The story of the Phoenix is a story of dreams held high and dreams lost, of cowardice and selfless giving and the savage law of self preservation. It's the story of an exodus to religious freedom that came to a tragic end only a few miles short of it destination. The story of the Phoenix is, in fact, a small part of a much larger story -- the building of our great nation of immigrants.
The Chief Engineer of the ship named the Phoenix (known to us now only as Mr. M. W. House) had tried desperately to fight the flames that consumed his ship and to aid the hundreds of passengers aboard her, but, when it became clear that all was lost, he took an ax and severed a rope holding up a fender. Then, lowering himself over the side, he climbed aboard a floating door. Once he had pulled himself onto the door, Mr. House managed to tie his makeshift raft to the fender with his handkerchief. All around him he could hear the prayers and screams of the dying. Worst of all were the cries of the children. There had been so many children.
When she was built in 1845 in Buffalo New York, she had been at the cutting edge of technology for her day. 140' 6" long, her beam was 22' 7". She measured 302 tons with a depth of 10' 1/2", not a small ship for her day. She was built as a steamer with the then still very new, twin screw propulsion. [Until that time, most of the steamers built were side wheel steamers. The first propeller-driven steamer, the Vandalia, had appeared on the Great Lakes only two years before, and most considered it a very radical departure.*]
Named the Phoenix after the mythical bird that burned and then rose again from its own ashes, this Phoenix was not to rise from her ashes after she burned.
In the year 1847, immigration from Holland was exceptionally high due to a movement of religious reform that was sweeping through Holland and most of Europe at that time. Those who embraced this new religion were not looked upon kindly by the more reserved members of the old church. The reform movement, which had begun in the 16th century in central Europe, was, in the mid 19th century, now spreading through Holland, and the Dutch State Church Authorities began clamping down on the reformers, causing many to seek refuge in the New World. By the thousands, the converts sold their ancestral homes, converted the proceeds to gold, and then began the perilous journey to the New World.
Upon reaching New York, many choose to travel overland to Buffalo so that they might book passage on one of the hundreds of sailing schooners that plied the blue waters of the inland seas or one of the new steamers that were appearing in ever increasing numbers on the Great Lakes. Most immigrants considered the water route through the lakes to be safer and easier than to travel overland to their new homes 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 hundreds of passengers. [This was her last scheduled voyage of the shipping season.*] Of the 300 or 350 souls on board, 70 were Americans, and the rest, maybe as many as 280, were immigrants mostly from Holland. Their clothes were strange, and their language even stranger. They were a sturdy people, hardened by years of working their farms. Their blue-eyed, blonde-haired children with pleasant round faces romped excitedly about the deck of the strange ship, thankfully unaware that their journey so soon would end in tragedy.
The ship was now under the command of her First Mate, Mr. H. Watts. The Phoenix called at Cleveland and Detroit and then made her way up the St. Clair River into Lake Huron.
The last vestiges of Autumn were fading from the hillsides as golds and reds turned into browns and tans. Lake Huron was in no better a temperament than her foul-tempered sister, Lake Erie. A shrieking north wind drove straight down the big lake. Great mountains of gray-green water smashed at the battered vessel. Phoenix plunged and rolled as wave after wave smashed at her. Each more vicious than the last, they tried to drag her into the dark depths of the cold waters, but the Phoenix had been built by skilled hands, and the little ship still continued to claw northward down the lake.
The storm was unrelenting. As the wind howled through the rigging, the passengers became frightened and huddled in their cabins. Terrified mothers tried to comfort their wailing children. The nauseating smell of sea sickness was everywhere.
Some damage had resulted: Rail stanchions were carried away. A window in the steerage-class cabin was stove in by a giant comber. Icy water poured into the cabin amongst the screams of the children and curses of the men. Bruised heads, skinned shins, and cracked ribs were common as the storm continued to batter the travelers' wildly tossing haven.
