Catastrophe of the Steamer "Wisconsin"
Written by Laurie Donohue
posted on January 13, 2015 12:22
Sometimes when we write about the past, we are reliant upon the words of those who came before us. So in this article, I present the words of those who came before me, and the stories they told about the sinking of the Wisconsin on Lake Ontario, on May 20, 1867.
If we stepped back, almost 100 years, we would find people in the North Country saying “What were you doing when you heard about the Wisconsin…” just as we think of our monumental moments of today – such as where we were on 9/11 when planes hit the World Trade Centre.
I found my first article about the Wisconsin, when I was looking for information about Andrew Morrison. I am a genealogist and my task was to join this Andrew to the person I was helping.
Andrew was the son of Martin Morris and his wife Mary Rutter. They immigrated to the United States, on or about 1814 and their 4th child, Andrew F. Morrison was brought into the world in New York City in 1815, but by 1830, they were residents of Cape Vincent, Jefferson County, NY.
Andrew Morrison married Gertrude M. Hollenbeck, a native of Clayton and they had nine children. By May 1867, his second son, Abram (b.1844), joined his father as crewmen on the Wisconsin.
Over the course of several weeks I was able to piece the family story together and with it came the story of the sinking of the Wisconsin - only a few hours after she had left the Port of Cape Vincent.
To find the answers, I went to my favorite “go to” place for North Country history - the St Lawrence County newspapers, where I found accounts written at the time of the catastrophe, in 1867. A sample provides an overview of this terrible shipwreck.
[Note: I have not made grammatical corrections to quoted material. However, I have put in paragraph spacing for reading ease.]
The first article was found under date of February 1931. Fred Morrison, a native of Cape Vincent, writes to the Cape Vincent Eagle from Glenville, Minn., as follows:
Editor Eagle: In your issue of February 5 (1931), which contained a write up of Who Remembers Catastrophe of the Steamer "Wisconsin," on May 20, 1867? I left Cape Vincent in 1865 but remember well the time of this catastrophe. My late brother, Henry, was there and saw the wreck. The first engineer was my uncle. His name was Andrew Morrison, and his son, "Abe" Morrison, was the second engineer on this boat when the accident occurred. [February 19, 1931 Cape Vincent Eagle]
Soon after I was able to find the original Cape Vincent Eagle February 5th article.
"Dear Mr. Editor;
It is not my intention to submerge you with narratives that originated in your village fifty or sixty years ago, but in looking over some notes which had been laid aside a number of years, I discovered one briefly describing a catastrophe that occurred a few miles from your village sixty-three years ago. I am sending this with the thought that it may contain something of interest to the readers, of your paper.
"How many of your older residents who are living in the Cape at this time remember the cloud of gloom that hung over the little village of Cape Vincent on the 20th day of May, 1867 or the cause of it? On this date the Northern Transportation Co., of Chicago, was operating a line consisting of twenty-one steamers between Ogdensburg and Chicago. The steamers all used four foot wood for fuel. I mention the matter of fuel at this time because this was the real cause of the catastrophe.
Coal was not yet being used to any extent for fuel. Every other night, between ten and eleven o'clock, one of these steamers called at the Cape to take on passengers and freight. On the date mentioned the steamer 'Wisconsin' left Ogdensburg on time, arrived at the Cape at the usual hour, took on passengers and freight and departed for the West.
About a mile or so beyond Tibbett's Point Light House, fire was discovered in the boiler room. All efforts of the crew to gain control of the fire proving futile, the captain decided to beach the steamer on Grenadier Island. This he did, but before reaching the Island the steamer had become almost wholly enveloped in flames.
As soon as the vessel grounded, passengers and crew began leaping into the water. To prevent the possibility of a boiler explosion, the engineer, when obliged to leave the engine room, had purposely left the engine running.
Many of the people jumping from the stern of the steamer were killed and badly mangled as they were struck by the wheel. It was here where the greatest loss of life occurred. The steamer was almost entirely destroyed. After checking up on passengers and crew, twenty two were found to be missing.
