The Saga of the John B. Lyon - Part 1
By Jack Mesmer
In 1880 Captain Frank Perew contracted with Quayle & Sons of Cleveland to build a new propeller. Her construction was begun late that summer. The new steamer was called the John B. Lyon, after Mr. John B. Lyon, a well-known grain merchant of Chicago. Although it was intended to put the vessel in operation in 1880, she was not launched until the spring of 1881. The John B. Lyon (U.S. 76199) was built of wood and measured 255.9 feet at the keel, 274 feet overall, 38.8 feet in width and 20.0 feet in depth. Her tonnage was given as 1,710 gross and 1,331 new tons. She was a single-decker designed to handle bulk cargoes, primarily grain. The Lyon was considered a superb example of vessel construction and workmanship. The captain's, officer's and seamen's quarters were forward, on and under the forecastle deck. The pilothouse, atop the forecastle deck, was joined on either side by a bridge which extended from rail to rail. The engineer's quarters and his crew were located aft in the deckhouse, just behind the boiler house. In addition, the dining quarters and stewards rooms were located aft. She carried 2 masts, originally equipped with sails; the forward mast was located just behind the forecastle and the second slightly forward of the boiler room. Power for the steamer was provided by two compound engines measuring 22 inches by 42 inches with a 4-foot stroke, and could produce 1426 H.P. These engines were built by H.G. Trout of Buffalo and were built according to the Perry & Lay Pattern. Steam was provided by two Otis steel boilers measuring 16 1/2 feet long and 9 1/2 feet in diameter. She had two tall smokestacks. The engines turned a 12-foot wheel, which was four-bladed.
When the John B. Lyon came out in 1881, she was commanded by Captain John Perew, brother of her owner. Like so many of the steamers of her time, the Lyon was operated with at least one tow barge, and frequently two or three. The first season of operation of the John B. Lyon proved to be a tough one. She was repeatedly in minor mishaps. In mid-May the propeller went aground in Chicago Harbor for three days when inbound with a load of coal. Even though the steamer suffered no damage in the grounding, the cost of releasing the vessel was quite expensive.
Twelve tugs, a lighter, costing $25.00 a day and 35 cents a ton to transfer, were required to release the steamer. The cause of the mishap was low water in the harbor. On July 16, the Lyon went aground again in the Chicago River between the Randolph Street bridge and the Lake Street bridge. She was released the following day. She was moved into the main river, where she collided with the schooner Jones, which was lying at the coal dock. The steamer carried away the schooner's jibboom and bowsprit, besides damaging her stem. The steamer escaped with little or no injury. During the grounding, however, she did damage her wheel, which was replaced in Buffalo at the Mill's & Company Dry-dock on August 11. The new wheel was built by H.G. Trout of the King Iron Works. On the night of October 2, while outbound loaded with coal from Buffalo to Chicago, the steamer collided with the canal boat Victor, which lay at the Sturgis elevator in Buffalo River. The Victor was so badly damaged that a tug had to beach her to prevent the canal boat from sinking. Again the Lyon suffered no damage. Originally the blame for the incident was placed on the Victor for failure to display a light while at the dock. However, though court litigation, the fault was determined to be the Lyon, and Captain Frink Perew was ordered to pay $500, although the owner of the Victor, Mr. Miles Case, had sued for $800. Captain Perew, unhappy with the decision, appealed the case. The legal battle that ensued lasted for 9 years and ended in 1890 with the court ordering Captain Perew to pay Mr. Case $1,300. The additional $800 was to defray Mr. Case's cost through the litigation.
On the 12th, the steamer experienced another mishap. While passing up the Chicago River, she went around in the draw of the Division Street bridge. Tugs were called out, and they worked on her the entire day but were unable to release her. A lighter was brought in and about 100 tons of coal were taken off. This proved insufficient. The following day, an additional 200 tons of coal were lightered. The steamer was then pulled free and brought to her dock to unload. The blame for his incident was placed on the poor work of the dredging companies in achieving the proper depth in the channels.
