John Osborn

Steamship Alberta – "The Terror of the Lakes"

By James Donahue

The steel steamship Alberta gained a nickname, "The Terror of the Lakes," for good reason. It kept colliding with other vessels and was involved in the crash that sent the steamer John Osborne to the bottom on Lake Superior in 1884.

The Alberta and its sister ship, the Algoma, were both steel-hulled ships built in Scotland and brought across the Atlantic Ocean and up the St. Lawrence River in 1883 for service on the Great Lakes. The Alberta, a monster for its day at 264-feet, had to be cut into two parts at Montreal so it could be towed through the Welland Canal. Then it was reassembled at Buffalo. At 262 feet, the Algoma, designed for service for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was only two-feet smaller but also considered a fine luxury vessel in its day.

The Alberta and Algoma were the first steel ships ever to ply the Great Lakes. The Algoma only lasted two years. She went on the rocks, broke apart and sank at Isle Royal in 1885.

The Alberta was built for comfort and speed, but its owners, in an effort to compete for the superiority of the lakes with this new type of ship, attempted to set speed records which led to trouble. The Osborne disaster was the Alberta’s fourth collision of the 1884 season. And two weeks after she was repaired and back in service, she collided with the steamer Campana at Sault Ste. Marie.

The collisions led to law suits and the steamer gained a bad reputation. But the Alberta remained on the lakes, her operators cleaning up their act, and over the years the ship gained a reputation as a dependable vessel. She remained in service until it was scrapped in 1947, 64 years after its launch.

The collision with the John M. Osborne off Lake Superior’s Whitefish Point on July 27, 1884, was the Alberta’s darkest hour. The two ships came together in dense fog late in the evening. The larger Alberta, steaming at a full speed of 12 knots with its whistle blowing, sliced into the side of the 178-foot-long wooden hull of the Osborne, puncturing the doomed ship’s boiler. The steam from the exploding boiler scalded the engine room crew alive.

While the two ships remained wedged together, sailors from the Osborne scrambled over the railing, boarding the Alberta. A bold passenger on the Alberta named Cook jumped to the deck of the Osborne to help crew members board the larger vessel. He and three members of the Osborn’s crew went down with the steamer when it suddenly broke away and sank.

The Osborne was carrying 1,120 tons of iron ore and it sank quickly. It also had two schooner-barges, the George W. Davis and Thomas Gawn in tow. All three vessels were carrying ore.

A passing steam barge, the Hecla, stopped to take the two schooner barges in tow and the Alberta, its bow crushed, slowly steamed back to Sault Ste. Marie with the survivors.

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