Fire On The E. K. Collins
By James Donahue
Canadian furniture store
operator William Bartlett didn’t expect to be a hero. Even Bartlett had to admit that he just happened to be at the
right place and have a small boat available when it was badly needed.
The estimated 70 passengers
and crew members on the burning steamer E. K. Collins needed all the help they could get on the night of Sunday, Oct. 8, 1854.
As fire engulfed the ship, destroying even the lifeboats, the people had no place to go but over the side and drop into the
cold flowing waters of the Detroit River.
Twenty-one died but it could have been worse.
The handsome, two-year-old
Ward Line steamer was the pride of the fleet in 1854. Built by the well-known Marine City, Mich. Shipbuilder John Bushnell,
the Collins measured 259 feet in length and was lavishly furnished to draw passengers on a route that took the ship from Sault
Ste. Marie to Buffalo.
The boat, under the command
of Capt. H. J. Jones of Detroit, was on its way downriver to Buffalo on the night of the fire. It stopped briefly at Detroit
to take on freight and passengers, then cast off for a night trip down the Detroit
River into Lake Erie and on to Cleveland.
It was a calm night and
there was a nip of autumn in the air. Most of the passengers were gathered in the ship’s lounge. Many had retired to
their staterooms after supper.
Jones had been in the
pilot house all evening, piloting the Collins through the narrow waters of Lime-kiln Crossing, and he was starting to breath
easier because the lights of Malden, Ontario,
the old name for Amherstburg, were in sight. Soon the vessel would be entering the open waters of Lake
But fire broke out somewhere
on the boiler deck, just aft of the engine room, at about 8 p.m. Some thought it started from a carelessly tossed ash from
a smoker’s pipe. The flames spread with great speed through the oil soaked floors of the wooden ship.
An alarm was sounded
but the fire reached the engine room where the pumps were located before the crew got the hoses rolled out. The engineer and
firemen had already fled the fire.
Within minutes the steam
was too low to turn the big paddle wheels and the ship became a drifting, burning death trap filled with very frightened people.
All was bedlam as the
fire raced through the ship’s superstructure. The lifeboats quickly burned so there seemed to be no way of escape. Women
screamed. People raced the fire to the bow of the ship while others leaped over the side and into the water.
Bartlett was among the spectators on the streets of Malden
who watched in horror as the burning ship drifted past their town. He heard the voices of the people trapped on the wreck
and ran to the town dock where his personal boat was moored.
When he caught up with
the burning ship, Bartlett found 14 people hanging from the
ship’s anchor chain as flames burned just over their heads. He took them all into his boat and rowed around the hull,
looking for others.
Five more survivors were
found clinging to the port wheel, and six others were on the starboard wheel. Two swimmers were pulled from the water. Before
the night was over Bartlett was credited with rescuing 27
of the 44 people that escaped the disaster.
Other survivors were
picked up by the propeller Fintry, which drew along side the burning Collins so people could jump to the Fintry’s deck.
The Fintry’s master, a Captain Langley, also was declared a hero that night.
The hull of the burned
out Collins drifted until it went aground in Callam’s Bay. It was towed back to Detroit
and rebuilt as a steam barge. That vessel was enrolled under the name Ark
foundered with all hands during an October gale on Lake Huron in 1866.