Still steaming ahead…

I’m still working on the next two (or three) more substantial installments of our “How’d they get here?” series, so here’s another “bonus” post, while you’re waiting. If you need to catch up, the series began with our July 6, 2021, Monday: Map Day! – How’d they get here? and continues from there.

Some weeks ago, when I began to research this topic, I was worried; I didn’t think that I would be able to find enough information and visual material to adequately illustrate our Mequon immigrants’ journeys of the 1830s and ’40s. It turns out that I now have (cough) a boatload of material to sort through and organize. So more of “How’d they get here?” is coming soon. Meanwhile, here’s another fine Great Lakes steamer from the time of our Mequon pioneers:

N. Currier. Buffalo & Chicago steam packet Empire State: M. Hazard, Commander. New York, circa 1835-1856 (probably 1848 or later, see below). Photograph of hand-colored lithograph. Library of Congress. Click to open larger image in a new window.

“This floating palace,” the Empire State

This lithograph depicts the U.S. Mail steam packet Empire State. It made the Buffalo to Chicago run, with stops for mail, passengers and supplies along the way. It was built and launched with great anticipation in 1848. Page 2 of the Milwaukee Sentinel of March 7, 1848, reprinted this breathless report from the Buffalo Express:

THE EMPIRE STATE. – Among the new additions which will be made to our Lake marine during the coming season, is the mammoth steamer now building on St. Clair River, and which is to be called the ” EMPIRE STATE.” It is the first, we think, that has yet borne this distinguished title […]. She is the largest steamer now built in the United States, that is connected with inland trade. Her length is 340 feet – breadth of beam 37 feet – overall 64 feet – and depth of hold 15 feet. Her burthen, Custom House measurement, is 1650 tons – and her model, one of exquisite beauty and perfection, combines strength and essential qualities for perfect safety.1 

Her propelling power is to be of the most perfect and highly polished workmanship, after the style and finish of the magnificent engine on the Isaac Newton. Messrs. MERRICK & TOWN, of Philadelphia, have the contract for the engine, and it is now in process of construction, under the special superintendence of Mr. Newhall, well known on these waters as a skillful and scientific Engineer. It is a low pressure beam engine, with 76 inch cylinder, and 12 feet stroke. The shafts are of wrought iron, 18 inches in the journal. The wheel is 40 feet in diameter, with buckets of 10 feet face. 

The arrangements and accommodations for passengers are to be on the most extensive and magnificent scale. The upper cabins will be richly finished and furnished and lined by large and commodious state and family rooms. The Ladies’ cabin will be on the main deck, with state and family rooms on each side. The accommodations of the “Empire State” are to be of the most extensive and magnificent character, affording more than one hundred state and family rooms, all fitted and furnished with especial reference to the comfort of passengers. She will afford ample accommodations for 400 cabin and 1,000 steerage passengers. 

This floating palace, for it will be nothing else, is modeled and provided with propelling power with direct reference to speed. She is expected to make her trips from this port [Buffalo] to Chicago in 60 hours, including all stops, and will disappoint her builders and owners if she fails to accomplish it. […] She will be in commission early in July. 

The “Empire State” was planned and modeled by Capt. A. Walker, and has been built under his supervision. His skill, experience and judgment in matters pertaining to our Lake marine, is a good guaranty for her superior qualities. She is owned by Messrs. HAZERED [sic, Hazard] and MONTEATH and P.C. SHERMAN of this city, and will be sailed by Capt. M. HAZARD, one of the most successful and skillful officers on these waters.

What’s a steam packet?

It’s a steamship employed in the packet trade.

Generally, packet trade is any regularly scheduled cargo, passenger and mail trade conducted by ship. The ships are called “packet boats” as their original function was to carry mail.

A “packet ship” was originally a vessel employed to carry post office mail packets to and from British embassies, colonies and outposts. In sea transport, a packet service is a regular, scheduled service, carrying freight and passengers. The ships used for this service are called packet ships or packet boats. The seamen are called packetmen, and the business is called packet trade.


Spring & Summer, 1848

The Empire State was expected to be in service by July, 1848, just a month or so after Wisconsin became the 30th state in the Union. By 1848, most of our earliest settlers—primarily New Englanders and New Yorkers, some Irish, and many immigrants from the German lands—had arrived and established their farms, mills and shops. So it’s probably not likely that the families of Jonathan M. Clark, Peter Turck or the Bonniwells would have sailed on this new “floating palace.” But the newer immigrants to Milwaukee and old Washington county may well have traveled on this elegant steamer, and many local farmers and tradesmen may have used her to ship their crops and manufactures to busy markets back East.

I don’t know much else about the ship’s history. According to the editors at Maritime History of the Great Lakes, the Empire State was abandoned in 1856 ( source: Lytle-Holdcamper List, 1790 to 1868, in Merchant Steam Vessels of the U. S.). 

More coming. See you soon.


  1. Um… I know that these kinds of news articles often (usually?) repeat the excited talking-points of the subject. That’s not surprising, then or now.

    But for a ship designed as a model “of exquisite beauty and perfection,” that “combines strength and essential qualities for perfect safety” — wouldn’t you expect to see a lifeboat or two somewhere onboard? Yikes.