William H. Barnum


William Barnum

Sinking of the William H. Barnum


By James Donahue


The wooden hulled steamer William H. Barnum had been on the lakes for 21 years at the time of its demise.


Other vessels of its kind lasted a lot longer, but the Barnum was the victim of neglect. Thus in the spring of 1894, when the owners wanted the ship to carry a cargo of corn from Chicago to an unknown eastern port, and then proceed to dry dock for a rebuilding, insurance for the trip was not easy to obtain.


After some persuasion, insurance underwriters agreed to insure the boat for that one single trip. That was a bad decision by the insurance company, but good for the owners of the Barnum.


The old boat never made its destination. She attempted to push her way through the ice-bound Straits of Mackinaw too early in the season and the rotting old hull wasn’t up to the task.


On April 3 the hull was sliced open by ice and the ship was in serious trouble. The bilge pumps couldn’t keep up and the water gained. The tug Crusader was dispatched from nearby Mackinaw City, but arrived in time to remove the crew.


The Barnum sank in 74 feet of water about five and a half miles southeast of where the Mackinaw Bridge now stands.


The wreck is still there and a popular visiting spot for sport divers. They say the ship rests upright. A portion of the stern is collapsing and rudder was removed. It is on public display in St. Ignace, Mich. The rest of the boat is still intact for divers to explore.


They say the Barnum is popular because it is a double deck ship with its engine, boiler, windless and a lot of machinery still in place.


The Barnum was not a large ship. It measured just 218 feet in length. It was built by Detroit shipbuilder J. M. Jones in 1873.


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