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Report of the Pioneer Society of Michigan Vol. IV, published 1883 Pgs. 112, 113, 114 and 115

Transcribed by August 30, 1999 by Patricia Hamp


Extracted from:

Sketch of Life and Times of James Witherell

The Buffalo Historical Society, through Hon. E. C. Walker, some years before Mrs. Palmer's death, asked of her an account of the wreck of the Walk-in-the-water. The following is a copy of her letter:

Hon. E. C. Walker:

DEAR SIR,-At your suggestion I now give you a sketch of my recollection of the loss of the Walk-in-the-water, and a copy of the letter accompanying the pictures.

The first steamboat built on the Upper Lakes was named the Walk-in-the-water, not only from its appropriateness, but from a chief of the Wyandotte Indians, who lived with his band about twelve miles below Detroit, on the margin of the Detroit River. His Indian name was Mier, and signified a turtle, and his Totem, or signature, was the figure of a turtle.

The boat has been so often described that it is needless to repeat it. She was built at Black Rock, which place continued for some time to be her most eastern port and the terminus of her route; Buffalo at that time having no pier or dock to accommodate her.

She was hauled up the rapids by sixteen yoke of oxen, aided by her engine. She made her trial trip in August, 1818. I was a passenger on her first regular trip, as well as her last. She left Buffalo on her first regular trip, as near as I can recollect, on Wednesday morning, September 1st, 1818. She carried at that time considerable freight and a large number of passengers, among whom was the Earl of Selkirk, Lady Selkirk, and two children; Colonel Dixon, the British Indian Agent for the Northwest, Colonel Jno. Anderson, U.S. Engineer, his wife and wife's sister, Miss Taylor; Colonel Leavenworth, U. S. A., wife and daughter, Colonel James Watson of Washington city, Major Abraham Edwards, who subsequently lived in Detroit, and afterwards removed to Kalamazoo, Mich., where he died about two years ago. She reached Detroit at about 9 o'clock on Monday morning, September 5th, 1818, and as she ushered in a new era in the navigation of the Upper Lakes, her arrival was hailed with delight, and announced by the firing of one gun, which custom was continued for many years. Captain Job Fish was, I think, the commander at that time.

It so happened that on my return from New York, in company with my husband, Mr. Thomas Palmer, and his sister, now Mrs. Catherine Hickman (sic), of this city, we arrived in Buffalo just in time to take passage on her last trip. She lay at the pier on the middle ground. We went on board in a yawl. The boat immediately got under way at 4 P. M., the last day of October, A. D.1821, and steamed up the lake. Before we reached Point Abino the wind came on to blow a gale. Captain Rogers, her commander at that time, made every effort to get behind the Point (Abino), but the wind was too strong ahead. It rained incessantly. The night was very dark, and to add to the danger of the situation, the boat began to leak badly. About eight o'clock, the Captain, finding it impossible to proceed farther, put about and started for Buffalo.

The sailing master (Miller) proposed running the boat into the Niagara River and anchoring, but the Captain said it was so dark that she might strike the pier in the attempt, and in such a case 110 human power could save a soul on board. The boat was run to within a few miles of the pier, as the Captain supposed, no light from the lighthouse being visible, although as was after-wards learned, it had been kept brightly burning. Three anchors were dropped, one with a chain and two with hempen cables. The boat plunged heavily at her anchorage. This, I think, was about 10 o'clock in the evening. The leak continued to increase. The whole power of the engine was applied to the pumps. The boat dragged her anchors. The night was one of terrible suspense. It was the impression of the greater number on board that we should never see the morning.

The water gained gradually in spite of every exertion, and it became evident, as the night wore on, that the bark must founder or be run on shore, which the Captain concluded, either from the sound of the breakers or from calculations of distances and courses, could not be far off. Most of the passengers were calm. One instance of coolness I remember. A Mr. Thurston, when requested to go on deck and prepare for the worst, replied: "No, I have great confidence in Captain Rogers; he promised to land me in Cleveland, and I know he will do it," wrapped his cloak around him and lay down on a settee.