The twenty-two bodies were recovered the following day and brought to the Cape on the steamer 'Pierrepont.' A temporary morgue was provided in the R. W. & O, freight house, where the inquest was held, and the bodies of the victims prepared for shipment to their former homes.
A family by the name of Chisholm were among the passengers on this boat on this eventful night. They came from Scotland a few weeks before, landed in Montreal and resided there a short time before deciding what part of the west they would make their future home.
There were eight in the family and five of this number perished, the mother and four children. The remaining members of the family, the father and two sons, John and William, remained in the Cape and died there a good many years ago.
The elder Chisholm sued the Northern Transportation Co. for $50,000. The suit was contested for eight or ten years and was finally settled for $10,000. During the time the Chisholms were in Montreal, one of the daughters married a Grand Trunk Railroad man named Semper. He was killed in a railroad accident a few years later. Mrs. Semper was the mother of the late Charles and William Semper who were well known contractors of this city. Later Mrs. Semper married an old time attorney of your village Francis N. Fitch. "Thus ended a tragedy that caused a great deal of mental as well as physical suffering." [Cape Vincent Eagle 5 Feb 1931]”
This definitely had my interest! I needed to know more about the Wisconsin and found a 1915 article,
“Many people are still living who recall the Propellers of the Northern Transportation Company, which were built in Ogdensburg and which ran for many years, between Ogdensburg and Chicago. This line was launched in the early 50's and flourished until the Civil War, when a decline set in, though the line continued for several years after that. There were twenty one boats in the fleet, so that there was one leaving each terminal every day during the season, carrying both passengers and freight. The liners burned wood and the principal fueling station was at Lee's Point, near Fishers Landing. After 1870 a few of the boats ran from Chicago to Michigan ports for ten years. Nearly every one of the original twenty-one vessels came to grief and their wreckage strews the bottom all the way from Chicago to Ogdensburg.” [Cape Vincent Eagle 1915]
I discovered that Miss Helen Armstrong presented a formal research paper at the June 1928 meeting of the Improvement League, and in fact, the paper won a prize.
It was Miss Armstong’s essay that shed more light on the catastrophe. [See THE PLACE, History tab]
“…On account of the fire in the engine room the machinery could not be stopped, consequently all of the passengers and crew who swarmed over the rear were drawn under by the forceful current caused by the Propeller Wheel. The yawl (lifeboat) was ordered lowered and the captain begged and threatened the frantic, terrified passengers not to overload.
However the boat was loaded beyond its capacity and before it reached the water the forward tackle became fouled and the second mate, in his excitement, cut it, sending the bow with the whole load into the water.
At last the steward, C. H. Dodge, went over the bow with a line and reaching the shore fastened it securely. Over this line came the remaining passengers and crew and all who used this means of rescue were saved.
There were twenty-four persons drowned and all except one woman were identified.
As one enters the old Market Street Cemetery, a tall marble monument, on which is listed the names of five members of the Robert Chisholm family, is seen on the left and this grim shaft marks, perhaps, the most pathetic incident of the tragedy. The first and second engineers, Andrew Morrison and his son, Abram, who lived in Cape Vincent, and first mate John Powers, of Ogdensburg, were also drowned.
. . . Perhaps no other disaster, whether of fire, drowning or wreck, made such an impression, on the hearts and minds of the people of Cape Vincent as did the burning of the "Wisconsin".” (Cape Vincent Eagle 19 Mar 1931)”
I get shivers every time I read the part about the passengers in the lifeboat falling into the water and being sucked into the wheel! But what about the passengers; except for a few of the lost, there were limited names and as a genealogist, my first instinct was to see if I might have a “lost” relative.
“… George Ashworth of Lawrence, Mass., whose name is first on the list of saved from the Ill fated steamer Wisconsin, arrived here on the noon train of the E. W. & O. R. R. yesterday, on his way home, having lost everything he had with him. From him we learn the following interesting additional particulars of the terrible calamity which befell the WISCONSIN, on the night of the 21st.
