Fire Claimed Steamer F. W. Backus
launched at Amherstburg, Ontario, in 1846, the wooden steamship F. W.
Backus flew the Canadian flag under the name Earl Cathcart. It was only
138 feet in length, but in its day, was considered a good sized
commercial and passenger carrier for the Great Lakes.
builders, Messrs. Parks & Co. made it clear that the steamer was
destined to carry freight from Toronto to Montreal after construction of
the St. Lawrence Canals were finished the following year. Thus the
vessel was designed not only to pass through the Welland Canals at
Niagara Falls, but navigate the upper waters of the St. Lawrence River.
happened in about 1852 and the Cathcart was seized by U. S. customs for
violation of navigation laws. Thus the ship was rebuilt and it returned
to the lakes under the U.S. flag under the name F. W. Backus.
ship was designed to carry mostly grain and other freight, but had
cabin space for up to 30 passengers that one report noted were
“tastefully fitted up.” The Backus was powered by twin 40 horse power
engines and boasted speeds of up to 10 miles per hour. It was powered by
Obviously the original plans for navigating the
lower lakes were changed by the new owners, C. S. Hubbard of Chicago.
The Backus caught fire and burned to a total loss while laden with
livestock and nine passengers in Lake Michigan, just off Racine,
Wisconsin, on Nov. 25, 1866.
Captain J. Shortell, who
was at the helm when the fire was discovered, successfully ran the
steamer on the beach where the passengers and crew waded ashore. The
horses and cows were pushed overboard even before the Backus reached the
shoreline. All of the animals were believed to have survived.
local tug, the Daisy Lee, put a tow line on the burning ship and made
an unsuccessful attempt to save the steamer by pulling it out into
deeper water and then scuttling it. But the fire burned through the tow
line and the blazing steamer drifted back to shore where it burned to a