Overheated Boilers On The R. G. Stewart
By James Donahue
Capt. C. O. Flynn inadvertently set fire to his boat after it went aground on Lake Superior’s
Michigan Island. It happened just after midnight on June 4, 1899, while Flynn’s command, the hundred-foot coastal steamer
R. G. Stewart, was running through heavy fog at the western end of the lake.
The boat was carrying three passengers and several head of cattle from Ontonagon to Duluth. The vessel
struck a reef and Flynn spent the night in the pilot house, keeping his crew hard at work attempting to run the boat back
into deep water under its own power.
Frustration grew because the Stewart moved a few feet each time the propeller churned the waters.
It slid forward and back, but always stopped short of working free.
As the night wore on, Flynn’s patience grew thin. He ordered more steam. Then more. And still
the Stewart remained stuck on the reef. When the chief engineer complained that his boilers were red hot and the machinery
was being stretched to its limit, Flynn just ordered him to put a blower on the boat’s stack to force an even hotter
fire below. In retrospect, Flynn admitted that was a mistake.
"I went on deck to see if everything was ready to back again when the fireman shouted that the boat
was on fire over the boilers," he said. The overheated engine room turned into an inferno within minutes, forcing the black
gang to flee for their lives.
The fire spread through the dried wood on the twenty-one-year-old vessel so fast that everybody scrambled
for the lifeboat, not taking time to save their personal belongings. Flynn said he left three hundred dollars behind in his
Someone managed to drive the cattle into the lake. It might have been George McKenna, the wheelman,
who was the last man to leave the burning boat.
Witnesses said the fire was breaking through the deck under McKenna’s feet as he prepared to
lower himself into the lifeboat. Instead of climbing, McKenna jumped. He landed on the gunwale and overturned the boat, spilling
everybody into the water.
Land was only about a thousand feet away, so Flynn and five other men, Andrew O’Brien, McKenna,
George Shortall, Fret Hantz and William Murphy decided to swim for shore. McKenna didn’t make it. Flynn said McKenna
and Hantz both went under. Shortall pulled Hantz ashore and revived him, but McKenna drowned.
Meanwhile, five other survivors were clinging to the overturned lifeboat, which was still tied to
the burning boat. They said the fire got so hot that they had to keep putting their heads and faces under water to keep from
getting burned. Finally, the fire burned the rope and the five floated to shore, still clinging to the boat.