Steamboat Atlantic

The Great Atlantic Disaster


By James Donahue


For years there was an old joke about how Lake Erie swallowed The Atlantic. It was a sick joke at best since it referred to one of the worst disasters on the Great Lakes. That wreck was the sinking of the steamer Atlantic and loss of between 130 and 250 lives following a collision with the steamer Ogdensburg.


It happened in 1852, back in the days when steamboats were distinguished from propellers because they were driven by large wheels mounted on their sides. The Atlantic was such a boat.


Long by 267 feet, low and sleek in appearance, the Atlantic was just four years old and remembered as among the most luxurious and fastest steamships on the lakes. The first class state rooms were said to have been decorated with gold gilding, tapestries and carved rosewood furnishings. Her owners boasted that the boat could steam from Buffalo to Detroit in just over 16 hours.


The Atlantic was built for Capt. E. B. Ward of Detroit in 1849 by J. L. Wolverton in Newport, the old name for Marine City, Michigan.


The collision should not have happened. The Atlantic, carrying an estimated 600 passengers, was steaming westward toward Detroit, and the Ogdensburg, a smaller, propeller-driven vessel, was traveling north toward the Canadian shore. Witnesses said the weather was slightly hazy but the lake was calm and the stars were visible when the Ogdensburg struck the ill-fated Atlantic amidships at about 2 a.m.


Amund Eidsmoe, one of 132 Norwegian immigrants sleeping on the open deck of the overcrowded boat, gave the following graphic description of what it was like to have the bow of the other ship strike the boat.


“The deck was crowded with every conceivable thing: baggage, new wagons and much other stuff. So we lay down to rest but sleep was not of long duration. . . We were awakened by a loud crash and saw a large beam fall down upon a Norwegian woman of our company. It crushed several bones and completely tore the head off a little baby that lay at her side.


“Another ship had collided with ours and knocked a large hole in the side of the Atlantic so that a flood of water rushed into the cabins. People came up as thick and fast as they could crowd themselves.”


Eidsmoe said for some unknown reason, the boat’s crew did all it could to block their escape from the flooding below. “The sailors became absolutely raving and tried to get as many killed as possible. When they saw that people crowded up they struck them on the heads and shoulders to drive them down again. When this did not help, they took and raised the stairway up on end so the people fell down backwards again. Then they jerked the ladder up on the deck. All hopes were gone for those that were underneath.”


Erik Thorstad, another Norwegian, was sleeping in one of the ship’s cabins when he was awakened by a loud crash that he assumed was the noise of a collision. He said he went on deck to ask what happened but could not get any answers.


“I could not believe that there was any immediate danger, for the engines were still in motion,” Thorstad said. “I went up to the top deck, and then I was convinced at once that the steamer must have been damaged, for many people were lowering about with the greatest haste.”


He said he soon realized that the Atlantic was sinking fast and that the water was rising up through the decks below him. He scrambled with the other passengers up the various stairways.


“We thereupon climbed up to the third deck, where the pilot was at the wheel,” Thorstad said. “I had altogether given up hope of being saved, for the boat began to sink more and more, and the water almost reached up there.


“While we stood thus, much distressed, we saw several people putting out a small boat, whereupon we at once hastened to help. We succeeded in getting it well out, and I was one of the first to get into the boat. When there were as many as the boat could hold, it was fortunately pushed away from the steamer. As oars were wanting, we rowed with our hands, and several bailed water from the boat with their hats.”


For some strange reason, after they collided, both steamers separated and for a while continued on their course as if nothing had happened. The Atlantic soon came to a stop, however, after the water flooded her engines. Because she was still under way, attempts by the crew and passengers to launch life boats failed and a lot of people were tossed into the lake to drown.


There were reports of widespread panic, with many people wildly jumping overboard. The captain of the Atlantic, his name only given as Petty, was injured when he fell into a yawl shortly after the collision and failed to take command. Nobody else took any authority either. Consequently a lot of people perished as the big steamer sank stern first in about 165 feet of water.


Since the Atlantic was longer than the water was deep, a portion of the boat was probably settled on the bottom of Lake Erie while the bow was still afloat with people clinging to it.


It was at about that time that the pilot of the Ogdensburg apparently came to his senses, turned his vessel around, and came back to the scene of the disaster to rescue survivors. People were actually removed from the upper deck of the sinking Atlantic as well as pulled from the water.


Because the purser had the boat’s manifest on the ship, there was no accurate description of the number of passengers on the Atlantic that night, or how many were lost. Estimates ranged from as high was 600 to as low as 250. Beers History of the Great Lakes concluded that the actual number may have been as low as 131.


For years after the wreck, divers made daring attempts to salvage money and jewelry said to have been lost with the Atlantic. Many of them died trying.  


Of further interest, the Ogdensburg also was sunk in a collision on Lake Erie. It happened in 1864, just 12 years later, when the propeller collided with the schooner Snow Bird and foundered. This time the passengers and crew escaped.



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