It was by the swamping of this boat that all the loss of life occurred, and the total number, he thinks, will reach twenty five to thirty. But two persons in this mass were saved—Mr. Chisholm, who lost five of his family, and a Mrs. Gallagher, who was picked up a mile from the wreck, three hours after she grounded. Mrs. Gallagher had caught hold of a plank, and she was noticed floating away. Search was made twice before she was finally rescued, and when picked up, she was nearly exhausted. The gang plank was launched and rope taken ashore, and down this rope the passengers were passed to the shore; the Captain standing in the water, up to his neck, and handing them towards the land, while the Second Mate superintended the launching. A few feet from the vessel the water was shallow enough to permit a six-footer to keep his head above water. There were several small children on board, all of whom were saved. One child, eight months old, was taken by one of the crew from the arms of its mother. The gallant fellow jumped overboard, and bore his little charge safe to land. Those of the passengers who had retired, did not have time to even dress themselves, and saved only their night clothes. (May 21, 1867)
- Geo. Ashworth, Lawrence; Mass.
- J. Cook, West Malta, C. W.
- Oliver Joiner, Forestville, Mich.
- James R. Deane, Lawrence, Mass.
- C. W. Joiner, Royalsville, Vt.
- Robert Chisholm, (wife, son and three daughters lost.)
- John Cascaden, Centreville.
- Ira Creed, Potsdam, (three of his family lost.)
- D. C. Forest, Carthage.
- M. Carrol Kingston, C. W.
- Samuel Dealtie, Kingston, C. W.
- John Dalerborough, Smiths Falls, C. W.
- T. Enright, 2d cook.
- Mary Mcllheny, cabin maid.
- James Mayatte, Medina.
- P. H. Perry, Russell, C. E.
- O. D. Shaver, wheelsman.
- D. Fisher, A. Waldon Saulsby and two children, Alexander.
- S. C. Fuller, Odessa, C. W,.
- Mrs. Dannie and one girl, Brockville.
- Mrs. Tallman and one boy Oswego.
- F. F. Fraser, Prescott.
- L. Latnice, wife and six children.
- Wm. Cousin, Granville, C.E.
- John McNeat, Granville C.E.
- Rev. James Armons, wife and four children, Craftsbury, Vt.
- Alvin Richards, Manchester, N. H.
- D. S. Reed, Manchester, N. H.
- Mark Richards, Alvin Reed, C. W. Clough, Mrs. George A. Richards, Mrs. Gallagher, Pembroke, C. E., (her husband was lost.)
- Mrs. Dine, Oswego.
- R. T. Fuller, Odessa, C. W.
- Samuel Fuller, North Gower, C.W.
- Lucinda Fitterlie.
- Capt. Townsend, James Shaver, second mate;
- Charles P. Shaver, wheelsman;
- C. W. Dodge, steward;
- Warren Tracy, cabin-boy;
- Edward Masterson, porter;
- Joseph Johnson, fireman;
- three deck hands, names unknown.
Known to be Lost
- Mrs. C. Chisholm, Chateaugay.
- Miss Chisholm, Chateaugay
- Miss Mary A. Chisholm, "
- Miss Catherine Chisholm, "
- Master Thomas Chisholm "
- Mrs. Nancy Creed, Potsdam
- Miss Catherine Creed, "
- Frederick Creed, "
- Mr. Gallagher, Pembroke, C. E.
- A. F. Morrison, first engineer, Clayton.
- A. W. Morrison, second engineer, Clayton
- John Powers, first mate, Ogdensburgh.
- Edward McCormick, Ogdensburgh.
- David Horan, Prescott
Soon after the disaster additional facts came to light.
“…A report to the Watertown Reformer gave the total loss of life at 40. It will be noticed that all of the lost whose names are reported, except those of the crew, are from three families. There were several persons known to be on board, whose names are not reported in either of the above lists.” 1867 “Ogdensburg Journal”
“…Additional Names of the Lost. The bodies of the following persons not before reported lost, from the "Wisconsin", have been recovered. Artimus White, Henry Chatham, Henry McAlpine, John Goodwin, George Lindsay, James Casey, and A. J. Cook.” 1867 “Ogdensburg Journal”
I found a reference to my Andrew Morrison in the Potsdam Courier Freeman, “The last body taken from the water was that of Andrew F. Morrison, the engineer, six weeks after the disaster.”
