Tragedy and Transportation on the Great Lakes

Drawing of the Niagara after it was built in 1845. Source

Looking out on the water from the historical marker for the Niagara, imagine you see a ship a mile away, flames escaping from all 225 feet of the ship. People are yelling and jumping into the water as a bell rings on the ship, warning passengers and alerting other ships for help. This bell, scavenged from the site in the 1970s, represents the destruction that was seen on the ship when it inexplicably burst into flames in 1856 near Port Washington.

Introduction of the Niagara
The construction of the Niagara, a wooden steam boat, was finished in 1845 and was the second Great Lakes Palace Steamer built. While the ship was not the first on the Great Lakes, the Niagara offered the promise of a bigger and better ride from Buffalo, New York to Chicago, Illinois— an essential path for those looking to immigrate westward. While the ship did not stop in Port Washington, passengers immigrating to cities like Milwaukee or Chicago likely sprawled out to smaller towns like Port Washington.

This bell, a brass ship bell with rope handle, is an example of what the Niagara’s bell might have looked like. Source

The bell from the Niagara scavenged from the wreckage site in the 1970s. Flames melted the bell, leaving it disfigured.

Final Voyage
The Niagara’s final voyage was in September of 1856, when it left Ontario, Canada, stopped in New York, and then headed towards the Midwest. It held 105 tons of cargo along with carrying 21 horses and hundreds of passengers. Right outside of Port Washington, the ship burst into flames quickly and unexpectedly, panicking passengers and crew alike. Staff on the ship began to tear down doors to use as floats in the water while the bell rang as a warning. While there were several safety mechanisms in place, none of them were executed correctly due to the flurry of commands and emotions within the ship.

Archaeologist at the site of the Niagara. Source

Ravage and Remains
While the number of deaths has never been confirmed, the estimate is around 60; the cause of the fire is also unknown. The fire ravaged the ship in less than an hour, causing everything that remained intact on the ship to sink with it in Lake Michigan. Today, the Niagara remains on the lake floor about 50 feet deep, a popular destination for Great Lakes scuba divers.
1825 Erie Canal completed, making the Great Lakes more accessible
1835 Port Washington founded
1841 Vandalia, the Great Lakes’ first propellor steamboat, was built in Oswego, New York
1845 Niagara is built by C.M. Reed
1846 First sea trial: April 15
1846 First successful transit: May 20
1848 Price of trip on Niagara hits $10 (new low)
1856 Fire breaks out on the ship, 60+ lives lost September 24;

Milwaukee Sentinel publishes article that says “more than 100 lives lost” September 26
1960s Scuba divers rediscover the sunken ship
1970s Bell is salvaged by recreational divers
Why I choose this object?
I grew up in the Midwest, so I have always been told that the living near the Great Lakes is just as cool as living in a coastal city. While I’m not quite convinced yet, the Great Lakes have an interesting history and a major influence on the large Midwest cities— as well as smaller ones like Port Washington. This object highlights some of the history of Lake Michigan in terms of the evolution of transportation as well as how and where new immigrants moved, both things that interest me.

Emma Hurbanis


History 401 [Spring 2022]

Leslie A. Bellais