After what seemed an eternity but was in fact only a few days, the storm-racked ship arrived at the north end of the seething lake. Phoenix turned her bow westward toward the straights of Mackinac, Lake Michigan, and a hoped-for respite from the gale. Phoenix sailed through the straights in calmer waters, but, as soon as her bow touched the cold blue waters of Lake Michigan, it started all over again. Neither man nor machine could withstand the beating any longer. First Mate Watts held a hurried conference with the captain, still confined to his cabin, and it was decided that Phoenix would seek shelter in the lee of the island known as Beaver Island, at the north end of the freshwater giant.
After a course change and a short trip, Beaver Island was sighted. The Phoenix limped into the sheltering lee of the large island and dropped her anchor. The waters were quiet. A collective sigh of great relief spread throughout the ship. The crewmen quickly busied themselves with necessary repairs while the passengers tried to unscramble their belongings that had been thrown rudely into piles by the storm. For two days, Phoenix sheltered behind the island while man and machine licked their wounds. Then at last the winds calmed, and Phoenix was on her way to meet her destiny.
Normally, a vessel, in those days, after clearing the straights, would angle across the lake and head for the frontier village of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but, on this trip, she had cargo for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 30 miles north of Sheboygan. As the Phoenix struggled south down the eastern shore of Wisconsin, excitement aboard the ship grew. The immigrants realized that, once they reached Manitowoc, they had but 30 more miles to go after a journey of many weeks and thousands of miles. At about 11:00 pm, Saturday, November 20, 1847, Phoenix spotted the lights of Manitowoc and, about 45 minutes later, made the harbor entrance.
Phoenix slid up to the dock of the sleepy village as several dock hands stood by to receive her lines. The Phoenix had a small amount of cargo for Manitowoc, and a few passengers got off, but, due to a high sea that was again running, the captain gave orders to lay over until the wind abated. Some of the crew were given permission to go ashore until such time as the ship sounded her whistle. Later it was whispered, but never verified, that key crew members returned to the ship drunk.
The two dock workers watched as the lights of the doomed ship disappeared into the darkness. They then turned and trudged home, remarking on how cold and clear the night had become.
At last, Phoenix was granted a calm sea and clear weather. Her captain had given orders to press ahead with all possible speed to try to make up for lost time. The engine room was a scene of furious activity as the stokers rammed 6-foot log sections sticky with pine sap into her roaring boilers. Phoenix fairly flew through the night. An ever widening v of gleaming white foam curled back from her surging bow and disappeared into the darkness. Overhead, the sky was clear, and from horizon to horizon a million stars sparkled. In later years, everyone who survived remembered the beauty of this pristine night.
Engineers, then as now, are usually very proud of their engineering spaces and are generally not open to outside criticism. The young man found that the third engineer was on duty who was quite surprised to see a first-class passenger in the engine room at 1:30 am. When the Irishmen explained his reason for being there, the third engineer suggested that, perhaps, it would be best if running the ship were left to those who knew what they were doing and that he return to his cabin where he belonged, but the passenger persisted, and, at this point, the busy engineer grew impatient and, after administering a stout blow to his jaw, ejected the Irishman from the engine room with the stern admonishment not to return. Picking himself up from the deck, bruised but wiser, the Irishman returned to his cabin. The young man woke up his family, told them to dress warmly, and then took then on deck. As they watched in bewilderment with still sleepy eyes, he uncovered a lifeboat and had them take a seat, informing them that the ship was about to be destroyed. They did not have a long wait. His family was one of the few families to survive intact.
At first, the fire seemed manageable and caused no great alarm, but, suddenly, the flames mushroomed and began to billow from the engine room windows. It was rapidly becoming very apparent that the ship was in serious trouble. The captain, still confined to his cabin, was wakened, and he immediately ordered that all fire hoses be laid and all steam pumps be put into action against the raging flames. The helmsman was ordered to make for the shore with all possible speed. The passengers were organized into bucket brigades, but it was no use. The hungry flames were not to be denied.
Little by little, the engine-room crew was forced back and then out of the engine room which straddled the center of the ship. With no one tending the boilers, which now ironically stood in a sea of flame while fire raged through the ship, the fires in the boilers died, and steam pressure was lost.
With the loss of steam pressure, the pumps fighting the fire sputtered and died, and the ship lost way. The crew, at this point, gave up fighting the fire and began to abandon ship.
