Early Monroe Captains and Ships Shape Monroe’s Maritime History



Steamboat Monroe

In his History of Monroe County, Michigan, Talcott E. Wing summarized the happenings between 1825 and 1834 in the rapidly growing port of Monroe.  One of the events he recorded occurred on July 22, 1825 when a bateau arrived at the Monroe wharf from the River Thames, with 150 bushels of wheat for grinding after a trip of 180 miles. The Canadians shipped the wheat for grinding to Monroe because a drought in the vicinity of the Thames had lowered water power and prevented grinding the grists there.

Talcott Wing pointed out that history had come full circle in relations with the River Thames Canadians. Just twelve years before, the British and Native Americans had caused citizens to flee from Frenchtown in the depths of winter to save their lives and the lives of their families. Now just twelve years later, Monroe citizens were enjoying independence and comfort and they could do a good deed for their former enemies by charging them reasonable amounts of toll for the grists.

On September 16, 1825, a 70-foot-long pine pump log arrived at the River Raisin from the River St. Clair. Six yoke of oxen hauled the log from the River Raisin and delivered it to James Hale, who was building a distillery in what later would be Monroe’s first ward. [1]

In the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, steamboats established routes between the Maumee River and many Lake Erie ports, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Sandusky, and Monroe. Eventually they expanded beyond Detroit to ports on the upper lakes like Chicago and Milwaukee. Geographically blessed by its location on Lake Erie’s shore, Monroe grew into a bustling port and the citizens of Monroe grew accustomed to steam engine whistles and the hustle bustle of unloading, transporting, and delivering cargos from other lake ports. Some of the captains of the growing list of great lakes steamers chose Monroe as their home port and several of the new lake steamships were either built at Monroe or owned and financed by Monroe entrepreneurs. Monroe played an important part in firmly establishing steam boat traffic and prosperity on Lake Erie.

Captain Harry Whitaker and the James Monroe

Captain Harry Whitaker, born on March 26, 1801, enjoyed a reputation among his contemporaries as one of the most successful steamship captains on the Great Lakes. He built and commanded the James Monroe, built in Monroe, Michigan Territory, one of the first steamships on the Great Lakes. Captain Whitaker spent several years in Monroe, making many friends and leaving a deep imprint on Monroe history before he left to captain other ships and live in New York, and finally Detroit. The 1850 United States Federal Census shows that Harry Whitaker, age 49, lived in Buffalo, New York with his wife Maria, 41, his son Charles, 22, and his daughters Delia, 20, and Maria 13. By 1880, he had moved back to Detroit

Talcott E. Wing in his History of Monroe County, Michigan, wrote that Captain Whitaker told him that since the beginning of his career, he had commanded 18 steamers, some of them for only a short time, but he never lost a life or a pound of freight. He first shipped on the sloop Huntington, earning $6.00 a month. In 1821, he served as wheelsman on the Walk-in-the-Water and in 1824, he commanded the schooner Macedonia and in 1828, the steamers Peacock and Pioneer. In 1834 he commanded the steamer Monroe.

The Buffalo Whig described the Monroe as a “fine high pressure boat of about three hundred and fifty tones burthen superbly finished and furnished and in point of safety, convenience and speed, and beauty is exceeded by few if any.” The Monroe was originally owned by the River Raisin Steam Boat Company and was built in Monroe Michigan Territory in 1834.

The Western Star, a Buffalo newspaper, reported that on Monday, October 6, 1834, the splendid steam boat Monroe, Captain Whitaker entered the harbor for the first time the Thursday morning before. “She is indeed a splendid boat and shows well for the spirit of enterprise which actualizes our neighbors of the far west.”

On Wednesday, October 8, 1834, the Buffalo Whig noted that the new steam boat Monroe, Captain H. Whittaker, came into port for the first time on Thursday morning of the week before. The Whig account said that the Monroe was owned by the River Raisin Steam Boat Company and was built at Monroe, Michigan Territory. The Whig reported that the Monroe was 145 feet in length, its beam measured 47 feet and it had 350 runs burden. Her Gentlemen’s Cabin had 33 berths, Ladies 33 berths, 12 berths and four state rooms. Forward 33 berths, 51 berths, and steerage 20 berths.

