Ship travel was not appreciated by everyone

Copper Country's past and people

Painting by Tim Olsen / Lake Superior Maritime Collections, University of Wisconsin-Superior Early ships on Lake Superior, such as the schooner Algonquin, were not built with the thought of passenger travel in mind. The Algonquin was built by Cyrus Mendenhall in 1839 for the purpose of transporting fish in barrels from fishing stations around Lake Superior.

The Lake Superior copper district had been known to the French since the early 1600s, when fur companies in Quebec and Montreal sent brigades of traders westward along the shores of Lake Superior to trade goods for furs among the Native Americans. The traders, or voyageurs, however, did not travel overland, but instead, relied on large birch bark canoes to transport themselves and trade goods. While they left place names such as Presque Isle, Lac La Belle and Bete Gris, they left no roads or trails.

The pioneers, prospectors, speculators and others who arrived in the copper district in the years after the ratification of the Treaty of La Pointe could only arrive by water. While some employed voyageurs to take them to the region, the overwhelming majority arrived by ship.

The early ships, like the brig John Jacob Astor, and schooners Algonquin, and the Swallow, were built as cargo freighters and did not lend themselves well to passenger service. They were equipped with just enough cabin space for crew members to sleep and eat. While some travelers took being passengers on these ships in stride, others came away with rather bad memories of the adventures and wrote them down.

One such adventurer was Charles H. Titus who was a Methodist minister and a passenger aboard the American Fur Company’s brig the Astor on his way from Sault Ste. Marie to the copper district in 1843. While he survived the trip alright, he did not recall it as a joyful experience. He later wrote that on the first night of the trip, the captain left those aboard to their own devices in finding a place to sleep.

“The officers and one passenger,” Titus wrote, “found places in the forecastle with the crew, the rest occupied the cabin, which had two compartments, one for the ladies, and one for the gentlemen.”

Titus found sleeping accommodations on a “buffalo robe spread on the cabin floor, and I congratulated myself on being so fortunate.”

Titus also remembered the motion of the ship and negative affects on the voyagers.

“The swells caused a very unpleasant motion to the vessel,” he wrote, “which rendered many of the passengers sick.”

He was no more impressed with the food aboard ship than he was with the ship itself, or the trip. Eight people crammed around a small table in a cabin to eat food no less discouraging than the voyage left Titus an unpleasant memory, as the fare had “too many hairs and too much dirt to suit our appetites.” It didn’t matter much, because “being tossed about on the lake for nearly a week,” left most of the passengers too sick to eat. For all of that, passengers paid approximately $10, which is equal to about $230 today.

Ramsey Crooks, the president of the American Fur Company, had the Astor refitted for a better passenger experience, or so he thought.

“No pains will be spared to make the passenger as comfortable as we can,” he wrote in April of 1844. “…improve her cabin arrangements to the greatest possible extent… for though most people are willing to put up with ordinary food, they are generally more particular about their sleeping comforts.” Apparently, no one had told Crooks about seasickness or hair and dirt in the food effecting appetites. Crooks might as well as saved the money and the time updating the brig. In September of that year, the ship broke apart against the rocks in Copper Harbor while at anchor in a gale-force storm.

If Charles Titus found sailing on Lake Superior a less than pleasurable experience, he certainly was not alone in his opinion. An early pioneer, John Harris Forster, when he sailed on the Swallow, had about as much fun as Titus had had on the Astor.

Forster made the trip from the Sault to Copper Harbor in early May, 1846 aboard the Swallow. Forster’s trip took as long as Titus’, and one sentence of his recollection of the event summed up his opinion of the experience: “…after seven days’ sail from the Sault, we sighted Copper Harbor, and gladly went ashore.”

Because of the small cabin space available on the schooner, Forster and his party spread their blankets upon “a tier of barrels and got what rest we could out of it.” With the exception of a wood stove in the galley, there was no heat available on the ship.

“The only way we could keep warm,” Forster wrote, “was to wrap up in overcoats and mittens and pace the deck vigorously.”

If Titus and Forster found their trips unpleasant, they were still fortunate; they both survived. Shipwrecks were common on Lake Superior in those early years, and beyond. More than one ship sank around the rocky shores of the copper district, claiming many lives. The steamer Sunbeam was lost on August 28, 1863, when it was sunk by high waves in a storm between Eagle River and Ontonagon, claiming 21 lives, six of whom were passengers. One man, Charles Fregeau, the ship’s wheelsman, survived the wreck, but just barely. He had strapped himself to a section of the deck that broke away when the ship was knocked apart, and with a cask of wine, floated on the lake until he washed ashore. He was barely alive when he was found.

For those entering the Lake Superior copper district to seek their fortunes, looking for a profitable copper deposit was not the only gamble they faced. Sometimes, just arriving in the district alive was an accomplishment worth celebrating. Getting out alive was another accomplishment. Charles Titus and John Forster were among the huge majority of men, women, and children entering the district who survived the Lake Superior journey. Once they got ashore, though, winter and food shortages were just two more gambles and hardships to face and survive.