About half-past four in the morning the Captain sent down for all the passengers to come on deck. He bad decided, although ignorant of the exact location, to permit the boat to go on shore. We could see no lights. The chain cable was slipped, and the two hempen ones cut. Drifting before the gale, the Walk-in-the-water, in about half an hour, grazed the beach. The next swell let her down with a crash of crockery and of glass, the third left her farther up the shore, fixed immovably in the sand. The swells made a clean breach over her. Some of the ladies were in their night clothes, and all were repeatedly drenched.

When daylight came, a sailor succeeded in getting ashore in a small boat, with one end of a hawser, which he tied to a tree, the other end being tied on board. By the aid of the hawser, all the passengers were taken ashore in the small boat. I was handed down by the Captain to a sailor in the small boat, who placed me on a seat. My husband was not so fortunate. A swell carried the yawl ahead just as he jumped, and he went into the water shoulder deep.

We found ourselves about a mile above the lighthouse, in dismal plight, but thankful for the preservation of our lives. In company with a Mr. Cahoon, who was the engineer of the steamer, I ran to the lighthouse. After the lapse of so long a time, it seems to me that I almost flew along the beach, my exhilaration was so great.

The lighthouse keeper anticipating wrecks or disasters (I think signal guns had been fired during the night on board the Walk-in-the-water) had a rousing fire in his huge fire-place, by which we remained until carriages came down for us from Buffalo. The citizens had supposed it impossible that the boat could live through the night, and when, at break of day, she was descried upon the beach, their efforts were directed to the care of the passengers and crew. All that could be done for our comfort was done. We were taken to the Landen House, a two-story frame building, then the principal hotel at Buffalo. It stood on the brow of the hill as we went up town from the creek. We returned to Detroit by wagon through Canada, a trip occupying two weeks.

The day after we got back to Buffalo, Captain Rogers called upon us. In the course of conversation he told me that his assurance of safety during the storm was anything but heartfelt; that during the gale he had secured the boat's papers on his person, thinking that should the boat and he be lost, his body would be washed ashore and the papers recovered.

Among the passengers now remembered were Major or Jed. Hunt, Lieutenant McKenzie, U. S. A., Jno. Hale, Esq., then a merchant of Canandaigus, afterwards merchant of this place, Jason Thurston, Esq., of Michigan, Rev. Mr. Hart, a missionary to Michigan, and wife, John S. Hudson and wife, and a Miss Osborn, who were on their way to Fort Gratiot to establish a mission for the Indians. Mr. and Mrs. Salsmer, of Ohio, Mr. Palmer and myself, and Mr. Palmer's sister, now Mrs. Catherine Hinchman, of this city.

A young gentleman of Buffalo, by name of J. D. Matthies, went down to the beach where the wreck lay, and, being an amateur artist, took sketches of it in two different positions, painted them and sent them to me at this place. They are now deposited among the archives of the Michigan Historical Society.

The deck of the Walk-in-the-water was like that of sailing vessels of the present day. The cabins were beneath the main deck, the after part partitioned off for ladies. The rest was devoted to gentlemen and answered for lodging, dining, and baggage room. The mast ran down through the gentle-men's cabin, and that part in the cabin was set in octagon with small mirrors. In visiting the wreck, a few days after the disaster, I remember that it laid broadside on shore. I could almost walk around it dry shod; the sand had been deposited around it to such an extent, the oakum had worked out of the seams in the deck for yards in a place, and the panel work had become disjointed in many places.

Captain Rogers, I believe afterwards engaged in business in New York City, but I have heard nothing concerning him for many years.

The above recital agrees with my husband's recollections, and is substantially correct, although there may be some slight inaccuracies. Hoping that its perusal may contribute a little to the historical store of the Society asking it, and to your own pleasure, I remain yours respectfully,






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