Wreck Of The Sunbeam


By James Donahue


The demise of the steamer Sunbeam off Lake Superior's Eagle Harbor in 1863 was a major blow for merchants and residents in the port towns along Superior's coast. The ship was among the first steamboats to ply the lake, and it was considered an important link between the various frontier towns and eastern "civilization."


When it entered Lake Superior's trade route in 1861, the Sunbeam was touted by the newspapers of the day as "the finest steamer on the lakes." the vessel provided both passenger and freight service.


The Sunbeam, with Capt. William Dougall at the helm, met its untimely end on Aug. 29, when caught in a storm while on route from Ontonagon to Copper Harbor. The vessel rode out the storm all the previous night, but that morning a seam in the hull opened and the boat began taking on water. The leak got so bad the ship's pumps could not keep up.


At first Captain Dougall had the ship's bow turned into the teeth of the gale, but after hours of punishment, he tried to turn the boat around and run for cover. While making the turn the vessel got caught in the trough of the seas and was unable to get out of the trap. The rising water put out the fires under the boilers and the Sunbeam became a floating derelict. Even the staysail failed to give her any steerageway.


By 8 p.m. that night, Captain Dougall gave the order to abandon ship. As the loaded lifeboats were pulling away, a lone woman appeared on the deck and begged to be saved. Wheelsman Charles Fregeau volunteered his seat and stayed behind on the wreck.


To save himself, Fregeau lashed himself to a wooden section of the hurricane deck and cast himself into the storm tossed lake.


Fregeau, who ironically was the only survivor, rode out the storm for 30 hours until the following afternoon, when he was blown ashore on the rock beach along the Keweenaw. There he waited until rescued by a party of Frenchmen and Chippewa Indians. They took him to Houghton where Fregeau informed authorities about the wreck of the Sunbeam.


Lost was the Sunbeam's crew of nine other sailors plus an undisclosed number of passengers.


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