As people asked for stories of obscure and little-known vessels still missing on the Great Lakes, I thought I’d offer one. The schooner Hiawatha is largely unknown to most Great Lakes historians and shipwreck hunters. Her loss by collision on October 14, 1866 is one of many that have received little attention. Undoubtedly, her hull will be found in the not too distant future. Hopefully, this account helps tell her story.
The Hiawatha was part of huge boom in ship construction that occurred on the Lakes in the mid-1850s before the panic of 1857 brought it to a halt. The grain trade on the western Lakes was booming and huge profits could be made shipping grain from Chicago and Milwaukee to Buffalo and Cleveland. In 1856, nearly 300 ships were launched on the Great Lakes and nearly 50 of them were built at Buffalo, New York. Among them was the Hiawatha. She was built by the well known shipwright Frederick N. Jones of the famous Jones shipbuilding family. His father, Augustus Jones had brought east coast shipbuilding to the Lakes in the 1820s, passing the skill on to five notable shipbuilding sons who constructed an amazing number of Great Lakes vessels. William Jones, Frederick N. Jones, George Washington Jones, Benjamin B. Jones and James M. Jones each established yards at different Great Lakes ports and proceeded to build some of the best vessels on the Lakes.
Frederick N. Jones launched the Hiawatha at Buffalo, New York on April 28, 1856 in company with several other schooners he had on the ways. She was a trim vessel at 122 feet length by 26 feet in beam and a 10.5 foot depth of hold and could carry around 16,000 bushels of grain. She rated 308.83 tons by the builders old measure and sported a scroll stem beneath her prow. She was built for grain merchant John Johnson who was also her first master and was enrolled at the Buffalo Customs House on May 1, 1856. She departed on her first voyage on May 15, 1856 under Captain Hone with a coal cargo for Chicago. The Hiawatha passed through a series of owners during her ten year career, being owned exclusively on Lake Erie. She spent much of the 1850s owned by the Lake Navigation Company, an early conglomerate that owned many grain carriers.
The Hiawatha had a remarkably accident free career with her only mishaps being a $100 loss of her head gear on Lake Huron in October 1857 and a crewman losing his life in fall from her masthead in May of 1858 in Buffalo Harbor. By 1860, the underwriters had classed her hull to A2 and valued her at $8500, necessitating a major overhaul over the winter of 1861/62. She emerged the next Spring in top notch condition. She spent most of the 1860s owned by the firm of Hoag & Walbridge out of Toledo, Ohio continuing to make regular runs to Milwaukee and Chicago. In 1864 the US customs bureau adopted the new Moorsom system for measuring tonnage and began assigned official numbers of vessels. As such, the Hiawatha was given a new tonnage of 226.38 gross tons and had her new official number, 11181, carved into her main hatch beam. In 1866, the underwriters classed her down to B1 with a value of $7,000 prompting Hoag & Walbridge to sell her on July 21, 1866 to Becker & Co. of Chicago.
Becker & Co. had work done on the Hiawatha to restore her to an A2 rating in order to continue to run her in the grain trade. Unfortunately, they were unable to recoup much return on their investment. The Hiawatha had only made a few runs when she was lost. Becker & Co. had just sent the Hiawatha to Cleveland with a grain cargo from which she returned with coal for Chicago. She was quickly reloaded with 15,100 bushels of corn and departed on the evening of Friday, October 12th, 1866 under captain L. James. She sailed in the company of several other grain carrying schooners, including the schooners Skylark, Melvina, Montana and W.S. Lyons.
The vessels set sail in a stiff wind bound for the Manitou Passage and by Saturday night they were off present-day Ludington, Michigan. Weather conditions were less than ideal but nothing the Hiawatha couldn’t handle. Just after midnight, the Hiawatha was off Big Sable Point when she was struck by the upbound steamer Oneida. News accounts are fairly sparse concerning the collision, but it is likely that the vessels’ oil fueled running lights had been extinguished in the gale rendering them invisible to each other in the darkness. After the collision, the Oneida took the Hiawatha’s crew on board, landing them back at Chicago. The Hiawatha remained afloat for only a few minutes before plunging to the bottom. The Hiawatha had been insured for $13,500 of her $16,000 rated value. Her cargo was worth $23,000, of which $18,200 was covered by insurance. To add insult to injury, Becker & Co’s Chicago offices on Canal Street burned down a few weeks later in a major Chicago fire. The firm ended up filing for bankruptcy.
The Hiawatha remains an obscure loss mostly because she has a very light paper trail compared to other vessels of her day that were lost on the Lakes. Her captain did make a wreck report to the customs bureau, which is known from the 1863-1873 Index of Marine Casualties on the Great Lakes, but it is not particularly detailed. Likewise, there doesn’t appear to have been a resulting admiralty case in the district court and there were only a few short news articles about the loss. The news accounts state that the collision occurred off Point au Sable on Lake Michigan, which meant she sank off Big Sable Point. The fact that she was struck by an upbound propeller, suggests that she was almost certainly on the shipping lane from the Manitou Passage to Chicago. As such, a fairly tight east to west grid can be developed. Unfortunately, the north to south grid is quite long. One also wonders how accurately they knew their location, as the Big Sable Point Lighthouse wouldn’t be constructed until the next year.
Based on the shipping lane of the day, the Hiawatha probably lies between 300 and 500 feet deep somewhere off Big Sable Point. She is likely in the same vicinity as the steamer Java, which sank in the same area in 1878. A search that paralleled the shipping lane of the day might yield both wrecks.