As if four accidents in one season were not enough, it must have been difficult to believe that the steamer could be involved in a fifth. But she had one more ordeal to face. This fifth mishap would prove to be the most costly. In a gale on Lake Michigan on November 26th, the steamer was severely mauled. The vessel had left Buffalo for Chicago with coal. In tow of the steamer was the schooner John M. Hutchinson. According to Captain John Perew, the steamer had just entered Lake Michigan when she encountered a tremendous sea from the south. She was in the trough of the waves and the rolling became violent. When near Bailey's Harbor, the 10 chains supporting her smokestacks broke. The starboard stack fell overboard and sank. The short stack fell on the engine house and crushed the roof of the boiler house. This caved in one of the boiler casings and broke several steam pipes. The damage allowed all steam to escape, and the Lyon was helpless. The steamer was forced to let her consort go. The Lyon's sails were raised and she headed for shore. When she drew 7 fathoms, her anchors were let go and effort was made to repair damage to the pipes so that the other boiler might be used to regain some power. After some 15 hours, this was accomplished. With the winds moderating, the steamer was able to reach Chicago under steam and sail. Upon inspection at Chicago the damage was at estimated at $2,000. The Hutchinson also suffered at the hands of the gale. When the engine of the steam barge became disabled, the schooner was cast loose. She was driven ashore at Plum Island and required assistance in being released. Mercifully for the Lyon, the season drew to a close.
Eighteen-eighty-two started out no better than 1881. Sometime in the spring, the John B. Lyon was involved in a mishap with the steamer City of Rome. Apparently, when at Lime Kiln Crossing, the Rome became entangled in the towline between the Lyon and her consort. Considerable damage was done to the Lyon. Captain Perew libeled the Rome for $2,500 in July to cover the repairs. Later that same year in Late August, the steamer did considerable damage to her wheel requiring its placement for a second time in two years. Just after the close of the season, another problem arose for the owner of the Lyon. While the steamer was being towed out of Miller's Dry-dock, to be placed in winter lay-up, an accident occurred which severely injured Charles Hanson, an employee of the dry-dock. As the steamer was being towed out of dock, Mr. Hansen took hold of the wheel to steer her. While the steamer was being winded, the wheel spun around with such velocity that it threw Hanson against the pilothouse, resulting in injuries to his head and a broken arm. The repercussions of the accident kept the Lyon's owners in court for the next five years. The injuries sustained by Mr. Hanson caused his permanent disablement. Fortunately for her owner, this was the last mishap for the 1882 season.
In 1883 the John B. Lyon continued her string of accidents. On June 4, the steamer ran aground in Lake St. Clair in the St. Clair flats. She was released within a couple of days by the tug Martin Swain. Later that same year in mid-November, the steamer ran aground on White Shoals, off Peche Isle in Lake St. Clair. She was released the following day and continued for Chicago loaded with coal. This grounding was attributed to low water. She suffered no damage in the grounding.
Things seemed to be running pretty smoothly in 1884 until the end of August. On the 28th, when entering Buffalo from Chicago with grain, her consort, the John M. Hutchinson accidentally ran into the stern of the Lyon, doing some damage. Then on September 19, the steamer caught fire at Buffalo. She had just taken on a load of coal for Chicago and was pulling up to the William's & Company coal dock to load fuel, when flames were seen coming from the forward section of her boiler house. The 19 crewmen quickly got the fire hose on the flames. With the assistance of several harbor tugs, the steamer Sir S.L. Tilley and the lifesaving crew, the flames were extinguished. At first it was thought that the fire originated in the boiler room, but investigation showed that a candle in the hold used by the coal trimmers had been left burning on a beam under the boiler house. The damage amounted to $500. Temporary repairs were quickly undertaken and the vessel continued on her way. During the winter of 1884-85, the Lyon was taken to Mills & Company Shipyard of Buffalo, where a new boiler house was built.
In early May, 1885 the Lyon, while headed up bound, ran into a large ice field where her show was disabled, requiring her to stop at Detroit for dry-docking. It was discovered that one of the blades of her propeller had also been sheered off. Due to the fact that a suitable wheel was unavailable at Detroit, a wheel was sent from Buffalo by rail. The delays and repairs cost her owners nearly $2,000. As the 1885 season progressed, business on the lakes began to slump and rates dropped. In late July, when the Lyon's consort the John M. Hutchinson suffered the loss of her rubber in the north branch of the Chicago River, her owners decided also to have some repairs undertaken on the Lyon. By early August conditions had not much improved and the John B. Lyon and her consort were laid up. Her idleness was only short lived, for she was back in operation within a week and finished out the remainder of the season.
Eighteen-eighty-six was probably her most trouble-free season. Her normal operations were only interrupted in August, when she went into the Mill's Dry-dock for a new wheel and some caulking. There was apparently no accident to precipitate these repairs. During winter layup of 1886-87, further work was performed on the steamer. At Miller Brothers shipyard new steel arches, stanchions, rails and bulwarks were placed in the vessels. The Lyon almost made it through the 1887 season without incident but, on November 12, after loading grain for Buffalo and when leaving Chicago harbor, she went aground. She knocked off three of the blades of her wheel. After being released, she had to be lightered of some of her cargo so that she could go into Miller Brother's dock for repairs to the wheel. She reloaded her cargo and headed for Buffalo. At Lime Kiln Crossing, she went aground once again. While trying to release herself, she hit a rock, sheering off all the blades from her wheel. She was taken to Detroit, where it was found that the wheel would have to be replaced. Again, since no suitable replacement could be found at Detroit, another had to be sent from Buffalo.
