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On Lake Erie: An Immigrant Journey from Quebec to Wisconsin in 1852 {1}
A letter translated and edited by Henrietta Larson (Volume IV: Page 92)


In the early eighteen- fifties travel by steamboat on the rivers or Great Lakes of America, the main highways of the country at the time, was very hazardous. This may be seen from the frequent notices in the newspapers of "another steamboat accident." Many of these accidents were minor ones, but a large number were so serious as to be called "disasters." Of the latter type several were reported within about a month in the summer of 1852: on July 28 the "Henry Clay" became overheated while racing on the Hudson, and burned, with the loss of at least 58 persons; on August 20 the "Atlantic," a Lake Erie steamer, was rammed by another boat and sank, over 300 lives being lost; on August 23 the "Franklin, # 2," an Ohio River boat, had a boiler explosion, 15 being killed and 40 severely injured; and on September 4 the "Reindeer" was destroyed on the Hudson as a result of an explosion which killed 28 and injured many. {2}

These disasters aroused much criticism of steamboats. The causes of steamboat accidents and the means of preventing them were widely discussed in the press. It was admitted that some accidents could not be prevented, but carelessness and the mania for speed were blamed for many disasters. Regular advertisements of "fast boats" and "fast trips" and frequent reports of the breaking of records indicate that time was already an important consideration in America travel. These attempts of the boats to establish records for speed may in part be explained by the unregulated cut-throat competition, between transportation agencies, to secure trade. To accomplish this end, rates were often ruinously cut; or still other means, more questionable from the point of view of the passengers, were employed. In the summer of 1852 a strong demand arose for effective government interference. On August 30 Congress passed a bill providing for the licensing and inspection of steamboats, with specific regulations as to the pressure in the boilers, and other preventive measures, as well as carrying of life boats, life preservers, and other aids in case of trouble. {3}

The most outstanding of the steamboat accidents of 1852, and one of the most serious that have occurred in the United States, was the sinking of the "Atlantic." This boat was a large steamer, owned by the Wards, running out from Buffalo on Lake Erie. It was struck by the "Ogdensburg" about two o'clock in the morning of August 20. The reason for this strange collision is more or less a mystery. The hearing held by a committee of inquiry revealed that the steering apparatus of the two boats was in order and that the first mate, who was at the wheel of the "Ogdensburg," saw the lights of the "Atlantic." Two theories remain: first, that there was careless miscalculation on the part of one or both of the pilots, possibly induced by a desire to "make time"; and, secondly, that one of the pilots deliberately tried to injure a rival boat. {4}

The "Atlantic" was carrying over 500 passengers, mostly German and Norwegian immigrants. {5} The presence of so many immigrants on the boat is explained by the fact that the Lake route was the favorite route westward for the large immigration of the fifties. Immediately after the collision an awful confusion arose on the boat. The crowded condition of the craft, the fact that the immigrants could not understand the orders given, the use of life preservers with which the passengers were unfamiliar, the injury of the captain, all served to demoralize both passengers and crew. The boat was immediately headed towards land, but shortly the water extinguished the fires in the furnaces, and the boat sank in about 15 fathoms of water. The "Ogdensburg," after inspection its damages, followed in the wake of the "Atlantic" and picked up the survivors. Over 300 were drowned. Of these, 68 were from Norway; 3 were from Vang, 36 from Slidre, 23 from Urdal in Valders, and 5 from Toten. {6}

An account of this disaster is contained in a letter written by an emigrant passenger - Erik Thorstad of Øiers Parish in Gudbrandsdalen. {7} He had sailed with the Norwegian emigrant party from Christiania on June 16 and landed at Quebec on August 12. From there on Thorstad describes the eventful journey inland. This letter, a part of which is herewith given in translation, is interesting and significant as a passengers' observation on a dramatic and controversial episode in the history of American immigration and transportation in the eighteen-fifties.


Our good leader, Captain Olsen, contracted with a company to carry us and our baggage to Milwaukee for $7 for each adult and half fare for the children. On August 14 our baggage was brought aboard a large steamboat and we left the evening of the same day at 5 o'clock. At 6 o'clock the following morning we came to a town called Montreal. Our skipper, who had accompanied us to this place, then took leave of us. Shortly after he had gone, an accident occurred; a man from Valders fell overboard as he was bringing his baggage off the boat. It was right pitiful to see how he struggled. And no means were on hand whatsoever with which to save him. Arrangements were finally made for dragging, whereupon he was found, but by then he was dead. This event was all the more tragic since he had a family, which mourned its lost provider. {8}

At this place our baggage was taken in wagons about one English mile, and then we traveled by steamboat for about 24 hours. We passed through many locks which we looked at with wonder. Since we could not get a boat the day we reached this place, a town named Toronto, our baggage was unloaded on the wharf, and the immigrants, except myself and a couple of others, spent the night under the open sky. At 8 o'clock the next morning we left by steamboat, and in the afternoon of the same day we landed below Niagara Falls near the ingenious handing bridge made of steel cables. Many of us had decided to go near this masterpiece and inspect it, but we had to forgo this, as our baggage was immediately loaded on wagons and drawn by horses on a railway for about 16 English miles. On this trip we had an opportunity to view the great and much-famed waterfalls, Niagara.

We came to the town of Kingston late in the evening. There, too, our belongings were placed on the wharf, and the same ones as before found lodging on the wharf, while I and 2 of my comrades lodged in town. Some of the immigrants left for Buffalo on a small steamboat at 5 o'clock the next morning. At 5 o'clock in the evening the boat returned and got the rest of us. Buffalo is a very large town and has about 50,000 inhabitants, but I did not think it was really a pleasant place. Along the wharves, especially, it was quite unwholesome. From Quebec to Buffalo some 75 poor people from Valders had free transportation. But here they had to remain as they did not have enough money to pay passage across the Lakes. {9}

We left Buffalo on a large steamer, called the "Atlantic," in the evening of the same day -- August 12 -- at 8 o'clock. {10} The total number of passengers was 576, comprising 132 Norwegians, a number of Germans, and the rest American.

