Ships 2

F. W. Backus

Ships 3

Fire Claimed Steamer F. W. Backus

By James Donahue

When launched at Amherstburg, Ontario, in 1846, the wooden steamship F. W. Backus flew the Canadian flag under the name Earl Cathcart. It was only 138 feet in length, but in its day, was considered a good sized commercial and passenger carrier for the Great Lakes.

The builders, Messrs. Parks & Co. made it clear that the steamer was destined to carry freight from Toronto to Montreal after construction of the St. Lawrence Canals were finished the following year. Thus the vessel was designed not only to pass through the Welland Canals at Niagara Falls, but navigate the upper waters of the St. Lawrence River.

Something happened in about 1852 and the Cathcart was seized by U. S. customs for violation of navigation laws. Thus the ship was rebuilt and it returned to the lakes under the U.S. flag under the name F. W. Backus.

The ship was designed to carry mostly grain and other freight, but had cabin space for up to 30 passengers that one report noted were “tastefully fitted up.” The Backus was powered by twin 40 horse power engines and boasted speeds of up to 10 miles per hour. It was powered by screw propellers.

Obviously the original plans for navigating the lower lakes were changed by the new owners, C. S. Hubbard of Chicago. The Backus caught fire and burned to a total loss while laden with livestock and nine passengers in Lake Michigan, just off Racine, Wisconsin, on Nov. 25, 1866.

Captain J. Shortell, who was at the helm when the fire was discovered, successful ran the steamer on the beach where the passengers and crew successfully waded ashore. The horses and cows were literally pushed overboard even before the Backus reached the shoreline. All of the animals were believed to have successfully made it to shore.

A local tug, the Daisy Lee, put a tow line on the burning ship and made an unsuccessful attempt to save the steamer by pulling it out into deeper water and then scuttling it. But the fire burned through the tow line and the blazing steamer drifted back to shore where it burned to a total wreck.