Further research confirmed that two families filed lawsuits against the Northern Transportation Company, in 1869. Robert Chrisholm was awarded $7,800 by the jury…
… The Watertown Informer” says the evidence tended to show over-firing (the Morrison’s), intoxication of the fireman (Joseph Strong and Joseph Johnson), and a remark of the Captain (Townsend) to the effect that he would overtake a certain schooner or sink the boat to hell. There are other cases pending against the Company, involving precisely the same points, in which over $50,000 damages are claimed. The Company will carry the case to the Court of Appeals.
The greatest care has always been exercised by the President and Directors of the Northern Transportation Company, in the selection of its employees. The most rigid scrutiny is maintained over the conduct of the officers and crews of the boats, and the least incompetency or disregard for the safety of life or property, is made the occasion of a "ticket of leave." It will be remembered that the accident to the Wisconsin occurred on the first or second trip of the season, of 1861.” (1869 “Ogdensburg Journal”)
Can you imagine what it was like to be on the shore of Grenadier island that night? The Humphrey Farm must have been quite the scene, with the grounding, the screams and the rescue all by the lurid light of the burning boat. I would imagine it was never forgotten by those families.
So here ends my foray into a little NNY history. I love reading the old newspaper article’s and “chasing” a story. However, there are still questions to be answered. I would love to find more about “Mrs. Gallagher,” the lady who was picked up, floating on a plank, a mile from the wreck, three hours after the ship grounded. We know she lost her husband, but there appeared to have no children with them. They are listed as being from Pembroke, Canada East (North of Ottawa in Renfrew Co., Ontario). She reminds me of the unsinkable Molly Brown and if anyone knows her fate, I would love to hear it.
I think reading about these momentous news articles, is as much fun, 145+ years later, as it was back then. I absolutely cannot thank the NNY library system enough for making these article available, they have transformed how we do our research! They have also made it possible to reach back to the past and connect.
By Laurie Donohue
Laura (Laurie) Donohue was born in Alexandria Bay, and also lived in Utica, Lowville & Redwood, NY. She currently lives in Watertown with her husband Ryan. She is a “gleaner" in genealogy terms, which means she volunteers to sift through large streams of data, looking for names, dates, places, etc. to help people who are searching for relatives in St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties. “That,” she says, “was what I was doing when I found articles about the fire on the “Wisconsin.”
Comment by: Brian Johnson
Left at: 7:27 AM Thursday, January 15, 2015
Laura, I know this story quite well as it involves a chapter in my upcoming book 'Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island'. Captain Coleman Hinckley of the steamer 'Watertown' brought many bodies ashore to the Cape the following day. I have been in that cemetery at the Chisholm gravesite. Very sad tale.Thank You for this. A lot more info than I had!
Comment by: Dave Swayze
Left at: 8:51 AM Friday, January 16, 2015
Excellent story! Events like this and the people who participated in them should not be forgotten by time. Local sources are always the best.
Comment by: Michelle Convery Mauck
Left at: 9:16 PM Monday, February 16, 2015
Laura I was wondering if you would be interested in helping research one of my grandmother's sisters who lived in Alex Bay. You can contact me at my email address
M.firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
Comment by: marc morrison
Left at: 9:10 PM Friday, July 17, 2015
I just recently came across this bit of NY history while researching my family ancestors...Martin and Mary Morrison are my ggg-grandparents. I would like to see where my ancestors lived in Cape Vincent some day..most of the Morrison children moved out of NY after the civil war..my particular branch came to east Texas after the war. Very interesting story. Marc Morrison, Kerrville, TX
Comment by: Peter Townsend
Left at: 2:38 AM Sunday, April 23, 2017
Thank you for your article. Very informative and much appreciated.