Just as in the Titanic disaster some 65 years later, first class passengers were given the first opportunity to gain a seat in the tragically inadequate boats. The Phoenix carried but two boats for the over 350 passengers aboard her. According to some accounts, the ship had three boats, but it is known that, of the 300 to 350 aboard her, 43 survived in two boats.
Survivors later recounted how the flames arched out and upward from the sides of the ship and then met high above her in a roaring tower of flames over 200 feet high. Passengers now ran wildly about the decks, trying to escape the flame, many with their hair and clothes afire.
A young woman rushed from the burning cabin into the cold night clutching her baby. Then she stopped when she realized that she had forgotten the baby's shawl. She handed the child to another passenger and ran back into the flaming cabin for the shawl, never to return.
Two young sisters from Sheboygan, the Hazelton sisters who were returning home for an Eastern school, were forced into the stern of the stricken vessel by the flames, and, when they could retreat no further, they held hands and leapt into the cold lake and immediately sank from sight.
One desperate young woman managed to gain a hold on the stern of one of the boats, remained unobserved, and was towed the entire distance to shore. When the two boats with their 43 survivors landed, the young woman was near death from exposure. (She never recovered from her ordeal; several months later, she died.) One of the boats lost an oar and was rowed with a broom by a male passenger.
The boats slowly pulled away from the inferno, the lurid glow lighting up the dark waters. The boats disappeared into the darkness. The shore was less than five miles away. Those left behind must have felt that surely the boats would return. They did not.
On the forward deck of the ship, now nearly completely swept by flame, desperate passengers climbed the mast only to have the supporting rigging burn through. The mast teetered for a moment and then crashed back into the inferno, throwing its screaming occupants back into the hell they so vainly sought to escape.
A young merchant traveling first class named David Blish of Southport, Wisconsin, now known as Kenosha, had given up his seat in one of the boats so that he might stay aboard the Phoenix and assist the frightened passengers. Mr. Blish was a man of substantial means, an owner of docks and warehouses in the Kenosha, a married man with children, but he chose to stay and throw in his lot with the immigrants that he had come to know so well. It was told how, when the fire started, Mr. Blish organized passengers into bucket brigades, and, then, when the flames were out of control, he helped many over the side onto makeshift rafts. When he could do no more aboard the stricken vessel, he rounded up two lost children and, holding one under each arm, plunged into the icy waters. He did not survive.
Now, only three were left alive at the scene: the ship's engineer clinging to the fender, the ship's clerk, T. S. Donahue, and one passenger afloat on a bit of wreckage.
A local man, Judge Morris stirred in his sleep, and then woke up. As the sleepy haze cleared from his eyes, he looked about the room to see what it was that woke him. All seemed in order. He lay quietly for a moment staring into the darkness, then got up, walked to a dresser, and picked up his watch. By the faint light coming through the window, he could see it was just about 2:15 am. The judge, who lived in a large comfortable home on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, stepped to a window and looked out over the dark glassy lake. For just moment, all seemed as it always was, but then the judge noted the orange glow in the northeast. His first thought was that the sun was rising, but, almost as quickly as the thought came to him, he realized that the sun could not possibly be rising at 2:15 am. The judge picked up his glasses, and, putting them on, he took another look. It was then that he saw how the glow wickedly danced and flickered. It could be only one thing -- a ship on fire.
The judge quickly pulled his clothes on over his night clothes and rushed down to the harbor to see what could be done. The harbor in Sheboygan in 1847 consisted of a large wooden pier jutting out into the lake for over 200 feet. A small steamer, the Delaware, was tied to the dock, her boilers cold, and, anchored just off the pier, a two-masted schooner, the Liberty, gently swung on her anchor. The judge rushed on board the Delaware and began beating on doors in an attempt to awaken the crew. Soon, a light flickered on in Captain Tuttle's cabin, and he came out on deck to find out what all the commotion was about. The judge pointed out the dancing glow in the northeast to the Delaware's captain. Icy fear gripped the captain's heart. (Nothing is feared by sailors more than fire at sea.) Orders were instantly given to the Delaware's engineer to light off the boilers and get up steam as quickly as he could. The captain gave instructions that, as soon as the Delaware had enough steam to move, they were to get under way and make for the stricken vessel.
