Thursday, June 21, 2007

Blast from the past

When the passenger and cargo steamer General Anthony Wayne left Toledo on April 27, 1850, bound for Buffalo, there was no reason to believe this voyage would be any different from any other Lake Erie steamship cruise.

After all, such voyages were becoming more and more commonplace as the Industrial Revolution began to dawn on the Great Lakes region. The invention of the steam engine had revolutionized lake shipping, and vessels like the Wayne, which was only thirteen years old at the time, were capable of moving people and goods across the lakes at speeds that were simply unthinkable during the Age of Sail.

When the Wayne left Toledo, there were twenty-five passengers aboard. Later that night, she arrived in Sandusky and added forty more, along with a shipment of wine and whiskey. After this routine stop, the vessel set out again on Lake Erie plodding along on an easterly course. But that's where anything that was routine about this particular trip abruptly ended.

At 1:30 a.m., just off Vermilion, Ohio, one of the Wayne's two boilers, which had been just rebuilt the previous year, suddenly exploded. The carnage that followed came on with a frightful intensity. As the massive iron boilers recoiled from the blast, they heaved upward, shattering cabins, splitting the wooden hull in two and instantly setting the vessel aflame. Part of the hurricane deck, which had become somewhat separated from the rest of the wreck, actually remained afloat for a time, offering the terrified passengers some sanctuary from Erie's frigid waters, but many, panicked, leaped overboard anyway. Others were so badly scalded that they didn't survive long after the initial blast.

The shattered hull of the Wayne only remained afloat for fifteen minutes before the doomed vessel finally reared up and nosedived to the bottom of the lake. In the end, two lifeboats made it to shore, and vessels from Vermilion plucked a number of survivors from the frigid lake before it was too late. Forty passengers and crewmembers survived, but the death toll was still staggering: when the Wayne went down in a dramatic fireball that terrible night on Lake Erie, she took thirty-eight lives with her.

For 157 years, divers searched for the wreck of the General Anthony Wayne, but her final resting place remained a frustrating mystery. But no more. Today comes news that the wreck of the elusive steamer has finally turned up, ironically right where she should have been all along -- in fifteen metres of water eight miles off Vermilion.

You can read the full story, from the Columbus Dispatch here.

For more on the sinking of the General Anthony Wayne, click here.

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