A Dangerous Game; Racing The Alaska

By James Donahue

The captain denied it but many witnesses said the new side-wheeled steamer Alaska was racing the City of Detroit when the seam dome on the Alaska’s boiler blew up. Three crew members were instantly killed and two others fatally scalded in the explosion at about 10:30 AM on September 5, 1879, near the mouth of the Detroit River.


About ten other crew members were hurt in the blast which caused extensive damage to the boat. Miraculously, only two passengers were among the casualties and the vessel remained afloat. William Barning of Catawba Island was scalded in the face and hands and an unidentified woman cut her hands trying to escape from her cabin through a window.

Both steamers were carrying a full fare of passengers, and were bound from Detroit to Put-In-Bay, Ohio.

The Alaska was stopped at Amherstburg, Ontario, and taking on coal when the City of Detroit steamed past, its decks crowded with excursion passengers. The Alaska’s master, named Goldsmith, said he asked his engineers, brothers John and Charles Stevens, to put on a full head of steam as the vessel pulled out of the river and entered Lake St. Clair in the wake of the other boat.


They wouldn’t admit it, but Goldsmith and Capt. Bill McKay, skipper of the City of Detroit, were fond of racing each other across Lake Erie whenever the chance came up. This could well have been on his mind that autumn morning when he asked for the extra steam.

Nobody knows for sure why it happened. The boiler exploded as the ship was getting up to full speed. The blast killed the Stevens brothers and fireman John Boyd, and scalding about ten other crew members working nearby. At least two of them later died from the injuries. They were not identified in the old news reports. 

The death list might have been much higher because many people got excited and jumped into the water, either to get relief from burns or because they were fearful of more explosions or fire. McKay brought his boat around and the City of Detroit was credited with pulling people from the water.

The U. S. revenue cutter Fensenden was in the area that day. She put out a towline and brought the Alaska up the river to Detroit where it went into dry dock for repair. 

The Alaska ended its days as an excursion steamer in 1890 when her engine was removed and the boat was converted to be a schooner. The ship was rigged as a propeller barge in 1895 and worked in the Canadian lumber trade for another fifteen years before it was destroyed by fire at Tobermory, Ontario, in 1910.