Eighteen-eighty-eight saw more of the same kind of problems. After coming out of the dry-dock at Mills yard, the steamer headed for Chicago. There she loaded 85,000 bushels of corn, and on clearing for Buffalo on the 23rd, she went aground at the draw of the Rush St. bridge. It took several hours to release her. Continuing out of the Chicago River she once again grounded, this time opposite the U.S. lifesaving station. It took several more hours to release her. Then, while in the St. Clair flats, she and her consort John M. Hutchinson grounded yet again, supposedly while attempting to pass another vessel. She then had to proceed to dry-dock to have her wheel replaced. Either the grounding or the new wheel required the adjustment of her shoe, for in December she went into dry-dock at Buffalo to fix it.
Things did not improve in 1889. On April 18, the Lyon as well as the Alfred P. Wright grounded at Grosse Pointe. Due to heavy ice movement down the river, it was difficult to release the vessels. Then on November 14, the steamer went aground in the Buffalo River at the foot of Washington Street. This was due to low water, and several tugs were unable to release her. It was necessary to wait for the water level to rise so that the steamer could be released.
The Saga of the John B. Lyon - Part II
By Jack Mesmer
In 1890, the Lyon operated without incident. She did require, however, a visit to the dry-dock at Buffalo for repairs to her wheel. In late April 1891, the steam barge grounded on the St. Clair Flats. No sooner had she been released than she grounded at Grosse Pointe. The culprit was low water, but it was just the beginning of the string of problems the Lyon was about to face that season. On May 28, the Lyon was involved in a collision in the St. Clair Flats Canal. The steamer, downbound loaded with iron ore, was struck by the tow barges Mary Everett and New Dominion, tows of the steamer United Lumberman. Birth of the barges and the Lyon sustained considerable damage in the collision. As a matter of fact, the Lyon had to be assisted by the tug Winslow to Detroit, as her steering gear was damaged. It is interesting to note that the cargo of the John B. Lyon was iron ore. This was the first time the steamer had ever carried anything other than grain on a down-bound journey. Almost as if anticipating the mishap, the Buffalo paper, three days before the accident, noted that the vessel had gone from Milwaukee to Escanaba to pick up an ore cargo. To this the paper printed the following: "One would think that this life-long grain carrier would turn over in despair at such a load." At any rate, the collision was attributed to a misunderstanding of signals between the two steamers. Although it is uncertain at this point who was actually at fault in the collision, Captain Perew saw fit to libel the United Lumberman at Buffalo on June 30.
After examination of the damage at Detroit, the Lyon was allowed to proceed on to Buffalo with the assistance of the tug Moore, and with an insurance agent, Captain George McLeod, aboard. At Buffalo, she was unloaded and placed in dry-dock. A survey showed damage to her show and rubber, with repair cost estimated between $300 and $500. These repairs were affected and the vessel returned to work. Her operation did not last long for she fell victim to another mishap. On July 16, while entering the St. Clair River down bound, she ran aground near the lighthouse in a fog. She was released by the tug M.F. Merick without serious damage and continued on her way.
The trouble which had been stalking the Lyon in 1891 was not quite through with the steamer. On November 8, the vessel grounded on the Middle Grounds in Pelee Passage. The Lyon had been headed up loaded with coal when she struck bottom. The wrecker Saginaw was sent to assist the vessel, and she was released on the 10th. It was thought she had suffered no damage, and therefore she continued on her up-bound trip. However, with a cargo of wheat for Erie, the vessel was reported to have a loose wheel and was leaking badly along her shaft packing. The cargo was unloaded at Erie, and 500 bushels of grain were found to be wet. Due to the lateness of the season, she went on to Buffalo where she could be placed in dry-dock and repaired. There she was laid up for the winter.