“This boat is certainly of fine appearance, and is very handsomely finished. She came in in the morning during a heavy gale, which she had buffeted the whole night. Her captain informs us he has seldom seen a worse night upon the lake. The sea stove a boat suspended astern, and carried it away, making a full breach into the cabin windows and over the deck at the same time. With such a christening, and acquitting herself well, as she did, her reputation as a sea boat is established. Barker & Holt, Agents.”

In 1835, George William Featherstonhaugh, the first official geologist of the United States, traveled aboard the steamer Monroe from Mackinac to Green Bay as part of a trip into the Michigan and Wisconsin Territories. He noted that as the Monroe put out into the bay, the “lofty island, the old French fort conspicuous in the distance, the American fort a dazzling whiteness just above the town and numerous groups of Indians standing hear their lodges to view the departure of the steamer which moved on in gallant style with four Kentish buglers playing a lively air, concurred to produce one of those rare effects which a traveler sometimes witnesses.[2]

In 1837, the Milwaukee Sentinel claimed that in July 1836 the Monroe had earned the distinction of being the first steamboat to enter Milwaukee Harbor, and in 1834 she was the second steamer to visit Sault Ste. Marie. She called between the Lake Michigan ports of Green Bay and Milwaukee, Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinaw and down Lake Huron and Lake Erie to Buffalo.

The James Monroe experienced many owners and a varied history before it was lost off Cattaraugus, New York in 1845. Its owners included Detroit shippers William Brewster and Andrew F. McReynolds and several others from Buffalo. In 1835, the James Monroe collided with a stone scow in Erie Harbor, in 1837 it went ashore at Point Abino in Lake Erie, and it was rebuilt as a bark in 1843.

Friend Palmer of Detroit happened to be a passenger on the steamer the United States in the winter of 1845, when its Captain Whitaker performed an astonishing feat in the history of navigation. While the United States made the passage between Detroit and Buffalo on March 10, 1845, it encountered a five-mile-wide mass of rotten ice. Suddenly, the steamer struck solid ice. Quick thinking Captain Whitaker got all the passengers on the upper deck and had them run in a body from one side of the steamer to the other. This action gave the United States a rolling motion and then Captain Whitaker backed up the steamer and then let her drive with a full head of steam into the sheet of ice. Captain Whitaker continued the maneuver for two days within full sight of Buffalo before he finally worked the United States free to steam her way to Detroit. [3]

Captain Whitaker Builds the A.D. Patchin


The Buffalo Daily Courier & Pilot of Friday, September 4, 1846, described the new A.D. Patchin as being unsurpassed “for beauty, symmetry of proportion, and about the trimmest craft that floats these waters.” On January 13, 1847, the Cleveland Herald Weekly highlighted some A.D. Patchin details, reporting that she weighed 873.78 tons and cost $65,000 dollars. She appeared on the list of new vessels built on Lake Erie during 1846. The A.D. Patchin stranded and broke up near South Wagoshene Light in Lake Michigan on September 17, 1850. On May 15, 1851, the steamer Lexington rescued her machinery.[4]

Captain Whitaker and the Baltic


As well as being the owner and master of Great Lakes ships, Captain Whitaker also invented ship improvements. A story in the Buffalo Daily Republic of Friday, March 3, 1854, informed readers that the old steamer Baltic had been converted to a propeller with Captain Whitaker’s invention of side screw wheels. Lake captains were interested in this invention which if successful would revolutionize the building of lake craft. Captain Arthur Edwards owned the Baltic and Captain Averill, formerly of the propeller Charter, was its present captain.

The Democracy of Buffalo in a story dated Monday July 10, 1854, featured Captain Whitaker’s memoranda of his side propeller invention and its operation. Captain Whitaker kept a log of a Baltic trip from Buffalo to Cleveland with his side propellers operating instead of a paddle wheel. He compared the Baltic’s performance with a propeller with the performance of the Michigan, which operated with a paddle wheel and reported that the Baltic beat the Michigan by about one mile an hour.

Captain Whitaker summed up his invention by pointing out that the Baltic’s success proved that “even if two engines and two propellers were used, they would give boats of the Mississippi and its tributaries, the entire room of the deck and hull for freight, and save from one to two hundred tons’ weight of engines. All large, sharp, passenger boats, should have from four to six propellers to give them a very high rate of speed.”

Talcott Wing concluded his sketch of Captain Whitaker  by noting that he died on June 30, 1890 in his 87th year in full possession of his faculties and in the enjoyment of a good old age. He is buried in Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.

