The gruesome aftermath of the flaming death of the ship of hope

Echoes of our past: Part two of the sinking of the Phoenix
William & Joy Wangemann • for The Review

All that remains of the ship today is a water-soaked bible that can be seen at the Sheboygan County Historical Society Research Center in Sheboygan Falls.

An older gentleman, a reader of this column said to me the other day, “You know your story of the Phoenix reminds me of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia… after traveling so far they almost made it home.”

Just like Moses of the Old Testament the immigrants were allowed a glimpse of the Promised Land but were denied entry.

The steamer Delaware arrived on the scene of the disaster and picked up the 3 survivors, her crew then made a line fast to the burned out hulk and slowly towed her to Sheboygan.

As the Delaware approached Sheboygan nearly the entire population of the village lined the beach and the village pier. The Phoenix’ seams, having been opened by the fire, were leaking badly, causing the ship to ride lower in the water than the Delaware.

It was the intention of Capt. Tuttle of the Delaware to dock the wreck at the far east end of the pier that had not yet been finished, and consisted of only posts driven into the bottom.

Soon the Phoenix would at last reach her destination but the capricious vessel was to claim one more victim.

As the two ships approached the pier the Phoenix suddenly grounded, and before the Dela - ware could stop, the cable under a tremendous strain parted with a loud bang. Still attached to the Delaware, the huge rope snaked cruelly toward the pier. People scattered in terror, a small boy stood frozen in bewilderment, and the rope struck him full force causing a severe facial injury. A doctor rushed forward and picked up the boy, shaking his head. He said the child would not live, but the doctor was wrong; the boy lived to old age in the Sheboygan Falls area.

The last victim of the Phoe - nix would cheat death.

It took about two days for the word of the loss of the Phoenix to reach Milwaukee, and then another day for news of the disaster to reach Chicago.

Once the story was published in Chicago newspapers lurid headlines blazed across the front pages of newspapers nationwide.

The people of Sheboygan, as small and as poor as it was, opened their homes and their hearts to the stunned survivors and shared what little they had.

Relief funds were started in Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Chicago, in fact throughout the Midwest, a considerable amount of money and clothing were collected.

Several days later bodies began to drift ashore, many were carried a short distance inland and were buried in shallow graves marked by a rough wooden cross. Saddest of all were pathetic little bundles that at first looked like discarded clothing…but were in fact the bodies of the lost children of the Phoenix.

After she was docked the Phoenix settled to the bottom in about 8 feet of water. The village coroner Jimmy Berry was called to remove bodies still in the wreck.

The victims were placed in rough wooden coffins and a sad procession wound its way up Pennsylvania Ave. where the coffins were placed in a vacant storefront for identification, near the present-day Salvation Army.

Within about a week Dutch gold coins were circulating in the village, some blackened by fire.

Jimmy Berry the corner raked through the ashes of the wreck…several weeks later he sent to the East for two Holstein Cows, among the first in the area. Some said that Jimmy Berry, a man of limited means had purchased the cattle with gold recovered from the Phoenix.

When word of the Phoe - nix disaster reached Holland some two months later a day of mourning was declared. Church bells across the county rang and memorial services were held nationwide.

In villages and cities groups of people stood quietly on street corners and discussed the tragedy in a far off land that affected them all.

Hardly a province in Holland had gone without losing people. It seems in every disaster un - scrupulous people try to profit from the misery of others as was seen in the 911 catastrophe when some people filed fraudulent claims of loss.

Several weeks after the horrible loss of life a peddler appeared in Sheboygan with a load of charred wooden shoes that he tried to sell as ghastly souvenirs.

The peddler was soon found out to be a fraud, he had the shoes made by a woodworker and scorched them in fire and then tried to pass them of f as real.

The would-be con man was soon surrounded by an angry crowd, the mob threatened to beat, tar and feather him or both, unless he left town at once. A cloud of dust was soon seen heading out of the village as the faker hastily departed.

Today many families in the area’s Dutch communities can trace their lineage back to the survivors of the Phoenix.

The arrival of the Sheboygan and Mississippi Railroad in 1859, and the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad in 1871, made Plymouth a small railroad center with an underlying agricultural economy. Local cheese factories added to this economy in the 1860’s and 1870’s, bringing to downtown the National Cheese Exchange, until the late 1950’s.

Henry and Thomas Davidson founded the name Plymouth. The State Legislature changed the name to Quit Qui Oc in 1851, but reversed itself, naming the whole settlement Plymouth a year later. Division Street is what evidence remains of the rivalry between the two factions.

The formal boundaries for the City of Plymouth encompass a land area of 5.3 sq. miles and a water area of 0.08 sq. miles.


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