Steaming against the wind…

Ahoy, readers! Here’s another “bonus” post for our ongoing series “How’d they get here?” If you need to catch up, the series began with our July 6, 2021 post Monday: Map Day! – How’d they get here? and continues from there.

I’m working on the next two (or three) more substantial installments of the series, metaphorically steaming against the wind through virtual piles of documents, books, and historical images. It’s going well, but taking a bit longer than I hoped. So while you’re waiting, how about another beautiful Great Lakes ship image, this time courtesy of the National Gallery of Art in Washington:

[American artist, 19th century], Steamship Erie, probably 1837, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

The Steamship Erie, probably 1837

This is the U.S. Mail steamship Erie. The Erie was a side-paddlewheel steamer of 497 tons, built in Erie, Pennsylvania. It went into service in 1837, carrying passengers and the U.S. mail from its homeport at Presque’Isle to Chicago and other ports on the upper Lakes.1

It’s possible that some of our Mequon immigrants, including the Turck and Bonniwell familes, might have seen the Erie during their travels on the Lakes to Wisconsin Territory, between 1837 and 1841.

The Erie burned and sank off of Silver Creek, New York, on August 9, 1841, with the loss of 242 lives.2

Take a closer look…

This is not just another 1830s or ’40s hand-tinted lithograph. Some of those can be very detailed, and quite beautiful, too. But this original oil-on-canvas painting is really quite stunning, I think. The anonymous artist has used his or her talents to make this an interesting piece of nautical art, and not just a another typical “ship portrait.” So be sure to click on the image to open an excellent, high-resolution copy of the image on your screen and then zoom in.

The artist has certainly taken care to capture the lowering skies and churning waters of Lake Erie. And the ship and its passengers are painted in great detail. The Erie’s owners appeared to have spared no expense in decorating the ship. The colorful crest and ship’s name on the paddlewheel cover, and the vivid green and black paint scheme of the walking-beam engine are striking. The aft decks feature two levels of cabins and public rooms, and outside the cabin doors, along the railings—and in spite of the rough seas—the open decks are occupied by many fashionably-dressed men and women. A full-rigged, three-masted ship can be seen in the distance, past the American flag on the stern.3

Coming up

I should be back Friday with more “How’d they get there?” information, focusing on the westward route through the Great Lakes to Wisconsin. Other upcoming posts will look at various types of overland transportation, circa 1835-1850.

Be well.



  1. Most of my information on the Erie comes from Lytle, William M., Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States 1807-1868, citing the “Lytle-Holdercamper List 1790 to 1868,” found online at Maritime History of the Great Lakes, accessed July 13, 2021.

  2. The 1837-1841 Erie should not be confused with the Little Erie. J. W. Hall’s Marine Disasters of the Western Lakes, has this description: “Side Wheel steamer LITTLE ERIE of 149 tons burden. Built at Detroit in 1836. Sunk in Lake St. Clair in 1843.” Source: Maritime History of the Great Lakes, accessed July 13, 2021. There is some confusion on the dates of this ship. If you’re interested, follow the link for more info.

    And it looks like someone has written a full-length book on the sinking of Erie in 1841. It’s called Disaster on Lake Erie: The 1841 Wreck of the Steamship Erie, by Alvin F. Oickle. Here’s the publisher’s blurb, FYI:

    On August 9, 1841, the steamship Erie, one of the most elegant and fastest sailing between Buffalo and Chicago, departed carrying 340 passengers. Many were Swiss and German immigrants, planning to start new lives in America’s heartland most never made it. The Erie erupted in flames during the night, and despite the heroic efforts of the crew of the Dewitt Clinton, 254 lives were lost. As news of this disaster spread, internationally renowned artists and writers, including Charles Dickens, were inspired to reflect on the lives lost. Historian Alvin F. Oickle’s minute-by-minute account weaves together the tragic journey of the passengers, the legend that developed in the aftermath and the fury of a fire on an ocean-like lake.

    I’ve not read the book, but it might be interesting.

  3. I’m not at all clear on how common, or not, full-rigged ships were on the upper Great Lakes. The sources that I’ve seen so far (books and contemporary images) indicate that the preferred Great Lakes sailing vessels for most of the 19th-century were the various types of the somewhat smaller and more versatile schooner. I welcome info from any readers that know their way around a harbor.