate of 31 March 1836 and an Upper Canadian newspaper.

Many of the original trees on Middle Bass were felled to fuel these steamboats, while simultaneously providing the cleared land on which to create the vineyards that covered most of the island for many years.

Walk-in-the-Water 1818 338 Black Rock
Superiour 1822 346 78 Buffalo
Caroline " 45 New York
Henry Clay 1824 301 72 22 Black Rock
Niagara " 156 15 14 "
Enterprise 1825 219 57 24 Cleveland
Sheldon Thompson " 241 56 21 Huron
Pioneer " 120 Black Rock
Wm. Penn. 1826 250 78 20 Presque Isle
Wm Peacock 1829 120 30 18 Portland
Ohio 1830 187 74 22 L. Sandusky
General Gratiot 1831 62 12 10 Black River
Perseverance 1832 23
Michigan 1833 472 108 42 Detroit
Daniel Webster " 376 108 30 Black Rock
New York " 325 112 30 "
Uncle Sam " 174
Pennsylvania " 395 112 30 Erie
Gov. Marcy " 395 112 30 Black Rock
Detroit " 137 57 19 Toledo
Newbury " 170 56 21 St. Clair
Washington " 609 154 50 Huron
Delaware " 177 30 18
General Brady " 66 27 8 Detroit
Andrew Jackson " 65 10 8 Mt. Clemens
Sandusky 1834 387 106 32 Sandusky
General Porter " 352 70 32 Black Rock
United States " 366 82 28 Huron
North America " 361 68 30 Coneaut
Monroe " 350 71 38 Monroe
Victory " 77 6 Buffalo
Maj. Jack Downing " 45 Mt. Clemens
Thomas Jefferson 1835 428 126 Erie
Charles Townsend " 312 75 22 Buffalo
Com. Perry, " 352 101 36 Perrysburgh
Columbus " 392 94 32 Huron
Mazeppa " 69 18 12 Buffalo
Robert Fulton " 368 16 30 Cleveland
W.F.P.Taylor " 125 14 16 Silver Creek

NOTES.--Three steam boats have been wrecked and lost, viz:--The WALK-IN-THE-WATER, in 1822, near Buffalo, ; the WASHINGTON, in 1833, during her third trip, on Point abino; and the PIONEER, in 1834, on lake Michigan.

Two have been laid aside.--the SUPERIOUR and the ENTERPRISE.

The CAROLINE was built in New York, and brought to this lake by "shipping" her guards. Several of the small boats do not perform regular trips through the lake, but are employed on the rivers and bays. The Victory and Caroline run from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. The Gratiot, Brady and Jackson, perform regular trips from Detroit to Maumee and Monroe, and to Fort Gratiot. The Jack Downing runs from Sandusky city to Lower Sandusky.

The Mazeppa is to be propelled by two of Avery's Rotary steam engines.

There are also four British boats on the lake, viz: Minessetunk, Adelaide, Thames and Penetanguishine.


The following history and statistical account of the Steam Boats on lake Erie, we prepared towards the close of last season, and published in the Bethel Magazine for January, 1836. We now give it a place in the Spectator, believing it will interest our readers and the publick generally. The statements were deemed correct when first published, and no complaints to the contrary have since come to our knowledge. It cost us no little effort to collect all the facts and details, which are here given in a summary and condensed form.--Buffalo Spectator.

Navigation by the aid of steam was commenced about seventeen years since. The first Steam Boat was built at Black Rock, in 1818, and commenced running the same season. She bore the significant name of the Walk-in-the-water. The novelty of the sight, as she made her first trip through the lake, excited a great degree of interest and curiosity among the people who lived upon the shores, especially among the native Indians, who were ignorant of the power and application of steam. They stood gazing with astonishment to see such "a thing of life" moving through the water without the aid of oars or sail.

The experiment was successful, and it was found that this lake could be navigated by steam boats with safety and advantage. This boat, however, was lost in 1822, in a severe storm, being driven ashore a few miles above this city, and wrecked. There were about three hundred passengers on board at the time, and all escaped in safety. The navigation of the lake at that period, was far more difficult and dangerous for any craft than at present on account of the want of harbours, and the unimproved condition of those landing places where vessels were accustomed to stop, which have since become good harbours.

