Violent Loss of the Propeller Challenge


In the Spring of 2021, veteran shipwreck hunters Joe Van Wagnen and Mark Gammage located the remains of the passenger/freight Propeller Challenge in northern Lake Huron.  The ship was lost on the return leg of her maiden voyage due to a violent boiler explosion that destroyed the stern of the ship sinking it in only 5 minutes on June 22nd, 1853 with the loss of 5 lives and 4 injured.  Her story illustrates the dangers of early steam ship travel on the Great Lakes, however there weren’t many other choices to reach some of the more remote areas on the Lakes since many of the roads and railroads hadn’t been built yet.

The Challenge

During the Winter of 1852/53, three new propellers were built in the Detroit area to take advantage of the growing passenger and freight business as communities throughout the Great Lakes area were growing rapidly.  They were the Falcon, Fintry and the Challenge and all were twin propeller vessels.  Little did their owners know at the time that all of them would be lost within the next 4 years.  The Challenge would be lost on the return leg of her maiden voyage from Buffalo to Chicago due to a boiler explosion in 1853 and the Fintry also exploded her boiler off of Port Stanley, Ontario in Lake Erie in 1855.  The Falcon caught fire and burned at the dock in the Chicago River in 1857.  Apparently, there was some competition between shipbuilders in the various lake ports as is evident in this quote from the Detroit Advance newspaper.

“If the Buffalo papers want to see fine propellors, we commend to their notice the new propellors CHALLENGE, FINTRY and FALCON, which are coming down to visit them in a few days and which were built here during the past winter for the Buffalo trade.”

The Challenge was built by William Dixon for Henry Strong and others at Newport, Michigan, which is now the modern-day Marine City located along the St. Clair River.  The boiler, engine and other machinery was provided by DeGraff & Kendrick of Detroit.  She was 197 feet 5 inches long; 28 feet beam and 12 feet deep.  Although there is no photograph, sketch, or painting known to exist of the vessel, it is thought to look similar to the propeller Northern Light.

Upon arrival in its home port of Buffalo in the Spring of 1853, the Buffalo Daily Courier described the ship touting its design and accommodations.

“Propellor Challenge – This fine vessel built during the past winter at St. Clair, arrived at our docks on Monday.  The Challenge is owned by H.M. Strong, of Detroit, and is one of the handsomest and best built propellors on the lakes.  Her accommodations for officers and crew, are in the very best style, and judging by the number of berths in her cabins, and the length of her dining saloon, she is calculated to carry a few passengers.  The Challenge is a fine vessel, and looks well in the water, and her machinery, finishing, &c., are in perfect order and reflect great credit on the mechanics of Detroit.  She leaves tomorrow in her place, on the Buffalo and Chicago Line.”

The First and Last Voyage

The Challenge left Buffalo on its maiden voyage under the command of Captain E. Darley and proceeded on its way to Chicago, stopping at intermediate ports along the way dropping off and picking up passengers, freight and mail along the way.  On its return leg the Challenge left Chicago on June 20th, 1853 with a mixed cargo of 23,000 bushels of oats, 326 barrels of high wines, 537 barrels of pork, 57 tierces (casks) of hams and 24 kegs of butter as well as passengers and pulled into Mackinac Island Harbor as an intermediate stop.  At approximately 9am on the morning of June 22nd, the Challenge made its way out of Mackinac Island Harbor and headed downbound into rough conditions on Lake Huron on the way to Buffalo to complete its first trip.  The Challenge was closely followed by the Propeller Bucephalus leaving around 10am that morning, also downbound.  A few hours into the journey the ship was violently rocked by an explosion in the stern area of the vessel.  The ship was mass confusion with 5 people being killed by the explosion, 4 injured and water flowing into the ship.  The ship went down in 5 minutes or less, which makes it miraculous that the surviving crew and passengers were able to launch 2 undamaged lifeboats and get away from the ship.  The schooner North Star heard the explosion 10 miles from the site of the calamity and rushed to the scene to render aid.  They took all the survivors on board and then transferred them to the Propeller Bucephalus as she made her way downbound.  When the Bucephalus arrived in Detroit, Thomas Cragg, 1st mate of the Challenge, spoke to a newspaper reporter and gave the details of the tragedy, including a full crew and passenger list of the dead, injured and survivors. When questioned about the cause of the accident, the engineers and firemen stated that there was plenty of water in the boiler and there was only 70 psi of pressure in the system and with the rapid sinking of the ship there was no time to determine the cause.  Unbelievably, no one was reported to have been scalded by steam.

