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St. Clair tragedy, Part I

In the mid- to late-19th century, men had land and mineral interests in more than one region of the Upper Peninsula. Among those men was Marquette resident Judge Joseph Edwards.

Edwards came to the Upper Peninsula from Youngstown, Ohio in 1851 for his health, first settling in Ontonagon, he moved to Marquette in 1858.

In 1876, as president of the Ontonagon area based Cleveland Silver Mine, Edwards periodically traveled to the region from Marquette via Lake Superior to oversee his mineral interests.

It was on one of these visits that he and others met with tragedy on the steam barge St. Clair.

Upon completion of a trip to Ontonagon on July 8, 1876, Edwards and others were looking to leave the area aboard a boat headed for the Keweenaw. Two of these men, like Edwards, were headed to Marquette.

They were Capt. Thomas Mellen of Ishpeming, superintendent of the Cleveland Silver Mine, and Neil Leitch, a lumberman from Manistee in Lower Michigan. Living temporarily in Marquette, Leitch had been in the Ontonagon area looking to invest in a mining operation.

The first vessel to arrive in Ontonagon that evening was the steam barge St. Clair, a shore boat which hauled freight and livestock and provided less than desirable accommodations for passengers. Although the St. Clair was deemed unreliable by many, it had recently passed inspection and was approved for travel on the lakes.

On a moonlit night, with calm waters, it appears passengers felt safe boarding this craft versus waiting for a more reliable vessel. The steam barge left port at midnight, July 9, with a load including cattle and sheep, and approximately 32 people.

The St. Clair was built in 1866 to carry up to 300 tons of cargo. The barge was owned by the Ward Line of Detroit. Originally used to haul cargo on the lower Great Lakes, the vessel was eventually stationed in the Lake Superior region.

When reporting the St. Clair tragedy in July 1876, The Mining Journal indicated the St. Clair had been used to haul iron ore from Marquette to iron furnaces in Onota, near Munising, and was known to local residents as the old Grand Island ore barge.

In 1876, the St. Clair’s home port was Duluth and it’s route was to and from the Keweenaw and Isle Royale, where it carried cargo and livestock to coastal communities. That same year permission was granted to build a cabin on the vessel to accommodate 20 passengers, 15 cabin and 5 steerage.

On the evening Judge Edwards boarded the St. Clair in Ontonagon it was believed the barge was carrying 17 passengers and 15 crew. It was reportedly not overloaded and there were adequate life preservers and lifeboats to accommodate everyone if necessary.

Twelve miles from Ontonagon and at least five miles from shore, near Fourteen Mile Point, an unexpected deadly obstacle was confronted at 2 a.m. — Fire! Crew members discovered smoke coming from the engine room. When an attempt was made to douse the fire with water, flames jumped out with such force that these attempts failed and the fire spread rapidly.

Alarms were sounded and passengers were given life jackets. Within minutes, chaos ensued when flames engulfed the large wooden lifeboat, leaving only a small metallic boat able to accommodate less than 15 people.

The initial launch of the small boat was hampered by individuals desperately trying to board before it was safely in the water. Once 12 men were securely placed in the boat, another passenger jumped from the upper deck causing it to capsize.

All aboard the lifeboat were tossed into the dark, freezing water. Crew members, including the captain, jumped into the lake to right the boat, but it capsized just as quickly as individuals frantically tried to climb back into it.

Editor’s note: Next week’s article will discuss the fate of the passengers and crew.

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