The Superior was built immediately after the loss of the Walk-in-the-water, and commenced running the same season. The engine and some other parts which were saved from the wreck, were used in the new boat, which proved to be better adapted to the lake than her predecessor. In 1827, she underwent thorough repairs, and received new boilers, and continued to perform here regular trips until 1834, when she was laid aside. Her engine being the same that was in the Walk-in-the-water, and the first that was put in motion on the lake, has been transferred during the past season, to a new and splendid boat, and continues to operate well after being in use 17 years.

From 1818, the time when steam navigation commenced, to 1824, there was only one steam boat upon lake Erie. Two others were added in the 1824, and in 1825 three more were built. In 1825, 1829, 1830, 1831 and 1832, there was built one each year, making the whole number of steam boats on the lake at the latter date, three years ago, only TEN.

The year 1833 seems to have commenced a new era in steam boat navigation upon this lake, or at least, this kind of business was greatly enlarged. During this year not less than twelve new boats were put in motion upon these waters, many of them were of the first class of boats, elegantly furnished, and adapted to carry a large number of passengers. The number was thus more than doubled in one season, and a better class of boats introduced. In 1834, seven new boats, were added to the list, and the same number during the past season. The steam vessels now upon this lake will bear comparison with the same kind of craft upon any of the waters of the United States. The whole number which have been built upon these waters in thirty-nine, of which five have been laid aside or lost, making the present number of American steam boats on lake Erie, THIRTY-FOUR.

Regular lines of boats have been established in seasons past to run through the lake from Buffalo to Detroit, touching at the intermediate ports. A boat leaves this city every morning and evening, and sometimes oftener, through the season. Similar arrangements will probably continue in future. A line will also probably be formed to run from this city to Chicago. Several of the boats usually employed on this lake have been in the habit of making one or two trips each season through those lakes; but the increase of business, and the crowd of the population, emerging in the great West, will undoubtedly demand a more regular arrangement, and a greater number of boats. The table below [Actually placed above. WL] contains a list of all the boats which have been upon the lake. In obtaining the facts and statistical information here given, I am much indebted to several of the owners and masters of the boats for their politeness and important aid.

Tonnage and Capital.--The whole number of steam boats which have been built and put in operation upon lake Erie, from the commencement of this kind of navigation, is 39. The amount of tonnage of these boats is 9,634 tons. Their original cost was not far from $1,150,000.

The present number of boats on the lake is thirty-four; the aggregate tonnage of which is 8,000 tons. The capital now invested in the stock, exceeds ONE MILLION of dollars.

Expense of Running.--The expenses of those boats which perform regular trips through the lake, including wages of men, wood, provisions and ordinary contingencies, is from $100 to $150 per day, each, making the yearly expense of each boat $2,500. The time of running is usually seven months, from May 1st, to December 1st.

Wood.--The amount of wood consumed by a steam boat during a trip, (through the lake and back) is from 100 to 200 cords; averaging probably 150 cords. Each boat performs between 30 and 35 trips in a season, and of course consumes 5,000 cords of wood. The whole amount consumed by 24 boats, the number usually engaged in regular trips through the lake, would be 120,000 cords. The smaller boats and those employed on the rivers, use probably 30,000 cords, which makes the total amount consumed, 150,000 cords.

The prices [sic] of wood varies at the different ports from $1.50 to $2.00 per cord--average price $1.75, which will make the aggregate cost of wood consumed by the steam boats, over $250,000 a year.

Men employed and their wages.--The number of hands employed on steam boats which run through the lake, is from 20 to 40 each. The smaller boats usually employ from 8 to 15 hands each the whole number of men engaged in conducting the steam boat navigation of the lake, is about ONE THOUSAND.

The wages which these men receive varies according to their rank and the kind of business which they perform, as follows:

The Captain, per year, from $600 to $1,000.00
1st Mate, per month, from $24 to 40.00
2nd " " from $18 to 25.00
Steward, " from $25 to 35.00
Engineer, " from $50 to 90.00
Wheelmen, " from $15 to 20.00
Firemen, " 13.00
Sailors, " 16.00
1st Cook, " 25.00
2nd " " 13.00
3d. " " 10.00
Other hands, " from $10 to 15.00

Disasters and loss of lives.--Fewer disasters have probably occurred on this lake in the running of steam boats than upon any other water in the United States, in proportion to the amount of business done, and the number of boats employed. Three boats only have been wrecked, or lost in any way, during 17 years of navigation, amid all the dangers of a lake subject to storms, and at times extremely boisterous. Only one life was lost in connexion with the wreck of these vessels, and that in consequence of an individual jumping over board when he should [have] remained in the boat. The dreadful disasters which have been so common upon other waters, resulting from the bursting of boilers, are altogether unknown upon this lake.

