Passenger and Package Freight Steamers
Steam navigation began on the Lakes with
the construction of the side-wheelers
in 1817. At 170 feet in length, both were very large for
their day. The Ontario was built at Sacketts Harbor,
New York, and Frontenac at Ernettstown, near Kingston,
Ontario. Both steamers proved successful, although they
were slow and required design changes to suit them to the
open waters of Lake Ontario. The first steamboat on the
upper Lakes was the 338-ton Walk
in the Water. It was built at Black Rock (Tonawanda),
New York, for the Lake
Erie Steamboat Company. Its machinery, like that of
the Ontario and Frontenac, was designed by
Acceptance of steamboats was slow among
Lakes vessel owners. Trade in the 1820s was not yet large
enough to justify the large investment required to build
steamers, so most vessel owners built and operated sailing
craft. After completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, however,
the commerce of the region grew. The burgeoning passenger
traffic offered sufficient returns to justify the more costly
steamboats. In the 13 years previous to the opening of the
Canal, 25 steamboats had been constructed. In the four years
after completion of the canal, 60 new steamboats were built,
primarily at Lake Erie ports which connected directly with
the Erie Canal.
By 1840, there were more than 100 steamers
in service on the Lakes. Most were less than eight years
old. About 40 of these craft operated as ferries or on short
local routes out of the larger ports. The remainder, principally
the larger boats, ran from Buffalo to upper Lakes ports
or from Niagara and Toronto to lower Lakes or St. Lawrence
River destinations. By the 1840s, the Erie Canal brought
tens of thousands of settlers to Buffalo each year in search
of passage to the West. Population in cities bordering the
upper Lakes reportedly quadrupled in the eight years previous
to 1840 as a result of that influx. The passenger and merchandise
businesses were booming.
Steamboat technology developed quickly
in the 1830s and 1840s. The steamersIllinois
(1837) and Great
Western (1838) were the largest and finest of their
day. The 185-foot Great Western was the first steamer
on the Lakes to be fitted with a spacious upper cabin. The
entire hull was occupied by the boilers, with holds for
freight and wood. On the main deck aft was the ladies' cabin
and staterooms, while on the hurricane deck the main cabin
extended almost the entire length of the boat. On this deck
there were also a ladies' saloon aft, the dining room next,
and the saloon or bar-room forward. Staterooms, 60 in number,
were arranged on either side of these cabins, the whole
length, with three berths in each, making in all about 300
Improvements in steamboat machinery resulted
in increased speed, efficiency, and safety. Some vessels
had crosshead or "square" engines, easily identified by
the towering gallows which stood high over the superstructure,
with a crosshead moving up and down in a slide. Other ships
had horizontal engines, with the machinery entirely contained
below decks. The most common arrangement on the Lakes was
the vertical or "walking beam" engine. It had a tall A-frame
with a crosshead on top which rocked back and forth, attached
to the cylinder on one end and the crankshaft on the other.
The steamers all burned cordwood for fuel until coal was
adopted after the Civil War. Most paddle-wheelers carried
one, two, or even three masts until about 1850. These were
often fitted with sails and jibs. The later screw steamers,
or "propellers," continued to use sails until after 1870.
Some screw freighters carried sails until almost 1900.
Steamboats offered fast, efficient, and
predictable delivery for passengers and freight. The cost
was considerable, however, as steamers were more expensive
to build and operate than contemporary sailing craft. The
was built in 1837 for $22,500, but its machinery cost an
additional $50,000. A large contemporary schooner cost between
$6,000 and $10,000. Because boilers and engines were so
costly, they were often re-used, sometimes serving in three
or more different hulls before they were worn out and useless.
Steamers also required fuel, which cost $80 to $125 per
day. They required larger crews than sailing craft, as well.