Captain Porter of the schooner Liberty had also been wakened by the noise, and, seeing the glow in the sky, he ordered his crew to make for the scene of the catastrophe, but his ship was becalmed, so they put the ship's boat over the side and strong arms began pulling toward the Phoenix.
Back on board the Delaware, every eye was riveted on the steam gauge. It seemed as though the needle would never move. Then it trembled, it gave a slight jump, and, at long last, it began to creep upward. Five pounds, then ten, then 15, and, as soon as he had a head of steam, the engineer engaged the throttle. Delaware's screws began to turn over, and the ship was under way, slowly at first, then faster and faster until the tiny steamer was roaring along under full throttle with a foaming white bow wake curling back into the night.
The tumultuous scene had grown quiet. The screams, the prayers, and the roaring flames had all died away, leaving the glass-like surface of the lake littered with debris and floating bodies who in death were still clinging to bits of wreckage. The gold that the immigrants had been carrying along with their hopes and dreams lay scattered on the sandy bottom of Lake Michigan. The only sound that broke the silence was the gentle lapping of waves against the burnt-out hulk which was still floating but leaking badly.
The biting cold and the strength-draining, frigid water were taking their toll on Mr. House and Mr. Donahue. Slowly their will to survive was failing. They both had been in the water nearly three hours.
Close by to the fragile isle of safety that supported Mr. House, he saw a young woman in the water clutching a floating settee from the first class cabin. He called out to her to hold on, that help was on the way. She did not answer, but she did move.
Mr. House heard a sound. At first, he could not make it out. Then as he strained to hear, he heard the steady splash of oars dipping into the lake. His hopes soared. The life boats from shore had returned! But, as he listened, the sound was coming from the wrong direction. The lifeboats should be coming from the west. The sound he had heard was coming from the south. As he strained to peer through the darkness, he made out what seemed to be a ship's boat. It was the boat from the Schooner Liberty. At that same time, he heard another sound. It was the measured thumping, clanking, and splashing of a steamer under a full head of steam. The Delaware came into sight first. A moment later, the boat from the Liberty hove into sight.
On board the Delaware, every eye strained to catch a glimpse of whatever was out there on the placid lake. The evil glow that had lit up the sky had faded to a dull glimmer. In his heart, Captain Tuttle knew they were too late. Suddenly, one of the crewmen that lined the rail spotted a low dark object on water. It was the burnt-out, derelict hull of the Phoenix. As the steamer approached, the captain ordered the engines slowed. The steamer drew nearer. The crew of the Delaware could clearly make out the smoldering hulk.
The Phoenix had burned nearly to the water line. Most of her upper works and deck had collapsed into the hull. Only a small portion of her forward cabins remained. Her tall stack was gone, having crashed over the side at the height of the fire.
Delaware slowly circled the smoking wreckage. Occasionally, a bright tongue of flame darted up from the hull, or a spark popped and arched into the night. As the rescuers reached the stern of the Phoenix, the crewmen on deck saw a movement near the rudder. It was Mr. Donahue waving feebly. A boat was quickly put over the side, and he was rescued. The Delaware crewmen then spotted Mr. House and brought him aboard. The young woman on the settee was gone. Mr. house explained that, seeing the steamer approach, she excitedly began to wave her arms. She then lost her grip and slipped under the dark waters without a sound.
While approaching the burning ship, the men of the Delaware had lined the rail and been talking excitedly, but, as they drew near and became aware of the scope of the disaster, they fell silent. Many removed their hats; they knew they were in a graveyard.
A male passenger was found alive, clinging to a drifting bit of wreckage. He was later identified as a Mr. Long, of Milwaukee. The two life boats from the Phoenix had safely made the shore with 40 souls aboard.
When the final count was taken, 43 had survived out of the hundreds that had been aboard the ill-fated ship.
Once on the beach, the survivors were able to start a fire in an attempt to warm themselves, many still in their nightclothes and some suffering from burns. Captain Sweet had survived. As the passengers and crew had boarded the boats, he was carried from his cabin still suffering from his injuries, and, over his vehement protests, he was placed in a boat.