Other Monroe Lake Captains and Steamers

Besides Captain Whitaker, other captains and steamers built or owned vessels of excellent construction and quality at Monroe.

Captain George Washington Strong

George Washington “G.W.” Strong was born on April 10, 1800 and died in Kalamazoo on February 29, 1892 at age 91. He was a pioneer steamboat captain of Lake Erie.  The husband of Hannah Blackman Vickers, one of his sons, Captain George Albert Strong, was also a ship captain.

A story in the Monroe Democrat dated Thursday, March 3, 1892, characterized Captain Strong as “one of Monroe’s oldest and most thorough citizens.” His family brought his body from Kalamazoo and his funeral services were held from the house of his daughter Mrs. Helen Deffenbaugh with Reverend L.B. Bissell officiating. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe.

George W. Strong owned a sidewheel steamer called the Helen Strong and his son Captain Albert Strong commanded it. F.N. Jones built the wooden sidewheel steamer Helen Strong at Monroe, Michigan in 1845 for George W. Strong who also lived in Monroe. The Helen Strong had one deck, one mast, and measured 142 feet in length, 19 feet 10-inch beam, and eight feet in depth with 207.41 tonnage.

On November 19, 1846, the Helen Strong carrying dry goods and passengers blew ashore in a gale about four miles above Barcelona, New York, just east of Twenty Mile Creek in Lake Erie. Two lives out of 60 were lost and the Helen Strong was disabled.[5]

Captain G.W. Strong and the Macomb

Weeks, Allen, and several others from Detroit originally owned the Macomb, a wooden sidewheel steamer built at Mt. Clemens, Michigan, in 1837, but eventually George W. Strong bought the two- masted ship. The Macomb measured 91 feet, six inches with a 17’6” beam, a depth of 6’9”, and tonnage of 101.73.

On October 10, 1837, the Macomb was enrolled at Detroit and a little over two weeks later she ran from Detroit to Port Huron on her maiden trip. In 1838 and 1839 she had two owners:  C. Clemens and others from Mt. Clemens and Sylvester F. Atwood of Mt. Clemens. On May 21, 1839, she was lengthened at Detroit and she measured 107’2”x 17’6” x 6’9”, 104.07 tons. She ran Detroit-Toledo, Ohio and Fort Gratiot. In 1841, the Macomb ran Detroit-Perrysburg, Monroe & Toledo. On November 19, 1842, she ran ashore at the mouth of the Huron (Clinton) River.

On May 8, 1843, G.W. Strong of Monroe, Michigan owned the Macomb. On November 19, 1843, the Macomb ran ashore near Malden. The passengers were taken off and the Macomb was salvaged and laid up at Monroe, Michigan.

In 1845, the Macomb was rebuilt as a schooner or tug boat, possibly the Algonac, 42.38 tons.[6]

Captain George Albert Strong

Captain George Albert Strong, the son of George Washington Strong and Hannah Backus, was born in 1824 in Vermont and he was a steamboat captain before the Civil War. He enlisted as a captain for three years in Company I, 15th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. He died on board the Union Army chartered hospital river transport “War Eagle” from wounds he received at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Monroe.

Captain Alonzo D. Perkins

 Alonzo D. Perkins was born in Bath, Maine. He married Katherine Norman and they had three children: Thomas, Norman, and Marianne Perkins Nims. He was the captain of Great Lakes vessels:  western Metropolis, Morning Star, Southerner, Constitution, Anthony Wayne, Arrow, and Evening Star. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.

Captain Perkins commanded the Constitution. Launched and enrolled at Cleveland, Ohio, in June and July 1837. The Constitution passed through several owners before October 8,1847, when John Vail, Buffalo; Isaac Pheatt, Toledo, OH and Edward Bronson, Monroe, Michigan, assumed ownership of her. In 1848, Tunis Van Brunt of the Detroit District was listed as her sole owner, with Captain A.B. Perkins her master. In 1849 she was abandoned, and her machinery installed in the steamer J.D. Morton.[7]

