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The burning of the Great Western

In the days of early Detroit there was nothing more alarming than the call of "fire!"  Wood was the cheapest, easiest, and most plentiful building material available to citizens of the Old Northwest, and thus fire was a city's deadliest enemy.  Detroit itself burned nearly completely in 1805.  In addition, fire could be disastrous for Detroit's marine trade, since all vessels of the period were constructed of wood.  (This changed in 1843 with the launching of the USS Michigan, a U.S. paddle frigate built and stationed on the Great Lakes.)  Not only could fire destroy a vessel and cost many lives, but could easily spread to a city if it was in port at the time.  One hundred and seventy- one years ago yesterday marked the anniversary of one such ship fire, involving a ship significant in the development of Great Lakes commercial shipping.

In 1838 a passenger ship was launched at Huron, Ohio.  Called the Great Western, this was a revolutionary vessel.  It measured one hundred eighty- three feet long and about thirty- four feet wide, making it one of the biggest ships on the lakes at the time.  It was also one of only a handful of steamships; steam- powered craft were in their infancy then.  Though a paddle- wheeler, it also had clipper- ship type bow, and was equipped with three masts, enabling it to operate as a sailing vessel if conditions warranted it.  All these things made it a remarkable craft for the age, but this isn't what made it important in the annals of Great Lakes history.  With this steamship passengers for the first time were able to book room in passenger accommodations, which stretched across the entire upper deck of the ship.  Prior to this passengers traveled either in areas below deck, or, most commonly, on the open deck, exposed to the elements for the entire voyage!  This boat was designed with a main cabin that ran nearly from one end of the vessel to the other.  There were over 60 staterooms, and it had a total capacity of about three hundred passengers.  It even included both men and ladies saloons as well as a dining room.  This is a far cry from the days when passengers ate whatever they brought aboard with them, as there was no food service on-board!  This vessel was the first step towards the palatial passenger vessels that later became a common mode of transportation in the Great Lakes region.

On September 1, 1839, having only just been built the prior year, disaster struck.  While at the Detroit dock of Gillett & Desnoyers, near where Shelby street meets the river, the ship caught fire.  As stated earlier, this was one of the greatest fears of this era, as it could quickly spread and cost much in property damage as well as lives.  Fortunately, in this instance, most of the vessel was saved; only its cabins (admittedly its most remarkable feature) were lost in the blaze.

This fire, fortunately having been contained, was only a temporary setback for her.  The ship was rebuilt in 1840 and led a productive existence after this, with only a couple of incidents (such as the ramming and sinking of the schooner, with no loss of life) to mar her record.  In her final days she was reduced to tow vessel in the Niagara river, with the result being the removal of those precedent setting cabins.  The ship was finally found to be at the end of its usefulness in 1855, and was scrapped at Tonawanda, New York, that year.  So ended the life of the Great Western, an important vessel in the development of Great Lakes commerce, whose career almost ended prematurely in what could have been a disastrous fire in Detroit in 1839.

Sources:  Barry, James P.  Ships of the Great Lakes.  Holt, Michigan: Thunder Bay Press.  1996. p 58

Palmer, General Friend.  Early Days in Detroit.  Detroit: Hunt & June. 1906.

Poremba, David Lee, ed.  Detroit in Its World Setting.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press.  2001


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