When they could do no more, a stout hawser was made fast to the blackened ruin. The ship's boat from the Liberty was taken in tow, and the Delaware headed for Sheboygan. Phoenix had yet to make her last port call.
It was now nearly 6:00 am. Dawn was beginning to streak the sky on a clear Sunday morning as the sad procession made for shore. A crewman from the Delaware later remarked that, on the trip home, there was not a dry eye among the hard-bitten sailors.
The tow proceeded smoothly until they approached the Sheboygan harbor area. At that point, the forward structure of fire-racked Phoenix collapsed, tossing the ship's safe, which was never recovered, into the lake.
Word of the disaster had spread through the tiny village, and hundreds of people lined the shore and the big wooden dock as the Delaware approached with her tow.
It was the intention of Captain Tuttle to dock the Phoenix at the far lake-end of the pier which was unfinished and consisted only of rows of pilings, but the Phoenix was in a capricious mood and had not yet claimed her last victim. As the Delaware and her tow approached the dock, Phoenix, due to her leaking condition, was riding much lower in the water and grounded. Before the crew of the Delaware could react, the tow line pulled taut and parted with a tremendous crack. The end of the tow line still attached to the Delaware whipsawed viciously toward the crowd on the dock. There was a wild scramble by the bystanders to get out of the lashing cable's path. All managed to get out of the way except a wide-eyed, seven-year-old boy. The cable struck him in the face full force. The little boy fell, his face nearly unrecognizable. Dr. J. J. Brown was at the scene and rushed forward. He scooped the child up into his arms and tenderly carried the unconscious child to his office for treatment. (Not much hope was held out for his survival, but survive he did. In fact, he lived in the Sheboygan Falls area all his life. He lived into his 80's but forever carried the dreadful scars of that terrible day.)
The last journey of Phoenix was over. She had reached her final resting place. The local coroner, James Berry, boarded the wrecked vessel and removed several charred bodies which were sadly carried to an unused store front that had been pressed into service as a makeshift morgue.
Wagons were sent north up the lake shore, looking for survivors. Approximately seven miles north of Sheboygan near the present day village of Cleveland, they located the pitiful group huddled around a fire trying to keep warm.
The residents of Sheboygan threw open their homes and their hearts to the refugees. Collections of clothing and money were taken up and given to the sufferers. Some of the immigrants had relatives in the area that had proeeded them to the new world. Others were left destitute and alone in a strange land.
On November 24, 1847, the Schooner Liberty carried word of the disaster to Milwaukee which relayed the terrible news to Chicago who informed the world by telegraph. As the word of the calamity spread, newspapers throughout the county and then the world carried the story.
Slowly, stories of the loss of the ship were told by the survivors -- stories of cowardice, heroism, uncontrolled fear, and calmness in the face of certain death. Time and time again, the name of David Blish, the Southport merchant, came up, and he began to loom large as a hero. A newspaper of the day commented that, if one tenth of the stories told about Mr. Blish were true, he would go down as the greatest of heroes. At first, it was hoped that Mr. Blish had survived in a third boat (which later turned out not to exist), but, as the days went by and no other survivors were found, all hope for his safety was given up.
The day following the disaster, black rumors circulated that crew members, following their visit to Manitowoc, boarded the vessel drunk and were so intoxicated that they were unable to perform their duties properly which caused the fire. An even more insidious rumor persisted that, at the height of the fire, crew members robbed the passengers of gold that they were carrying. It is possible that some of the crew may have been intoxicated. The stories of robbery were most likely untrue.
Captain Sweet was taken to the home of Dr. J. J. Brown for treatment of his injury. At which time, the doctor stated that he found Captain Sweet to be in a very poor state of mind and suffering from deep depression. It was later learned that the captain never did regain his mental health and suffered from the effects of that dreadful night all his life as did many of the survivors.
The surviving crew members grew alarmed at the rumors that were being spread about the village and felt it best they leave Sheboygan. The next day, they boarded the Delaware and headed for Manitowoc.