In 1892 misfortune picked up where it had left off in 1891. On May 10, the propeller, down bound with a load of 90,000 bushels of oats and 21,000 bushels of corn, ran ashore at Forest Bay near Sand Beach, Lake Huron, at 8:00 p.m. The tug Champion was sent for and succeeded in releasing the Lyon from the shore, but in so doing, backed the vessel onto a reef. The tug Howard also arrived to assist in the effort, and they were able to pull the propeller free, only to have her ground on still another reef. By the 11th, these two tugs had succeeded in pulling the Lyon free, only to see the vessel quickly fill and sink in 9 feet of water. The three groundings had badly chewed up the steamer's bottom. Although the main deck of the vessel was above water, her cargo of grain was nearly all wet. The tug Favorate and the schooner Waukesha, to act as a lighter, arrived on the 12th to begin the removal of the wet grain. Much of the grain was thrown overboard and some 35,000 bushels of oats was lightered onto the Waukesha. A steam pump was put aboard the steamer, but as quickly as the steam pump removed the water, it rushed back in. Additional pumps were sent for, and on May 15 the Lyon was raised and towed into Port Huron. Several planks in her bottom were found to be broken, but only temporary repairs were made. On May 20, the steamer cleared Port Huron under her own power for Buffalo for permanent repairs. She was in ballest on the trip down and arrived in Buffalo on May 22, where the vessel was placed in the dry-dock at the Mills & Company shipyard on May 24. On the 28th the damage figure was set at $21,028 by McLeod and Humble.
It is not surprising that a mention was made that Captain Frank Perew was interested in selling both steamers, the Lyon and Alfred P. Wright. It's obvious that Captain Perew had had enough trouble with floating property and wanted no more. On June 9, he sold both the Wright and Lyon to Captain J. C. Gilchrist and others of Cleveland. As far as can be learned, Captain Perew made no further ventures into shipping after this point. The John B. Lyon at the time of the sale was still on the dry-dock undergoing repairs. She remained in dry-dock until the first of July. Captain Gilchrist decided that as long as the steamer was out of operation, it would be advantageous to take care of some other work. The Lyon was given a new deck, new texas and pilothouse, and she was fitted with two pole masts.
By July 4, she had been loaded with coal for Lake Superior. Under Gilchrist, she would no longer make Chicago her regular part of call, although she still made an occasional trip into that port for grain. She was also commanded by a new master, Captain Baily. September 1892 found the steamer once again in dry-dock. Apparently Captain Gilchrist was unhappy with her speed, for she was brought into Buffalo and a new wheel was installed.
The change of owners appears to have done little to change the fortunes of the propeller for, in early November 1892, while entering Traverse Bay to pick up her consort, the schooner Lizzie A. Law, she struck bottom. The grounding completely disabled her rubber and the steamer had to go to Northport to make temporary repairs. The two vessels cleared Northport, but on the way down it must have become obvious that the temporary repairs would not be sufficient to complete the voyage. When the Lyon reached Detroit, a portion of her cargo was taken out so she could enter the dry-dock. By November 20, the damage to the rubber was repaired and the cargo reloaded. She cleared for Buffalo that same day.
Year 1893 was a poor one in general for vessels on the lakes, but the Lyon was able to keep busy and out of trouble. During the 1894 season, economic conditions improved, but the fate of the Lyon took a turn downward. The steamer had been laid up at the end of 1893 at Chicago with a cargo of corn. On that arrival in Buffalo her cargo was unloaded and some 8,800 bushels were found to be wet or otherwise damaged. During the winter some of her pipes had leaked. The damage to the cargo was nearly $1,000. Before leaving Buffalo, the Lyon received a new master, Captain Gunderson, formerly of the Homer D. Alverson. She proceeded to Lake Superior for ore. On her way down the Lyon ran into a little problem at Sault Ste. Marie. One of the securing lines accidentally became entangled in her wheel, disabling the steamer. A diver was secured, and he was able to cut away the line. The remainder of the season went without incident.
The 1895 season brought several more accidents. On August 16 at 3:00 a.m., the Lyon was involved in a collision with the schooner Iron Cliff. The Lyon was bound up with coal in Mud Lake when the steamer Iron Chief, with her consort the Iron Cliff, bound up and both light, attempted to pass the Lyon . The suction of the passing Iron Chief caused the Lyon to sheer to starboard, and resulting in the Iron Cliff striking the Lyon amidship. The steamer suffered considerable damage. Her steamer suffered considerable damage. Her starboard side was heavily caved in, and her port side bulged out. Fortunately, all damage to the Lyon was above the water line, and the steamer was able to proceed on her voyage. As for the Iron Cliff, she to had suffered considerable damage to her stem. As all her damage was above the water line, she too was able to continue. On the Lyon's return to Cleveland, a survey was held on the vessel by Captains C.E. Benham and Dan McLeod, and the damage was set at between $1,500 and $2,000. This was considerably less then what was originally anticipated. On October 1, while bound up with a load of coal, the wheel chain of the steamer parted. The breaking of the chain could not have happened at a more inopportune time, for the vessel was attempting to make a turn near the middle ground abreast of Port Huron. Uncontrollable, the steamer went hard aground. In order to release the Lyon, some 800 tons of her cargo had to be lightened, resulting in a three day loss of time. In December on about the 11th, due to water, the John B. Lyon grounded at the lower end of the St. Clair Flats Canal. She was not alone, for the steamers A.P. Wright and Colonial were also aground there. All three vessels were easily freed and were able to complete their journeys.
