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Northern Indiana - Diver Magazine Lake Erie Tragedy
The Steamer Northern Indiana By Cris Kohl

The worst loss-of-life maritime accident in western Lake Erie claimed 28 lives in 1856. After 140 years, divers have positively identified these shipwreck remains.

Just a short distance southwest of the actual point of land called Point Pelee, which juts dangerously into western Lake Erie and has been, historically, a treacherous menace to navigation, the remains of a long-known and mysteriously unidentifiable steamer lie in about 30 feet (nine metres) of water. The point, however, had nothing to do with the demise of this vessel.

Flattened and scattered by the ravages of time and nature (ice, wind, waves), this shipwreck, broken up and spread over a large area, first caught divers' attentions in 1984 when divers groped their way in virtually zero visibility over its strewn timbers and metal pieces. Since then, water visibility has cleared up dramatically due to the invasion of zebra mussels.

Divers were finally able to obtain an overall view of the large shipwreck, something difficult to imagine with the piecemeal 'Braille' diving of the past. Early divers thought that the vessel could have been used in drilling operations, since the wreck contained 12 inch pipes that resembled drill casings of the type that were often sunk into the lake bottom. So, for years, the site was referred to as "the Drill Barge."

Later speculation added the possibility that the ship may have been a sandsucker due to the presence of steel wheels connected by an axle, hinting at a usage for moving sandsucker hoses. The 12 inch pipes, however, were too small for such a job. The presence of a huge boiler, plus a smaller one, among the debris at the stern prompted the nickname, "the Point Pelee Steamer." In the debris field to the north of the main wreckage is a capstan with a brass plate, naming "Oswego, New York," as the place of production of that marine artifact. Numerous other items on and around the wreck proved immensely interesting, but positive evidence of the ship's identity eluded investigators.

Finally, in the early summer of 1996, Chatham diver Brian Roffel, doing volunteer work on the Windsor chapter of Save Ontario Shipwreck's survey of this site, located a brass tag in the debris field. This small, seemingly innocuous item, with the mysterious, large, embossed letters, "M. S. & N. I. R. R." and the much smaller lettering, "F. Robbins, Boston" (the tag's manufacturer) at the bottom of it, proved its weight in gold, for it positively identified the shipwreck. The letters stand for the "Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad." This company owned the sidewheel passenger steamer, the Northern Indiana, which met her demise off Point Pelee in the middle of the summer in 1856.

Four years old at the time of her loss, the Northern Indiana was sister ship to the other half of her railway owner's namesake, the sidewheel steamer, Southern Michigan. In the early 1850s, the railroad had not yet been constructed between Buffalo and the cities at the opposite, western end of Lake Erie, so railway companies built steamers to provide continuous transportation service for their passengers to catch connecting trains west from Toledo or Detroit.

Built by Bidwell & Banta in Buffalo, New York, at the eastern end of Lake Erie in 1852, the Northern Indiana's history of accidents earned her the nickname, "hard-luck sister." On June 23, 1852, shortly after her launch, the huge, 300-foot (90-metre), 1,475-ton Northern Indiana accidentally plowed into the small schooner Plymouth, causing the latter and her cargo of wheat to become a total loss. Ironically, this mishap occurred in the Point Pelee region of Lake Erie, the area where the larger vessel would meet her end in a few short years.

Later in her first season afloat, the Northern Indiana suffered severe damage in a fierce gale off Dunkirk, New York, resulting in both of her major support arches being broken and her steam engine quitting. After five hours of drifting helplessly with her crew frantically effecting makeshift repairs, the Northern Indiana slowly limped into safety at Toledo harbour. It had not been a good first year!

On August 15, 1854, the Northern Indiana steamed out of the harbour at Monroe, Michigan, right over a shallow, embedded anchor which tore a long gash into the ship's wooden hull. This fluke accident (pun intended) forced the Northern Indiana to undergo major repairs at Detroit.

Lastly, just before lunch on July 17, 1856, on a day so calm with smooth seas and such a light wind that a looming disaster seemed totally unlikely, a fire broke out in the fire-hold as the ship, reportedly loaded with 104 passengers and 43 crew, steamed past Point Pelee. Spreading quickly to the main deck around the steam chimneys and around the bulkheads of the engine, the flames drove the crew from the engine room, thwarting the captain's command to stop the engine.

Mate W. H. Wetmore, in command of the Northern Indiana since Captain Pheatt had taken ill at Buffalo, according to a contemporary newspaper account, "proved himself eminently worthy of the trust confided to him." He was later the last person to leave the dying ship.

The nearby steamers, Mississippi and Republic, immediately raced to the rescue when they saw the smoke billow from the Northern Indiana, but had difficulty catching up with the out-of control vessel. The scene on board the burning ship was chaotic; "the frantic shrieks of women, the cries of children, the struggles of men to save those near and dear to them, were indescribably appalling," as one journalist wrote the next day.

The press reported personal tragedies. One man on board the burning vessel was placed in the horrible position of having to choose which one of his family he would save, his wife or his four-year-old son; "the little fellow sank, probably to rise no more. The mother and father were saved." One woman, Harriet Ackroyd of London, England, lost her husband, both of her parents, and both of her children, in other words, her entire family, in this tragic accident. All of her family's belongings were destroyed as well.

Initial estimates of loss of life amounted to 56, but later figures of a more reliable nature generally indicate 28 lives lost. Since the "trip sheet" on the vessel was not saved, and it was not yet a requirement to keep one at the port of departure, there was no way of ascertaining precisely how many people were on board the Northern Indiana at the time of her loss. The loss of life, however, was definitely staggering, but, had the steamer not been an hour behind schedule, the losses might have been greater. The rescuing steamers would have been much further away when their assistance was needed.

Bodies from the shipwreck washed ashore for weeks, locally and as far away as Port Burwell, Ontario, 90 miles (145 kilometres) away. Newspapers, in an effort to help with the identification of the deceased, described the bodies and the contents of their pockets as completely as possible. For example, one badly burned body of a man wore "black pantaloons" containing two keys, a knife, a steamboat ticket from Buffalo to Toledo marked "D. Miller" and two three dollar bills.

Three weeks after the sinking of the Northern Indiana, salvagers were reportedly busy "at the wreck in removing whatever is valuable and can easily be rescued; but the hull of the vessel is not deemed worth the effort."

Some good emerged from the ashes. Passengers Miss Jane Cox and adventurer John Tracy were married soon after this dramatic accident, but not before they experienced yet another shipwreck together! Shortly after they had been safely deposited in Detroit the day after the Northern Indiana sank, the tugboat, Queen, which was taking them up the St. Clair River to Sarnia, sank at the mouth of the south channel, leaving them struggling in the water for two hours before being rescued. It is hoped that their subsequent marriage was less rocky than their sea travels.

The 1856 salvagers did not remove everything of value. The important brass tag, in possession of Save Ontario Shipwrecks (Windsor chapter), has become an exhibit in the Point Pelee area marine museum that opened in early 1997 in the town of Leamington.

Meanwhile, the wreck of the Northern Indiana is one of the highlights of the new underwater park named ErieQuest, comprising the many shipwrecks in the waters around Point Pelee. For today's visiting scuba divers, items of immense value include this shipwreck and its dramatic history.

The remains of running gear for what may have been a wagon.

The capstan lies on her side in the debris north of the shipwreck.

The brass tag found on the wreck site displayed the letters M.S. & N.I.R.R. for Michigan's Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad.

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