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Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks
History and Development of
Great Lakes Water Craft

Passenger and Package Freight Steamers

This page is an excerpt I have borrowed from the article titled below.
I encourage you to view the article in its entirity here. Dave

Passenger and Package Freight Steamers


Steam navigation began on the Lakes with the construction of the side-wheelers Ontario and Frontenac 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 Robert Fulton.

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 berths.

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 steamer Cleveland 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 Empire, 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 twins Greater 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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1997 Minnesota Historical Society

This page is an excerpt I have borrowed from the Minnesota Historical Society.
I encourage you to view the article in its entirity here. - Dave


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