Voyage of hope ended as greatest tragedy in county’s history

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • forThe Review

The history of disasters on the Great Lakes goes back to the very beginning of time when man first used the stormy waters of the lakes for travel. Even the Native Americans suffered losses due to the fickle weather of the inland seas.

In one early incident nearly the entire male population of an Indian tribe was lost during a storm just off the tip of Door County. The Indians of Door County were at war with a tribe on Washington Island. In one large group, the Indians of Door County set off in their canoes to invade Washington Island. While in passage across the strait, between Washington Island and Door County a storm stuck…all the canoes and their occupants were lost. This calamity prompted the French fur trappers to name this strait La Porte de Mort’s, or the Door of Death from which Door County received its name.

Over the hundred years or so during which lake commerce flourished, perhaps two to three thousand ships were lost with as many as 65 lost off Sheboygan alone. Ferocious storms that seem to strike from nowhere, along with ice, collision and fire have created a litany of disaster on the lakes. But of all the causes of loss on the lakes or the sea for that matter none is more feared by sailors than fire.

On Nov. 21, 1847 just a few miles north of our shores one of the most ghastly and poignant disasters in the history of the Great Lakes occurred. 250 to 300 people, mostly Dutch immigrants, lost their lives in roaring flame or the deadly cold waters of Lake Michigan when the steamer Phoenix burned to the water line. After traveling thousands of miles for over two months the immigrants lost their lives just seven heartbreaking miles short of their destination. One fact that never seems to be brought out about the loss of the Phoenix is that most of those lost were children! It was not uncommon in that day for families to have 8 or maybe 10 or more children. On board the Phoenix, many large families lost nearly every member.

The immigrants had fled Holland to avoid religious persecution and for economic reasons. As the reformation movement founded by Martin Luther and others swept across Europe and eventually into Holland, some of the people embraced the new Dutch Reformed Church, a decision not looked upon with favor by the older staid Dutch State Church. The reformers could see no other course of action than to sell lands that had been in their families for centuries and leave Holland for the promise of freedom in America. In mid September of 1847, the immigrants boarded a ship in Rotterdam and sailed for the New World and the right to live and worship as they chose. When they arrived in New York they either traveled overland or took the Eire Canal to Buffalo, New York. Once in Buffalo, the settlers boarded ships to continue their journey by way of the Great Lakes into the heartland of America and their final destination, a tiny frontier village with the strange sounding name of…Sheboygan.

Buffalo, New York is and always has been the gateway to the Great Lakes. Buffalo, lying at the eastern end of Lake Eire, was a scene of frantic activity in October of 1847. The closing of the Great Lakes for the winter months was rapidly approaching; soon ice would lock the lakes in its frigid grip, preventing lake travel for months.

Pease and Allen, the owners of the Phoenix, one of the finest and newest ships of their fleet, were anxious to see her underway. The Phoenix, just two years old, was one of the most modern ships on the Lakes. In a day when most of the ships on the Lakes were either propelled by sail or paddle wheel, the Phoenix was driven by the newly invented propeller. In fact, the Phoenix was equipped with twin propellers. Her builders equipped her with the finest firefighting equipment available, Her captain G.B. Sweet was considered one of the most experienced officers on the Great Lakes. The Phoenix was in fact one of the best ships available; at 140’6” long and 22’7” wide, she was not a small ship for her day.

In the autumn of 1847 the docks of Buffalo were crowded with European immigrants seeking ships to take them to their destinations in the Midwest. November 11, 1847 the Phoenix lay at her dock in Buffalo, New York taking on the last of her cargo of coffee, molasses, hardware and chains and 300 to 350 passengers. Of this number, 70 were Americans and the rest, maybe as many as 280, were immigrants, mostly from Holland. At last the ship was loaded, the last barrel, the last crate and the last of the immigrants with their ponderous bundles of possessions struggled aboard. The gang plank was taken in and the Phoenix left Buffalo and sailed into history. The Great Lakes in November are an evil tempered group and this November was no exception. From the onset the tiny ship was battered and tossed about by great gray green rollers that seemed to have no end. After a stormy passage through Lakes Erie and Huron during which Capt. Sweet had been thrown to the deck during a storm and severely injured, the Phoenix at last entered the top of Lake Michigan. Capt. Sweets, now confined to his bunk, ordered that ship under the command of First Officer Watts seek shelter behind Beaver Island at the North end of Lake Michigan. For several days both men and machine rested and bandaged their wounds and made repairs. Skinned knees, cracked ribs and severe bruises were not uncommon. Windows had been smashed, doors caved in, and railings had been carried away by the gales. Later in the day on 19th of November the weather cleared and the Captain ordered the Phoenix to set out for refueling at Manitowoc. But Lake Michigan was in no mood to be lenient. She again rose up to meet the struggling ship. At last they made the tiny frontier village of Manitowoc. A fresh load of cord wood was taken on and they again waited for the weather to clear. Early in the morning of Nov. 21, 1847 the weather cleared, the wind died down and the Phoenix set out for Sheboygan. The lake was now like a sheet of polished black marble; the sky was clear and seemed to be studded with a million diamonds, each one repeated by a reflection in the glass-like surface of the lake…the Captain ordered full steam ahead. The long white ever-widening V of the bow wake disappeared into the darkness as Phoenix raced through the night. At about 2:15 a.m. a light was sighted off the starboard bow (right front)… it was Sheboygan…at last! At that very moment the crew discovered the most dreaded of all events that could occur on a wooden ship… FIRE!