The only accidents which have occurred as the direct effect of steam, are the bursting of the steam pipe of the Wm. Peacock, on September 16, 1830 (ed.: the original document incorrectly said 1827), by which 16 persons were killed, and a few others scaled [sic]; and a similar occurrence on board the Commodore Perry, during the past season, which occasioned the death of 4 individuals.

Duration of steam boats.--The only ground we have on which to base a calculation as to the duration of steam boats, is the fact that in 17 years two boats have been worn out and laid aside, and three have been destroyed by being wrecked.--The two laid aside are the Superior and the Enterprise: the former of which run [sic] 13 years, and the latter 10 years. The boats which were wrecked were, the Walk-in-the-water, the Pioneer and the Geo. Washington

Fare.--The price of a passage on the lake has been for several years pretty uniform among all the boats. There are two kinds of passage, Cabin and Steerage, differing in prices and accommodations. A Cabin passage includes meals and lodging and all the privileges of the boat. Those who take a steerage or Deck passage, find their own provisions, or pay for their meals extra, at the second table, and either sleep on deck or occupy the forward cabin, which is fitted up with berths, but generally without beds or furniture. Multitudes of highly respectable families who are emigrating to the west, prefer to take a deck passage rather than to pay the price of a cabin passage.

The price usual from this city to different ports through the lake, is as follows:

Cabin Steerage.
From Buffalo to Van Buren $2.00 $1.00
  " " Erie, 4.00 2.00
  " " Cleveland, 6.00 2.50
" " Detroit. 8.00 3.00

Speed.--To the credit of the owners and masters of the steam boats, there has been very little of that strife and racing on this lake which has been the occasion of so many and dreadful disasters in other places; and it is hoped that this dangerous and wicked practice will never be allowed to prevail upon these waters. Sufficient trial has been made, however, to show that the speed of boats on this lake is equal to that of similar craft upon other waters, and they are capable of performing their trips with punctuality, and with a rapidity which fully satisfies the travelling publick.

The Michigan performed a trip from Buffalo to Detroit and back, 620 miles, in sixty-two hours and thirty minutes, including the usual stops. The same boat came directly through the lake without making any stops, in twenty-five hours. Several other boats run with equal speed.

The average time for performing trips in common weather, including delays for wood and passengers is as follows, viz:

From Buffalo to Van Buren, from 5 to 6 hours.
" " Erie, " 10 to 12 "
" " Cleveland, " 20 to 24 "
" " Detroit, " 36 to 40 "

HARBOURS.--Buffalo affords the greatest facilities for loading and building vessels, of any harbour on the lake; and from the large expenditure by the general Government, in building an excellent pier, and erecting a light-house, it has been made easy of entrance in bad weather. During the winter, a large proportion of the shipping on the lake, lays up in this harbour. Cataragus Creek, Dunkirk, Portland, and several others, are but little improved; and some, from crookedness of channel, and the other from shallowness of water, are unsafe, and afford but little shelter in bad weather, and during severe storms. Erie and Cleveland are good harbours, though the former is somewhat inconvenient, as large steam boats running up and down the lake, make their landing some distance from the town, while a smaller steamer performs the part of a ferry boat.

Van Buren Harbour. This was formerly known as Adams' bay; and it is but a short time since it first attracted publick attention, and received its present cognomen. But from a recent and accurate survey, made by an experienced gentleman, there can be but little doubt of its becoming one of the best and safest harbours on the lake.

Further particulars.--The steam boats upon this lake are built with masts and fitted out with rigging and sails, in the same manner as other vessels; and may properly be denominated steam vessels. This provision renders them capable of being navigated without the aid of steam in case of accident, and also of increasing their speed by using sails when the wind is favorable.

The engines used are of both kinds, high pressure and low pressure--about equal in proportion. Most of the early boats were built with low pressure engines--but many which have been built within a few years past are propelled by the high pressure engines. They both work well.

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This page was updated most recently on August 15, 2017