During her trip to Manitowoc, the Delaware passed through the scene of the fire, and from thirty to forty bodies were seen bobbing in the blue lake waters. Both passengers and crew begged Captain Tuttle to stop and try to bring as many as possible aboard, but, for some unexplained reason, he steadfastly refused, and Delaware continued on her way. When word of Captain Tuttle's refusal got out, a great barrage of criticism was leveled at him, and he lived in disgrace much of his life because of that incident.
Bodies were recovered for weeks in ones and twos as they drifted ashore: men, women, and children -- many, many children. Some were brought to Sheboygan and identified by relatives. Others were buried, some in unmarked graves near the beach where they had at last come ashore.
Here and there, gold coins came into circulation. Perhaps they were taken from the dead or washed ashore in the debris that littered the beaches from the wreck.
One by one, the survivors fanned out across the countryside, some settling in the Sheboygan area in the vicinity of Oostburg. A few crossed the lake and settled in Michigan, but all of them told and retold the story of the night their lives were forever changed.
It took nearly three months for the terrible news to reach Holland, and, when the word spread, a day of morning was declared, and church bells throughout the land tolled mournfully. In Winterswijk, Varseveld, Oosterbeck, Holten, Appeldorn, and a dozen other places, sad groups of people stood on street corners and quietly spoke of the catastrophe in a strange place called Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
The loss of the Phoenix had so profound an effect on the immigrant movement that for a time it stopped altogether.
The exact toll will never be known, as all the logs and ship's papers were lost in the fire. The company always maintained that their ship was not overcrowded and put the loss at about 190. The ship's clerk, Mr. Donahue, who should have had the best knowledge of the number on board, put the loss at around 250. [The burning of the Phoenix is, to this day, among the worst disasters in the history of the Great Lakes.*] Some of the survivors felt it could have been even greater, but, when incomplete lists of those lost are scanned, the true measure of the loss begins to become clear. What follows is just a small part of the litany of disaster:
Lost On The Phoenix
Hendrik Jan Siebelink 41 yrs.
Janna Geertruid Siebelink 12 yrs.
Gerrit Jan Siebelink 9 yrs.
Teunis Koffers 52 yrs.
Janna Berendina Koffers 21 yrs.
Jan Willem Koffers 15 yrs.
Johanna Hendrika Koffers 12 yrs.
Jan Albert Sikkink 36 yrs.It is not hard to see that whole families were wiped out, and the partial list probably speaks more eloquently of the horror and suffering that took place that night on the dark lake than a thousand words.
Tobias Sikkink 12 yrs.
Johanna Hendrika Sikkink 10 yrs.
Jan Berend Sikkink 5 yrs.
Janna Aleida Sikkink 1 yrs.
Early that spring of 1848, a peddler appeared in Sheboygan with a wagon load of charred wooden shoes that he claimed he had picked up along the beach. He said they had belonged to the victims of the Phoenix. After he began to peddle his grisly souvenirs, it was learned that the shoes had been made just for this purpose and, no doubt, had been charred in his stove at home. Needless to say, the peddler was rudely run out of town and sternly warned not to return.
In the late 1980's, it was thought that the wreck of the Phoenix had been located in Sheboygan Harbor, but it now seems that this supposition was in error. Most likely, the bones of the old ship were covered over when a portion of the harbor was filled in. All that remains, that we know of, is an old Bible, stained and worn, in the Sheboygan County Museum, and a few grave sites, some still tenderly cared for.
Perhaps, one day, a monument will be raised in Sheboygan in the area of the harbor to commemorate the heroism of David Blish and the hundreds of sturdy Dutch immigrants who gambled everything for religious freedom and a new way of life -- and lost -- just five heartbreaking miles short of their goal after a journey of over four thousand miles.
Phoenix Tragedy keywords: Phoenix, immigrants, history; House, M W; Sweet, Captain G B; Watts, H; Hazelton; Blish, David; Morris, Judge; Tuttle, Captain; Porter, Captain; Donahue, T S; Long; Brown; Dr J J; Berry, James; Holstein cows; Siebelink; Koffers; Sikkink; Wangemann, Bill
03 Jul 96