The Southerner


 The Southerner was built at Monroe in 1847 by A.C. Keating and owned by Benjamin F. Field and others.  Captain A.D. Perkins commanded her. She was a wooden side wheeler with one deck. In 1847, she was enrolled new at Detroit and ran the rest of the season unfinished in the Monroe trade hauling freight in connection with the Southern Railroad. In 1847-1848 she went on layup and received an upper cabin for passenger service in the Buffalo, Toledo, and Monroe trade. In 1852, she was enrolled in Cleveland and served on the Cleveland and Detroit Line and in 1853 she served on the Dunkirk, Cleveland, Sandusky, and Toledo line with the New York and Erie Railroad. On October 28, 1853, she broke in two and washed ashore off Ashtabula Harbor on Lake Erie at a total loss.[8]

Anthony Wayne

Anthony Wayne was owned by Fifield & Sterling and Captain A.D. Perkins commanded her. She was built in 1837 in Perrysburgh, Ohio and launched on May 20, 1837 to run the Perrysburgh-Toledo, Ohio, Buffalo, New York route. By 1844 she had Monroe owners. On April 28, 1850, her boiler exploded and she sunk off Vermilion, Ohio in Lake Erie with the loss of 38 lives.[9]

The Arrow


Captain A.D. Perkins and Ira Davis commanded the Arrow which was built at Trenton, Michigan. She was enrolled on June 19, 1848 at Detroit and began service between Sandusky and the Lake Erie island in 1849. Between 1851-1857 she ran between Detroit and Toledo and in 1857 she ran from Buffalo, New York to Chippewa, Ontario. In 1858 she was transferred to Green Bay, Wisconsin to run ports on the east shore of Lake Michigan. In 1863, Charles T. Harley and others of Detroit formed the Lake Superior Forwarding Company at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and ran the Arrow from Chicago to Lake Superior ports. In 1864 she was condemned at Green Bay.[10]

Captain Selah Dustin

In 1847, Captain Selah Dustin, purchased an interest in the John Owen which ran between Detroit and Toledo stopping at Monroe. There was no railroad competition at the time, so Captain Dustin made a great deal of money.

A few years later, Captain Dustin commanded the Dart, which also plied the Detroit, Monroe, Toledo route. In 1854, when the Detroit, Monroe & Toledo Railroad was built, the Dart was placed on the upriver route, making trips between Detroit and Port Huron. For two years, the Dart didn’t have any competition and made money for her owners, but in 1856 Captain E.B. Ward noticed the Dart’s profitability and he began operating a boat on the route. This action provoked a war of rates between the Dart and the Ward boat. Both captains gradually reduced the fare to Port Huron to 25 cents a round trip and Captain Ward installed a band for the patrons on his boat. Eventually, both captains included meals to entice passengers.

When the fare wars began, Captain Dustin was worth about $50,000, an amount that couldn’t compete with Captain Ward’s fortune. The fare wars and the sinking of his fruit boat operating between Chicago and St. Joseph, Michigan bankrupted him and he retired from the Great Lakes. He died in St. Mary’s Hospital in Detroit on August 13, 1888 at age 71, and he is buried in Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.

A Few Steamers Stopping at Monroe, 1830s, 1840s

  • DeWitt Clinton. Stolham Wing from Monroe and Carlos Colton owners. Captains Brown and Ludlow commanded her.
  • Griffith. William V. Studdiford owned her and Captain Roby was master.
  • James Wolcott. Governeur Morris and Selah Dustin commanded her.
  • General Macomb. Captains Choate and Atwood commanded her.
  • Arrow. Captain A.D. Perkins and Ira Davis commanded her.
  • General Brady. Captain Burtis, master.
  • Indian Chief. J.J. Godfroy
  • John Owen. Ira Davis, captain.
  • John Hollister. Selah Dustin, captain.


[1] Talcott E. Wing, Editor. History of Monroe, Michigan. New York:  Munsell & Company Publishers, 1890, p. 136.

[2]  Lost Passenger Steamships of Lake Michigan, Ted St. Mane

[3] Friend Palmer. Early Days in Detroit. Detroit:  Hunt & June, 1906. P. 32

[4] Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library. Great Lakes Maritime History Collection.

[5] Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library. Great Lakes Maritime History Collection. From the collection of C. Patrick Labadie.

[6] Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library. Great Lakes Maritime History http://greatlakeships.org/2900909/data?n=1Collection.

[7] Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library. Great Lakes Maritime History

[8] Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library. Great Lakes Maritime History

[9] Alpena County George H. Fletcher Public Library Great Lakes Maritime History

[10] Alpena County George H. Fletcher Library, Great Lakes Maritime History



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