A large steamer carried a crew of up to 40 men, while sailing
vessels, even square-rigged, seldom needed more than ten
or twelve. The differing operating costs resulted in varying
freight rates. Therefore, steamboats carried passengers
and selected high-value cargoes, while the less valuable
commodities were hauled in the more numerous sailing craft.
With the advances in shipbuilding technology
during the 1840s came dramatic changes to the steamboat
fleet. The first 1,000-ton steamer in the nation, the 260-foot
was built on the Lakes in 1844. The lavish vessel ushered
in the era of "Palace Steamers," which was to last until
1855. Construction of such large craft was possible with
the development of new fastenings for wooden hulls, the
expanded use of ironwork for strengthening, and the introduction
of "hogging-frames" and trusses. The magnificent Palace
Steamers of the later 1840s and early 1850s were the most
beautifully-appointed craft ever built on the Lakes. In
all, there were 25 of them. Most were between 1,000 and
1,600 tons. The City
of Buffalo, built in 1857, was the last and largest
of them. It measured 350 feet in length and was 2,026 tons
burthen. A contemporary journalist writing for the Buffalo
Morning Express, July 25, 1857, described it as follows:
The grand cabin [is] lighted by skylights
and a splendid stained-glass dome. On either hand the
doors open into the staterooms. The cabin has an arched
ceiling, which together with the panels, are ornamented
by gilt mouldings, the white and gold making a very rich
appearance. Splendid chandeliers light it by night, the
center one being double. The furniture is of the richest
rose-wood, with damask and plush upholstering; the carpets
are costly brussels, and the whole scene magnificent.
The fairy palaces of the imagination were never so gorgeously
furnished, nor could the famous barge of Cleopatra, with
its silken sails, rival this noblest of steamers.
Most of the Palace Steamers ran from Buffalo
to Detroit or Chicago. Only the smallest could fit through
the Sault Locks when they were opened in 1855. The Panic
of 1857 ruined the passenger business on the Lakes. The
entire fleet of Palace Steamers was withdrawn from service.
Few ever operated again. When the country recovered from
the depression in 1861 and 1862, most of the ships were
no longer worth repairing, and they were too expensive to
compete with newer, more efficient craft. The passenger
business revived after the Civil War, but it was never again
able to sustain ships as luxurious as the Palace Steamers.
The steamers built for the post-war passenger trade were
more modest in size and furnishings.
Though steamboats offered many advantages
over their sailing contemporaries, they also had disadvantages.
The side-wheelers had enormous engines which took up too
much space in the holds to make them efficient cargo-carriers.
They had particular difficulty in carrying bulky cargoes
inexpensively. Side-wheelers were also so beamy that in
order to build them narrow enough to pass through some of
the canals, valuable cargo space was sacrificed. The 26-foot
wide Welland Canal could not admit even the smallest class
of side-wheelers. All of the freight bound for Oswego, Toronto,
Kingston, and Montreal was necessarily carried in schooners.
In 1840 and 1841, several Lake Ontario vessel owners began
to experiment with steamboat technology to enable them to
compete more effectively with Buffalo and the Erie Canal
for the trade of the West. They built the first "steam schooners,"
adopting the efficient new engines with screw propellers
developed by Swedish inventor John Ericson.
The development of side-wheel steamers
was stemmed by the rapid ascendancy of screw steamers in
the various trades. Though side-wheel steamers remained
popular in the passenger trade for many decades, they would
never again achieve the numbers of the 1830s and 1840s.
Side-wheelers reached their zenith between 1845 and 1857
with the 300-foot Palace Steamers. A few paddle-wheel giants
were built on the Lakes after 1900, including the 520-foot
Detroit and Greater
Buffalo of 1924, which were the largest side-wheelers
ever built. When they entered service, only 37 others were
left. After 1950, they were all gone.
Adapted from the National Register's Multiple Property
Documentation(MPDF) "Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks
A.D. 1650-1945" by: Patrick Labadie, Brina J. Agranat
and Scott Anfinson.
Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks
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