THE PHOENIX   written by Allan Holden    all rights reserved

    One of the first major disasters involving a steamship fire on the Great Lakes happened to one of the earliest propeller ships afloat, named the Phoenix. This terrible fire took place back in 1847. At the time, most steam-powered ships on the water were the clumsy side-wheel type, so the Phoenix was looked on as the state-of-the-art in modern steamship transportation.

    The ship was named for a mythological bird of ancient Egypt that was said to have burned itself to death, then arose again from the ashes. However this nineteenth century Phoenix, burned near Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on November 21, 1847, taking an estimated two hundred forty passengers to their death. But nothing ever rose from the ashes. . . well, almost nothing.

    Nearly three hundred people, including one-hundred-fifty Dutch immigrants traveling from Buffalo to Chicago on their way west, packed the two year old wooden hulled steamer. The immigrants had very little in the way of baggage.         Before starting this one-way trip, all their land and most personal possessions in Europe were sold. Then all the money was converted into that world-wide acceptable commodity, 'gold' which would be used to stake their claim in America, the 'Promise Land' of their day.

     I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many of the Dutch immigrants may have been planning to join family already settled in Holland, Michigan, . . . had they made it that far.

    On this trip, the Phoenix's holds were filled with general merchandise, including tons of sugar and molasses. The last item to be loaded was a large piece of machinery destined for a factory that was located just one port west of Sheboygan.

    As the steamer cleared the Straits of Mackinac and headed west into northern Lake Michigan, the weather was kicking up. Lake Michigan in November can be dangerous even to the giant freighters of today! In the high seas, the overloaded ship struggled to make headway. The firemen kept the boilers stoked and tried to get as much steam power as the engine would give.

    It started to look like a losing battle. As the ship inched its way across the lake and neared its first Lake Michigan port of Sheboygan, the captain made a fateful decision.

    Only a short distance, further down the shore, was what would have been his second stop. This was where the heavy piece of machinery could be unloaded. Knowing that his ship was dangerously overloaded and hard to maneuver in this weather, he decided to unload the heavy machinery first, then return to Sheboygan.

    Two of his Sheboygan passengers were sisters identified as the "Misses Hazelton." The girls were returning home from the east where they had been attending school. Respecting the captain's decision, the girls watched as the ship inched pass their home port. They were even within sight of their family's house.

    The ship docked safely and crews quickly set about the task of unloading the large iron machinery and some other merchandise. As soon as possible, the captain had his ship underway again for Sheboygan. As soon as the ship had cleared the dock, the captain ordered the firemen to bring up a full head of steam with plans to make up for lost time. By now it was 4:00 am, the ship was under full speed with the wind at her back.

    Just as they were nearing Sheboygan, for the second time, a fireman noticed flames on the underside of the deck over the boiler. About that same time, flames were noticed coming out of the ventilators used for moving hot air from the boiler room. Mr. House, the ship's engineer, immediately organized fire-fighting efforts. Three pumps and several bucket lines proved to be no match for the raging inferno!

    As the fire progressed, panic broke out! The ship was now dead in the water, and in site of Sheboygan! As the fire raged, people threw themselves into the freezing water. There were only two lifeboats, and each one was limited to twenty-three people. Of course this meant that most of the people had no way of escaping the flames other than jumping overboard. There, even the strong swimmers died quickly in the icy water.

    Many aboard the lifeboats witnessed the young Hazelton sisters joining hands, looking toward heaven, and jumping into the water never to surface.

    Another propeller steamship arrived on the scene, but too late to save anyone. The Delaware tried to tow the still burning hull into Sheboygan. As she neared the harbor, one of the anchors from the Phoenix dropped. The sailors decided to cut the chain and let the smoking hull drift onto the beach.

    Such a very sad story indeed. There are many web pages put together by  descendants of the many families represented in the Phoenix disaster. Some of these web sites are a beautiful tribute to the lost. Some sites even show lists of names of those who died and those who were saved.  It's interesting to note that the records in those day's often listed the man's name, yet the spouse is simply "Wife of" or "Child of." One account listed, "2 colored cooks" otherwise nameless.

    The next spring, using logs as rollers and all the man and horse power they could get, the hull of the charred ship was dragged onto the beach to dry and then the remaining wreckage was burned. After the ashes and twisted iron was cleared from the beach, a local resident sifted through the sand and found enough Dutch gold coins to buy the first dairy cows in Sheboygan.

My question is, "Did he get them all?" Probably so, he had lots of time and a good incentive.