The Burning Of The Marine City
By James Donahue
When the side-wheeler Marine
City went up in smoke off Lake Huron's Sturgeon
Point on Aug. 28, 1880, the fire came close to being a major marine disaster. As it was, eight of the estimated 155 passengers
and crew members perished. That the others survived was considered a miracle.
Capt. William E. Comer was the skipper as the vessel was
following its regular trade route up the lake, stopping at various ports between Port Huron
and Mackinaw City.
The 14-year-old wooden-hulled boat was carrying about
120 passengers, many from Port Huron, Detroit, and Ohio ports. The steamer also was loaded with general cargo, including
1300 pine and cedar railroad ties, 50,000 wooden shingles in the forward and aft holds, and 20 cords of cedar posts stacked
on the main deck.
Passenger E. L. Stephenson of Cincinnati said he and three crew members were swapping stories on the main deck when they
discovered the fire in a coal bunker right below their feet. The men pulled out the fire hoses, but when they attempted to
charge the line, they discovered that the water valves were rusted shut.
The fire was spreading rapidly and Stephenson set out
to sound the alarm. There was a delay, however, when the first mate interrupted his efforts. The mate said he didnt want to
cause a panic.
The alarm was sounded moments later by a cook who noticed
smoke and, before he could be stopped, ran through the boat shouting "fire" at the top of his voice. The mate was right; bedlam
In the meantime, Capt. Comer was in his cabin and wasn't
told about the fire right away, either. Once he knew, however, Comer took charge. People said he acted with a cool self-assurance
that calmed many of the passengers and helped them escape alive.
Comer first ordered the Marine City turned and run at full speed toward
shore, which was about two miles away. But as the fire swept through the engine room the black gang was forced to flee.
Before he left the engines, the chief engineer decided
to shut them down so that everybody would have a chance to escape in the lifeboats.
That decision, Comer's leadership, and the fact that the
tugboat Vulcan was nearby and able to draw alongside the burning steamer to remove passengers, helped avert a major tragedy.
The Sturgeon Point lifesaving station saw the fire and
dispatched a boat. It arrived on the scene in time to pull other survivors from the water. Two other passing vessels, the
steamer Metropolis and the tug Grayling, also helped.
The eight who died were thought to have drowned after
jumping overboard. The dead included Frank Emmett of Port Huron, Martin T. Watson, a Detroit businessman; crew members Richard Schultz and James Cook; passengers James Griffin and Guy McElroy,
both of Toledo; and a Dr. Pomeroy, also of Ohio.
Comer and a passenger, Mrs. A. B. Clough, both received
recognition for their heroic actions during the fire. Crew members presented Comer with a gold watch for his bravery.
Clough got a silver tea set from the parents of Joseph
Voight, a six-year-old Detroit boy whom she found wandering
lost on the burning boat and put safely aboard a lifeboat.
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