Since it was already late in the evening and I felt very sleepy, I opened my chest, took off my coat and laid it, together with my money and my watch, in the chest. I took out my bedclothes, made me a bed on the chest, and lay down to sleep. But when it was about half past 2 o'clock in the morning I awoke with a heavy shock. Immediately suspecting that another boat had run into ours, I hastened up at once. Since there was great confusion and fright among the passengers I asked several if our boat had been damaged. But I did not get any reassuring answer. I could not believe that there was any immediate danger, for the engines were still in motion. I went up to the top deck, and then I was convinced at once that the steamer must have been damaged, for many people were lowering a boat with the greatest haste. Many from the lowest deck got into the boat directly, and as the boat had taken in water on being lowered, it sank immediately and all were drowned.

Thereupon I went down to the second deck, hoping to find means of rescue. At that very moment the water rushed into the boat and the engines stopped. Then a pitiful cry arose. I and one of my comrades had taken hold of the stairs which led from the second to the third deck, but soon there were so many hands on it that we let go, knowing that we could not thus be saved. We thereupon climbed up to the third deck, where the pilot was at the wheel. While we stood thus, much distressed, we saw several people putting out a small boat, whereupon we at once hastened to help. We succeeded in getting it well out, and I was one of the first to get into the boat. When there were as many as the boat could hold, it was fortunately pushed away from the steamer. As oars were wanting, we rowed with our hands, and several bailed water from the boat with their hats. A ray of light, which we had seen far away when we were on the wreck and which we had taken for a lighthouse, we soon found to be a steamer hurrying to give us help. We were taken aboard directly and then those who were on the wreck as well as those who were still paddling in the water were picked up.

This boat, which was the one that had sunk ours, was of the kind known as a propeller, driven by a screw in the stern. The misery and the cries of distress which I witnessed and heard that night are indescribable, and I shall not forget it all as long as I live. The number of drowned was more than 300, of whom 68 were Norwegians. Many of the persons who were in the first class were drowned in their berths or staterooms. The Norwegians who were rescued totaled 64, but most of them lost everything. I saw many on board the propeller who had on only shirts. The newspapers blame the command of the "Atlantic" for this sad event and reproach them most severely and accuse them openly of having murdered 300 people.

The propeller soon delivered us to another steamboat which brought us to a city called Detroit, where we arrived at 8 o'clock the next morning. After we had got some provisions for our journey, we continued on a steam train. Late in the evening we reached a large town in Illinois, called Chicago, where we spent the night and had everything free. On the trip there, we saw many beautiful farms and orchards as well as many attractive buildings. We left the following morning by steamboat, and after 5 or 6 hours we reached Milwaukee. That was on the 22nd of August. We stayed with a Norwegian where we remained until the 28th of the same month. Since the city had taken up a subscription for our support, we lived free of charge, and in addition each person received $11 in money. {11} With this money I bought 2 coats, a pair of trousers, a pair of shoes, 2 shirts, and a bag.

From Milwaukee I went by steam train 20 to 25 miles without charge, and then I footed it, reaching Østerlie's the 30th of August. There I have since remained. I am well and have, God be thanked, been in good health all the time. Although I have lost all my possession, I have not lost courage. The same God who has helped me in the time of danger will, I hope, continue to be my protector.


<1> The writer is indebted to Dr. Theodore C. Blegen of the University of Minnesota for sending from Oslo the letter here with translated and other information from the Scandinavian sources cited.

<2> Reports of these disasters were found in several Philadelphia and New York papers, April to September, inclusive, 1852.

<3> United States Statutes at Large, 10:61-75 (1851-1855). Laws had been passed earlier on this matter but none so specific and comprehensive as this one.

<4> The sinking of the "Atlantic" was reported fully in the following papers: the Buffalo Republic; the New York Courier and Inquirer; and the Philadelphia North American and United States Gazette, Sunday Dispatch, and Cummings' Evening Bulletin. John Bull, a London weekly, carried a five-hundred-word account of the disaster, September 4. A highly colored account may be found in Hjalmar, R. Holand, De Norske Settlementers Historie, 72-73 (Iphriam, Wisconsin, 1908).

<5> Cummings Evening Bulletin, for August 24, 1852, states that there were 510 passengers, of which 400 were immigrants. That is approximately the number given by the newspapers referred to in the preceding note.

<6> Stephen Olson of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, who accompanied the emigrants from Norway as interpreter, reported the names of those drowned and the places from which they came, His report was published in Skandinaven, October 27, 1852. (this copy was found in the Kunglige Bibliotek in Stockholm). Through Olson's report states that sixty-eight were drowned, only sixty-seven names are given. A letter published in Christiania-Posten, October 16, 1852, contains some information about the emigrants.

<7> This letter, written from the "Town of Ixonia, Jefferson County [Wisconsin], November 9 1852", was published, together with some information on the "Atlantic" disaster, in Christiania-Posten, February 11, 1853.

<8> According to Stephen Olson's report the family of this man was drowned in the "Atlantic" disaster.

<9> A list of the names of those passengers who did not go on from Buffalo is contained in a letter written by George Pemberton, acting Norwegian-Swedish consul at Quebec. This letter is in the Riksarkiv, Olso, Indredept., Kontor D., Journalsager, 1852, No. 2336.

<10> This date is obviously wrong and should have been August 19.

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