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The Phoenix Disaster: When a Ship Bearing Immigrants Sank in Lake Michigan

James T. Lloyd
From 184 of "Lloyd's steamboat directory, and disasters on the western waters". Uploaded by the Internet Archive to Flickr
The burning of the Phoenix on Lake Michigan in 1847

After surviving a storm, a ship bearing immigrants sinks in Lake Michigan.

And what do we know of her? She was just a kid really, two years old, but she was cutting edge, a prop-driven steamer built for the Great Lakes in Buffalo, New York, where thousands of European immigrants would be waiting to be transported out to the U. S. frontier, all of them strangers in a strange land. Aboard was as much cargo as she could hold--coffee, molasses, and hardware, not to mention people, hundreds of them. Who counted?

It was November of 1847, so when the Phoenix left Buffalo, bound for Wisconsin, the crew might well have been celebrative--after all, it was late in the year, and the owners had made clear this trip would be the last before old-man-winter made things treacherous for Great Lakes travel. Then again, Lake Michigan winter storminess was not to be toyed with.

It’s a day’s travel from here, 500 miles east until your hat floats.

By weight alone, most of the cargo was Dutch--as many as 250 immigrants climbed on board for the last leg of their trip to a new home in a new country, to Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, the place where the leaders had decided upon, where the lakeshore woodlands meant hard work if the soft and sandy soil were to be cleared for crops. They wanted to farm. Most all of them wanted to farm. But like all immigrant people, what they really wanted was a new chance.

Most, if not all, were members of a religious sect, arch-conservatives who had departed the state church of the Netherlands not that long before and whose persecution by civil authorities opened their ears and hearts to the promises immigration to a new land had set within them, a place where they could be free.

Historians claim Lake Erie was calm when they left Buffalo on November 11, the weather not at all as menacing as it might have been. But it turned nasty quickly. People took refuge where they could on board as the swells rose like the shoulders of giants. Everything rolled. When they came through the straits at Mackinaw, Lake Michigan was no more congenial a host, the storms went unabated.

Then, slowly southward, the Phoenix moved into calmer waters and entered the port at Manitowoc, just thirty miles from the dreams of so many aboard. Some cargo was put ashore, but when the captain noted the wind's return, he kept his ship in the harbor until the lake calmed. The crew went ashore. Some claimed they returned drunk.

At one a.m., the lake calm, the night awash with stars, the Phoenix left for the last leg of a trip I'm sure some had believed would never end, on their way to very next harbor. Maybe it was haste that lit the fire; some believed it was negligence fueled by drink. Whatever the cause, those boilers overheated and lit the timbers above them. Soon the Phoenix steamer ship went up in flames.

Passengers late that night of November 21, 1847, were awakened to two wicked choices: the flames behind them or the icy water beneath. Both meant death.

It was a quiet night, people say. When the Phoenix went up in flames, city residents gathered on the beach, the fire all-too-horribly visible. When the few lifeboats rowed up to shore (there were only forty survivors), men and women and children must have heard the screams.

That night, as many as 250 men, women, and children died, many--most--of them wooden-shoe people. It’s a story I saw on a highway sign when I was a boy, growing up a few miles from where the Phoenix went down.

How many people died in total? Perhaps no one will ever know. Back then at least, who was counting? The families aboard the Phoenix were my ancestors, people who came from the same Dutch provinces my ancestors did. They were, like me, wooden shoes.

But that night, who was counting? Who really cared? After all, the great bulk of the cargo that night was immigrants—that’s all. Just immigrants.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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