The Lyon got an early start in 1896, arriving in Buffalo on April 4, with grain. This proved to be a good omen, for the only trouble the steamer had that entire season was in mid-November. She experienced a minor grounding at an elevator in Buffalo when attempting to dock to unload. She was easily released. The 1897 season found the steamer hauling grain and ore from Lake Superior on down-bound trips and coal on up-bound trips. On September 9th, while on Lake Huron bound light for Escanaba, her after cabins caught fire. The crew was able to contain and extinguish the flames before any major damage had been done. The cause of the fire was not known. Later that same month on the 19th, an unusual accident took the life of one of the Lyon's crewman. The steamer was towing the schooner Georger when the towline between the two vessels parted. Apparently, the snapped line struck Martin White, resulting in his death.
Things remained unchanged through the 1898 season. It was also a trouble-free season, and 1899 provided to be another good season for the Lyon. She had but a single delay when on June 28 she lost her shoe in a storm on Lake Erie. She was picked up by the steamer R.E. Schuck and towed to Detroit for repairs.
It would seem that the 1898 and 1899 seasons were the calm before the storm, for the new century would bring the demise of the beleaguered vessel. The last voyage of the Lyon began at Marquette, where the vessel loaded a cargo of iron ore for Cleveland. The steamer cleared Marquette with a 13-man crew, under the command of Captain A.H. Sengham of Marine City. In addition to the crew, the wife of the ship's steward was aboard. In tow of the Lyon was the barge F.A. Georger. The Georger was to be delivered to Ashtabula before the Lyon could in load at Cleveland. The down-bound journey was uneventful, and the steamer dropped her consort at Ashtabula late Tuesday evening, the 11th of September, 1900. Clearing Ashtabula, the vessel headed for Cleveland to unload. Allegedly, her chief engineer, Charles Willows, complained to the captain about the poor quality of coal at Cleveland and persuaded him to alter his course for Fairport where better quality coal might be found. The Lyon arrived at Fairport, but suitable fuel could not be found, so the master decided to head to Erie for fuel. The steamer headed eastward away from her final destination. Conditions on the Lake had changed rather dramatically. Seas were beginning to build, and the Lyon rolled heavily. On the 12th, when about 25 miles from Ashtabula, the wind and waves began to take their toll on the vessel. It was Captain Senghas' opinion it would be easier to make Erie with the wind and waves to her back. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the vessel began to leak. The captain sent a portion of the crew into the hold in an attempt to find the leak and repair it if possible. While these men were below, an enormous wave mounted the Lyon from the stern and crashed onto her decks amidships. The weight of all this water and her heavy load of ore was too much for the old hull to take, and the vessel cracked in two. The vessel quickly settled be her head, trapping many of the men below. The rapidity with which the vessel sank left no opportunity for the lifeboats to be launched, and those who had been able to make their way on deck had been thrown into the turbulent waters amongst the mass of debris. Six of those aboard, W. H. Braund, Peter Bishop, both wheelsmen, D. Brown, second engineer, John Spencer, fireman Charles Allen, deckhand, and Mrs. Alaston, wife of the steward, were able to make their way to shore. However, nine of her crew found a watery grave.
The loss of the John B. Lyon should have come as no big surprise. There were many factors that should have pointed out the upcoming tragedy. First, after the sinking of the John B. Lyon, one of the survivors, fireman John Spencer, stated that the vessel was overloaded and that she might have weathered the storm except for this condition. The steamer had been loaded down to 18 feet, and although there was apparently no inquiry into these charges, it is very likely that the Lyon was overloaded. In order to make the smaller vessels profitable, the vessel masters had to find ways to make their vessels productive. One easy way was to load additional cargo that the vessel had not been designed to handle. Secondly, the Lyon probably had more than her fair share of mishaps. These collisions, groundings and one sinking only served to weaken an already deteriorating hull. Finally, the ferocity of the storm was something that occurred with regularity on the Great Lakes, and considering the other conditions of his boat, Captain Senghas should have sought shelter at Ashtabula when the storm first began to build.