Burning Of The Erie – 1841
By James Donahue
The explosion and burning of the steamship Erie, on Lake Erie, on August 9, 1841 was marked among
the worst of the early ship disasters on the Great Lakes. An estimated 170 lives were lost.
The Erie was a typical early American steamship. It was considered a fine vessel at 176-feet in length.
Launched at Erie, Penn. In 1838, the wooden ship was driven by side-mounted paddle wheels and designed to carry both passengers
and freight from Buffalo to Chicago. Consequently, it was carrying an estimated 200 passengers, most of them German and Swiss
immigrants traveling via the lakes and heading toward the American west on that final fateful trip from Buffalo, bound for
The steamer, under the command of Captain Thomas Jefferson Titus, was only about four hours out of
Buffalo, following the Lake Erie coastline and just off Silver Creek, New York, when the vessel was rocked by an explosion
and fire that quickly destroyed it. Some 30 survivors saved themselves by jumping into the water and clinging to flotsam for
hours until they were picked up by the passing ships Dewitt Clinton and Lady.
The disaster was blamed on some cans of turpentine that were mistakenly placed by a team of six painters,
traveling to Erie to paint the steamboat Madison. They stored the turpentine on the boiler deck, directly over the ship’s
boilers, where they got too hot. The cans overheated, the lids were blown, and once the turpentine spilled over the hot boilers
the ship caught fire.
The Erie was steaming just six miles off shore at the time the fire broke out. Captain Titus ordered
the vessel turned toward shore, but the fire spread over the newly painted decks too fast. The steamer went up in flames and
sank before most of the passengers and crew members had time to escape.
One survivor told of tearing a plank from one of the deck seats and jumping with it into the lake
to save himself. He said the Erie was still under way at the time and he watched as the burning vessel steamed away, but then
turned and steamed directly back toward him. He said he had to swim to get out of the way before the burning wreck ran him
over. This was apparently when the captain decided to make a run toward the coast.
As the blazing ship passed him, the man said he saw people clinging to the anchor chains and other
parts on the sides of the hull. Others were screaming in fear as they stood trapped by the flames on the open deck.
After reaching Buffalo, the Clinton returned to the scene to search for more survivors. None were
to be found. Several weeks later, after a severe thunderstorm passed, the steamer Rochester and a Revenue Cutter recovered
over 100 bodies.
Divers visited the sunken wreck in 1862 and 1853. They removed lumps of melted silver coins. When
the hull was raised in 1854, melted silver and gold valued at over $200,000 was recovered.
There has been a ghostly addition to the Erie story. For years afterward, people along the shore at
Silver Creek have reported a glow in the night sky that looked like a burning ship. Vessels have sometimes been dispatched
to investigate, but nothing was ever found.