First Iron Vessel Merchant
Always Hitting Bottom
By James Donahue
The Merchant was the
first iron hulled vessel to enter commercial and passenger service on the Great Lakes. The 230-foot steamer was built in 1862, the same year that the burned Confederate
Steamship Merrimac was plated with iron and converted into the first iron hulled naval ship Virginia in the Civil War.
The Merchant, owned by
the Anchor Line, seemed to be a hard-luck ship. Like the Virginia,
it had a wooden hull plated with iron. This apparently made the vessel heavier than other vessels on the lakes, and consequently
it could not go where other ships went. It was always stranding.
It sank twice near Malden, Ontario in 1868 and in 1872.
It stranded three times on Racine Reef, off Racine, Wisconsin.
The third time, in 1875 marked the end of the Merchant. It thus holds the honor of being the first iron clad ship to sink
on the Great Lakes.
The Merchant was laden
with 30,000 bushels of corn and 1,300 barrels of flour. The mate was standing watch when the vessel struck the reef while
running at top speed. The impact tore the bottom out of the steamer.
One of the sinkings near
Malden, on the Detroit River, proved to be an especially difficult salvage job. It struck a rock on May 20,
1872 and sank to its main deck. The ship was carrying railroad iron and general merchandise.
After the cargo was removed,
it took four salvage tugs, four large pontoons and five portable steam powered pumps positioned on the main deck to lift the
hull high enough off the bottom so it could be towed up river to Detroit
The vessel had two holes
in its hull, one of them 23-feet long.
The Mind Of James Donahue