Ship Design

The Challenge was built during a time when steam ships were transitioning from paddlewheels to propellers.  A couple of the advantages that propeller driven vessels had over paddlewheel driven ships were lower fuel consumption, a narrower beam, lower construction costs and maintenance.  This translated into greater profits for the owners.  The earliest propeller on the Great Lakes was designed by John Ericsson and consisted of a concentric ring with flukes extending from the outer ring instead of the center hub.  His later designs were more conventional and recognizable as a more modern design that is similar to propellers used today with the flukes extending from the center hub as in the drawing of the Civil War Ironclad Monitor’s propeller.  The Challenge was also built during the transition from the earlier design to the later, so it was unknown which design was used.  Its engine design was expected to be a one-cylinder simple expansion steam engine similar to the propeller Indiana’s engine which was lost on Lake Superior in 1858.  The Indiana’s engine propeller and boiler were recovered and placed on display by the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.  A drawing of her engine was made by C. Patrick Labadie during the salvage. Before her discovery, it was not known if the ship was built with one or two engines and propellers as this detail was not called out in her original enrollment.  The Challenge was designed with large cargo doors on the side of the ship to facilitate the loading of freight and the boarding of passengers.  As ships of the day were being built longer and longer their current design necessitated the installation of hogging arches, which can be readily seen in the photo and drawing of the Northern Light.  These arches on both sides of the ship prevented the ship from flexing up or “hogging” as the ship flexed in the waves.  Too much of this flexing would cause undue stress and precipitate structural failure leading to the middle section breaking and sinking the ship.  The cabins on deck would accommodate passengers and crew and according to the description in the newspaper article they were quite comfortable.

Which Mackinaw(c) and which course?

As many Michigan tourists are aware, when you tell somebody, you are going to Mackinaw you must designate whether you are visiting Mackinaw City or Mackinac Island.  Newspaper accounts of the day stated that the Challenge left “Mackinaw” on the return leg of her voyage.  So, was it Mackinaw City or Mackinac Island?  It most assuredly was Mackinac Island.  In 1853 there wasn’t a significant settlement in the area that is now Mackinaw City.  It was usually referred to as “Old Mackinaw” because that is where the original Fort Michilimackinac was built in 1715 by the French to support the fur trade and their interests in the area.  In 1780, the fort was moved to Mackinac Island and the city of Mackinaw wasn’t even platted until 1857 and wouldn’t start to be populated until the 1870’s, more than 17 years after the Challenge was lost.  There wasn’t any reason for the Challenge to go to “Old Mackinaw,” because the commerce flowed through Mackinac Island.  Once the Challenge was ready to leave Mackinac Island Harbor to head to Buffalo, Captain Darley had two courses to choose from.  He could take the southerly route between the southern shore of Round and Bois Blanc Islands and the mainland or the northerly route around the north end of those two islands.  An earlier researcher of the Challenge surmised that Captain Darley chose the southern route since the passage between Round and Mackinac Islands had dangerous shoals that the mariners would have to avoid and this area wasn’t dredged out until the 1890’s.  This seems to be a very logical assumption, however that was not the case as we were able to determine with the Challenge and other vessels.  In the summer of 2020, following the original assumption we extensively searched the south channel course in the area the Challenge should have been in a few hours after they left Mackinac Island with no results.  That following winter we found an account of the paddlewheel steamer Northerner making its way to Mackinac Island and going through a debris field east of Bois Blanc Island 6 hours after the Challenge went down.  They probably would have passed the downbound Bucephalus with the Challenge survivors on their way to Detroit, but would have no idea that the disaster occurred until they hit the debris field and when they arrived at Mackinac Island, no one knew of the sinking.  Captain Sweet of the Northerner was quoted in the newspaper after sighting the debris field.  He stated that the mile long field of wreckage consisted of cargo, furniture and cabin wreckage.  Surely some steamer must have been blown apart and it was doubtful that anyone survived.  His report of the wreckage confirmed that the Challenge took the northerly route around Round and Bois Blanc Islands on their downbound voyage.  Armed with this knowledge, we set out on May 29, 2021 and found the wreck of the Challenge after only 5 hours of searching.  The sonar images confirmed that our target had hogging arches and some very tall structures on one end of the ship.  The structures turned out to be the twin engines and the stern of the vessel.  Taking measurements with side scan sonar indicated the ship was about 200 feet long, very close to the 197 feet on her enrollment.  Based on the location, the design of the ship and the knowledge that there weren’t any similarly designed vessels of this vintage lost in this general location, it is highly likely that these are the remains of the Propeller Challenge.

Exploration and Documentation

Multiple ROV (remotely operated vehicle) dives were made on the wreckage and in one case two ROVs were used on the same dive to visualize more restricted areas, which can be hazardous for the ROV to view.  Divers also explored the ship taking still photos and constructed a 3D photogrammetry model to document the site 168 years after the tragedy.  This was a unique collaboration of highly skilled divers and photographers who worked cooperatively to record the original condition of the site for future historic interpretation and preservation.  Many thanks to Dusty Klifman for piloting and videoing with the second ROV, Becky Kagan Schott and Jilka Hanaoka for their still photography work and primary observation of the wreckage and Ken Merryman for photographing and constructing the 3D photogrammetry model.  A special thanks to Pat Labadie who consulted on the design of the ship and helped find photos and drawings from his database of similar ships to help illustrate what the Propeller Challenge looked like.





anonymous by Robert Broton on 12/11/2021

Enjoyed many dives on the Challenge with Paul Ehorn who discovered the wreck.

anonymous by Kai on 11/1/2022

Would you consider publishing the coordinates of the wreck?

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