Nineteenth Century Steamship Michigan
By James Donahue
The first real steamship built at Detroit in 1847 was the Michigan, a 156-foot-long vessel propelled
by duel engines working wheels on both sides. It was an early design for steamships, and the fact that the two wheels were
powered by separate engines sometimes created problems.
While the arrangement worked well in calm weather, when the vessel was rolling in high seas and stormy
weather, the raising of one wheel out of the water while the other was laboring in deep water caused the boat to lurch and
jerk from side-to-side. Passengers and crew members had to hang on for dear life.
One lake historian noted that the Michigan may have been the only steamship built with duel working
engines. It appeared to have been an experiment gone wrong.
The Michigan was built by Oliver Newberry, a Detroit ship owner. Sailed by a Captain Blake, the steamer
made numerous trips on the Detroit River and beyond, sometimes making pleasure excursions as far as Lake Michigan.
Old newspaper clippings lauded the luxurious furnishings on the steamer. One description stated: "The
gentlemen’s dining room contained 30 births aloft the engines and six staterooms forward with three berths each. The
intermediate space between the engines formed a part of the dining cabin and was richly paneled and gilded. The Ladies’
cabin on deck contained 16 births and was elegantly furnished. The forward cabin contained 44 births."
Just reading the way those berths were packed it is easy to see that passengers were packed on that
boat like sardines. Imagine sailing steerage, squeezed in a single room with 43 other people. The luxury rooms had three to
a berth, all trying to sleep on the deck directly over the paddle wheels and next to the steam engines.
We could not determine how long the Michigan served as a passenger carrier. Eventually it was stripped
down and used as a lumber barge.
The Michigan sank in a Lake Erie storm on Oct. 30, 1868, somewhere between Madison and Conneaut, Ohio.
It was one of three vessels in tow, bound from the Saginaw River to Buffalo when the tow line broke. The crew escaped.