Ships 2

Northern Indiana

Ships 3


Deadly Fire Claimed The Northern Indiana

By James Donahue

At 300 feet in length, the side wheeled steamship Northern Indiana was an impressive vessel in its day and it obviously made a dramatic sight when it burned to destruction, claiming an estimated 28 lives, off Lake Erie’s Point Pelee on July 17, 1856.

The steamer, under the temporary command of the ship’s first mate, W. H. Wetmore, had just made its way down the Detroit River and entered the broad waters of Lake Erie, bound for Toledo, when fire broke out in the engine room sometime around 11 a.m.

The fire reportedly spread so rapidly that it drove the black gang from the engine room, making it impossible to stop the engine. Thus the burning ship steamed off, a burning runaway disaster with an estimated 104 passengers and 43 crew members fighting for their lives.

That two other steamships, the Mississippi and Republic, were nearby and able to catch up with the burning ship was credited with the relatively low loss of life. While we were unable to get a report as to just how it was done, we can envision some excellent acts of seamanship as the skippers of these two vessels maneuvered their commands against the fire ship and allow survivors to jump to safety.

The four-year-old Northern Indiana burned until it sank not far off the northwest tip of Point Pelee, at the western end of Lake Erie.

The Northern Indiana and its sister ship, the Southern Michigan, were large wooden side wheeled steamships built in Buffalo for the Michigan Southern Railway. They were designed to carry both passengers and freight and connect the Michigan line to railroad lines connecting Buffalo and points east. There had been no rail constructed from Buffalo west to Toledo in 1856.

Great Lakes historian Cris Kohl, credited with researching details of this vessel, wrote that the Northern Indiana was known among lake sailors as the “hard-luck sister” because of a run of mishaps during its brief period of existence.

Kohl wrote that the steamer collided with the schooner Plymouth within weeks of its launch in  1852. Later that same year the vessel sustained extensive damage ina gale off Dunkirk, New York. The steamer gashed a hole in its wooden hull after striking submerged anchor in the harbor at Monroe, Michigan, in 1854.