Milwaukee (Steam barge)

 The Milwaukee

There are four wrecks with West Michigan ties that carry the name Milwaukee in lower Lake Michigan. One of the area’s first wrecks was the schooner Milwaukee, which wrecked on the beach just north of Saugatuck in 1842. Another Milwaukee was the side-wheeler which wrecked just south of the Grand River channel in 1868. 1929 was a devastating year for shipping in West Michigan, with the loss of the Andaste, the S. S. Wisconsin (sister ship of the S. S. Michigan), and the well known car ferry Milwaukee.

Probably the least known of the Milwaukees is the steam barge Milwaukee which sank after a collision with the propeller C. Hickox in the year 1886.

The Milwaukee was built in 1868 by A. C. Keating at Ogdensburg, New York, as a freight and passenger steamer for the Welland Canal trade between Chicago, Milwaukee, and intermediate points to Ogdensburg, New York. She was part of a fairly good sized fleet comprised of several vessels, all of which were about the same size. This line had a total of 32 steamers and 3 tow barges, during its short history, as near as can be ascertained. The line was disbanded in about 1881, and they had at the time 14 steamers and 3 barges left. The boats belonged to various parties in 1882 and the steamers were all turned into steam barges, except the Lawrence and the Champlain, which continued in the package freight and passenger business on Lake Michigan under the flag of the Northern Michigan Line.

The steam barge Milwaukee had an overall length of 135′ and a beam of 26′. Her tonnage was 276 tons gross, 192 tons net, and she had a draft of just under 11′. At the time of her sinking, the Milwaukee was being used in the lumber trade on Lake Michigan.

The Milwaukee’s Victorian style pilot house brings to mind how grand this vessel was earlier in her life. She had her passenger cabins cut down to just above the main/cargo deck for lumber hauling. By the end of her life her paint was fading and peeling and structural problems were affecting her handling.

The steam barge Milwaukee left Chicago Thursday, July 9th, 1886. Having just delivered lumber to the growing metropolis, she was in light trim and returning to Muskegon to load and deliver more lumber. She would never arrive.

The following is from the July 12 issue of the Marine Record:

The C. Hickox

The C. Hickox

“The steam barge Milwaukee lies on the bottom of Lake Michigan. She is buried forty fathoms deep, and is lost forever. Dennis Harrington, one of her crew, is buried with her. The twelve survivors reached Chicago on the steam barge C. Hickox (pictured, right). Immediately on their arrival, Captain William Armstrong, master of the Milwaukee, and Captain Simon Oday, master of the Hickox, made their way to the office of the government steamboat inspectors and related the details of a collision between the Milwaukee and Hickox and told how the Milwaukee went to the bottom despite their exertions to save her. The collision occurred about eighty miles northeast of Chicago shortly before midnight Thursday night. The Milwaukee was heading for Muskegon, without cargo, to load lumber. The Hickox was lumber laden and bound from Muskegon to Chicago. She also had the schooner Apprentice Boy in tow, the latter having sprung a leak just before leaving port. The wind was blowing a gentle breeze from the eastward, and the lake was quite smooth when the steamers came together.. Captain Armstrong, and Harrington, who was the watchman, were standing together on the pilot house of the Milwaukee . Harrington ran over to the leeward side of the vessel, and it is supposed he must have been knocked overboard by the shock, as he was not seen afterward. He was an unmarried man, and hailed from Milwaukee. Then the steamers drifted apart.

Alfred Green, engineer of the Milwaukee, ran to the after hatch when he heard the crash occasioned by the collision and saw the water rushing into the hold. He sang out to the Captain that the steamer was sinking, and at once started the syphons working. As soon as he got them open the fireman crawled out of the hold with the startling report that the water had extinguished the fires. Then the engineer went forward and assisted in getting the boat ready and in throwing overboard the hatches and such limited life saving appliances as were aboard the steamer. All this time the captain remained on the pilot-house sounding signals of distress.

The Hickox had disappeared, and some of the crew of the sinking steamer began to believe they had been deserted. Captain Oday, however, has not an ounce of cowardice in his makeup, and, as soon as he could determine the locale of the Milwaukee he steamed alongside of her. Then an effort was made to save the steamer, which had already begun to settle. The sail was cut from the mast, slung over the side that was wounded and hauled tight under the bottom so as to form what, in marine parlance, is called a canvas jacket. But she kept settling, and although bedding was brought from the Hickox and stuffed into the hole. It failed to check the steady flow of water.

While both crews were working like beavers to save the vessel, the steam barge City of New York heard the signal of distress and came to their assistance. It was thought that by running lines under the Milwaukee and making them fast to the New York and the Hickox they could hold her up until the leaking could be stopped accordingly this was done, but she kept settling by the stern until the sea began to wash over her afterdeck, and out of self-preservation it became necessary for the steamers to cut loose and let the Milwaukee sink. They moved ahead a few lengths, and in the bright starlight watched her gradually settle and finally disappear. The Hickox had her stern twisted off in the collision.

The Milwaukee was built at Ogdensburg in 1866 by Keating, and formerly ran as a passenger boat in the old Northern line. She measured 192 tons, and hailed from Milwaukee, where she was owned by L.G.Mason. She was valued at $10,000, and was not insured. Two years ago she collided with the new breakwater while leaving Chicago, and there is now pending in the United States court a suit against her, which was brought by the government to recover damages. One interesting feature in the statement made by the engineer of the Milwaukee is that she had but one boat aboard.”

Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates is actively researching and collecting information about the wreck of the Milwaukee. She is a very findable wreck. She more than likely lies in less than 300′ of water, which makes the Milwaukee an excellent wreck for technical divers to document and explore.  

Photos used with permission, Historical Collection of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University.