My 3x great-grandfather Simeon Townsend (1830-1913) was the Captain of the Wisconsin. A mention of the Wisconsin disaster was included in a biography of Simeon Townsend published in "The Oak Park Reporter", Oak Park, Illinois on August 21, 1902.
Simeon was married to Harriet Eliza Shaver (1836-1895). Her father Oliver Shaver (1805-1870), brother Alvah Shaver, Sr (1829-1887), and nephew Alvah Shaver, Jr. (1855-1908) were all captains of steamships on the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes. The Shaver family was from the Prescott, Canada / Ogdensburg, NY area. I suspect the crew members of the Wisconsin with the surname Shaver are part of the same Shaver family.
Simeon is the youngest of six children of Henry K Townsend (1798-1830) and Laura Graves (1798-1830s), married in Champion, Jeffferson, NY on July 21, 1817. Simeon's grandfather Absalom Townsend (1765-1819) is found in Fairfield, Herkmer, NY during the 1800 census and in Leray, Jefferson, NY during the 1810 census. Simeon's father Henry Townsend was born in Fairfield, NY and is found in his own household in Leray, Jefferson, NY during the 1920 census before moving to Lagrange, Lorain, Ohio in 1826 where the Townsend family is found during the 1830 census.
I would be very interested to learn more about the Townsend family in Jefferson County, NY and the Shaver family in the Prescott/Ogdensburg area.
Comment by: Peter Townsend
Left at: 2:53 AM Sunday, April 23, 2017
[Transcript of a biography published in "The Oak Park Reporter" on August 21, 1902] ----- CAPTAIN TOWNSEND -----
In the village of LaGrange, Ohio, seventy two years ago, Simeon Townsend first saw the light of day. The boy left the "Buckeye" state with his parents when a mere child. Quite early in life he was deprived of the advice and counsel of his parents by death. Realizing that life was real he soon determined to make it earnest, for he had his way to make in the world. He fancied that "life on the wave" would be to his liking, so when a boy of sixteen years of age, he shipped on a sailing vessel and here he grew to man's estate, being tossed on the deep before the mast for years. Being quick to learn the ways on ship board and possessing good habits and a fair education which came to him as he studied and labored, he soon found favor in the sight of those with whom he was working and promotion came to him in due time. Rising from the position of common deck hand to mate of the vessel brought him newer and graver responsibilities but he proved to be equal to the emergency every time. When trusty men were wanted Simeon Townsend was always found to be among those selected.. Time passed on and the boy grew to be a man and a man's duties and responsibilities were placed on him with the understanding that he was able to meet them. He sailed into the Chicago harbor in 1851, at that time, the now only Chicago in the world was but a village of limited proportions. The Clark street bridge was the only bridge in the city at that time. Further advancement was in store for Simeon. Now he engaged with the Northern transportation company, then as now, owning and operating a line of screw stern wheel steamers, plying between Ogdensburg, New York and Chicago and intermediate points, engaged in carrying passengers and freight. He remained with the company for fifteen years. Mr. Townsend was the first mate of the steamer Louisville [12 October 1856] when she was burned to the water's edge on the St. Lawrence river, running her ashore - high and dry on the bank of the river just above Prescott on the Canadian side of the river. Not a life was lost. Once when the steamer Buckeye [28 July 1861] was in port, at Detroit, she was discovered to be on fire. Mr Townsend was mate of this vessel at the time we speak of. Later he was captain of the steamer Wisconsin [21 May 1867], and this large boat was destroyed by the fiery flame. It will be observed that Captain Townsend had reason to be afraid of fire on the water. About this time he quit steamboating and engaged in merchantle pursuits in which he was quite successful. He was careful and conservative in his business matters and if he had stopped at the right time he could have retired from business with a competency. Instead of retiring from business and retiring on the "sunny side of easy street" he was persuaded to enlarge his business - form a company and this was his undoing. In a few years his business was gone - the other fellows had the money and Captain Townsend had the experience. The captain is an old man now - he is not looking for any more partnership concerns - he lives in Oak Park and you see him every day - he is simply discharging the duties devolved upon him as flagman for the elevated railroad company at the Oak Park and South boulevard station.