When the word spread through the Phoenix that Sheboygan had been sighted and their long jouney would soon be over, a wave of excitement spread through weary immigrants. Their joy soon turned to horror when they realized that the ship was on fire. The fire had started in the boiler room which was located in the center of the ship. The fire had most likely been kindled by overheated boilers that had run low on water. Soon flames were billowing out of the boiler room windows. Fire hoses were quickly hooked up and the pumps started but soon the flow of water sputtered to a stop. The boiler room crew had been driven from the boiler room by the inferno, the fires in the furnaces left unattended soon died, the boilers began to cool and the ship lost steam pressure. The pumps needed to pump water on the fire were steam driven. Without steam pressure they were useless. One of the bitter ironies of the Phoenix is that while the ship was being consumed by flames, the only place fire was needed was in the furnaces, and there the flames had died. The engines without steam soon stopped and the ship went dead in the water, the Phoenix and most of her passengers were doomed. The Phoenix’s two life boats, were soon filled and lowered away with 43 persons on board, the rest… maybe as many as 250 were left to fend for themselves. Survivors said the flames roared out of the engine room with an unholy howling noise, shooting out of the windows 10 feet or more, they then they curved upward and joined in a tower of flame above the ship, which rotated like a tornado and rose hundreds of feet into the night sky. The ship, now divided in half by the flames, separated families and friends. Utter chaos prevailed, children screamed in terror, parents ran about the deck seeking their families, one young mother having forgotten her baby’s shawl handed the child to another passenger and rushed back into her cabin…she never came back.

Heroism, cowardice and the savage law of self-preservation all came to the forefront that terrible night. As the flames grew in ferocity the hundreds left on the ship were faced with a terrible decision, parish in the flames or die in the bone shattering cold water…most choose the water. A few climbed the mast to try and escape the inferno, only to have the rigging that supported the mast burn through, causing the mast to topple and throw is occupants back into the fire they sought to avoid. As the boats pulled away from the Phoenix they passed through a sea of bobbing heads. Franticly, hands reached out, trying to catch hold of the boats, causing them to nearly capsize. Fingers were pried loose and the desperate swimmers were beaten back with oars or pushed back into the icy waters. The people in the water who just a few hours ago were their fellow passengers or even relatives were driven away from the boats to die in the cold water. Survivors in later years were haunted by the shouts, screams and prayers of the dying as the boats headed for shore. On the Phoenix a hero was born, a Mr. David Blish of Southport (now Kenosha) a first class passenger refused a seat in a boat, saying he preferred to cast his lot with the immigrants, many of whom he come to know. Mr. Blish, in his early 30s, was a successful business man; married with a family, he had every reason to want to survive. At first Mr. Blish tried to form a bucket brigade to fight the flames, but seeing that effort as useless he begin to tear off doors, shutters or anything that would float and throw them into the water in hopes that they would support life. Finally the flames drove him over the side…he did not survive. Two young sisters, the Hazeltons from Sheboygan, whose father ran the Merchants Hotel at N. 6th & Penn Ave., hugged each other, climbed onto the rail and jumped…they immediately disappeared.

In Sheboygan, the small steamer the Delaware, anchored in the harbor, saw the flames and immediately began to fire up her cold boilers.A small schooner also in the harbor but becalmed launched her ship’s boat and the crew began to row towards the Phoenix; they both arrived at the same time. The rescuers found but 3 survivors clinging to the burnt out hull, the rest…maybe as many as 250 were gone.

The Phoenix was towed to Sheboygan by the Delaware where it settled to the bottom in about 8 feet of water. The next summer the engines were removed and the wreckage broke up. The bones of the Phoenix were then possibly covered over as the lake front was filled in.

Coming Tuesday March 9 -The gruesome aftermath


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