“Lamentable Occurrence – Four Persons Drowned in Lake Michigan”
The press agitated for better port facilities well before Milwaukee incorporated as a city (1846) or Wisconsin became a state (1848). On October 11,1839, local citizens were once again reminded of the perils created by inadequate port facilities. Four persons drowned while returning to the steamer, DEWITT CLINTON, which was anchored in deep water off Milwaukee.
The steamer, DEWITT CLINTON, was built at Huron, Ohio. She was 147 feet long with a 27-foot beam and an 11-foot draft. Her master was A.H. Squier and she regularly sailed between Buffalo and Chicago.
On October 11, while on her return trip from Chicago, the DEWITT CLINTON stopped at Milwaukee. There was no pier and the harbor would not admit a vessel drawing more than five feet. So she anchored about one mile from the beach. Four of her crew and four passengers went into Milwaukee to conduct business. At about eight o’clock that night the eight attempted to return. By that time, a strong northeast wind was blowing.
The eight men set out for the DEWITT CLINTON “in a most excellent yawl (although not belonging to the steamboat).” About midway between the beach and vessel, their small boat was filled with water by the high surf. Of the eight, two saved themselves by swimming to shore. Captain Squier and one of the passengers, A.H. Gardner, remained with the yawl for over an hour before being rescued. Four were lost, including three of the CLINTON’s crew: L. Randall, clerk; W. Vosburgh, steward; and G. Brown, mate.
It was later learned that all who perished wore their overcoats. Those who survived had removed them to aid in rowing the boat. Mr. Brown was not found – it was reported that he carried $2,600 in bills and $400 in gold in his coat pockets. During the ordeal, Mr. Gardner lost his coat and the $900 he was carrying.
The Milwaukee Advertiser called it “another painful incident to record in consequence of the want of improvement of our harbor.” The Cleveland Daily Herald wrote: “The destruction of life and property on Lake Michigan owing to the want of sufficient harbors should awaken the attention of Congress to the subject.” About Milwaukee’s harbor it claimed: “$20,000 will make the harbor accessible to any craft on the lakes.”
Milwaukee would get a cargo pier. It was built during the winter of 1842-43 at the foot of Huron (now Clybourn) Street. It permitted passengers and freight to be unloaded from large vessels that could not enter the Milwaukee River. A plaque outside Discovery World commemorates this early harbor improvement.
Photo credit: from the Great Lakes Marine Collection of the Milwaukee Public Library and Wisconsin Marine Historical Society.
Wisconsin Marine Historical Society
814 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53233