The Water Witch (1862)

Water Witch

Model of the Water Witch, made by Ted McCutcheon, on display at the Alpena County Public Library

Each year in the nineteenth century, the gales of November took their toll of the shipping on the Great Lakes.  On 17 November 1863, the front page of the Detroit Free Press noted that President Lincoln and his cabinet were planning to make a brief appearance in Gettysburg where the President would give a speech.  The other lead story was “Another Lake Disaster,” reporting the loss of the propeller Water Witch.[1] The story of the Water Witch, although brief is not without interest on a number of levels.  The only owner in her official documentation was a woman, Florence Brindle.  The steamboat was one of the few propeller-driven craft which was driven by a walking beam engine.  And although American-built and owned, when she went down she had been chartered to the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada and was running out of Sarnia, Canada West.

Water Witch was built at Newport, Michigan (now Marine City), the principal base, outside of Detroit, for the shipping interests of Eber Brock Ward and his extended family. The principal shipwright in Newport was Jacob L. Wolverton. Like E. B. Ward, Wolverton was nephew of Captain Samuel Ward, in this case,the son of Samuel’s wife’s sister.[2]  By 1861 Wolverton had been building steamboats and other craft at Newport for over sixteen years, almost all of them for the Ward interests.  In August 1861, the latest addition to the fleet was the Antelope, a 186’ propeller nominally enrolled under the ownership of Ward’s nephew, Eber Ward Owen, but controlled by E. B. Ward.[3]

Less than a month after the appearance of the Antelope, a brief story appeared in the Detroit papers, and was quickly copied around the Lakes:

“Our enterprising fellow citizen, E.B. Ward, Esq., who so recently launched that gem of a propeller, the Antelope, has got still another steamer under good headway at Newport. Although modelled after the fashion of a sidewheel steamer, she is to be propelled by both engines now in the propeller Globe, which will be placed about amidships, with two wheels [propellers] aft, like those of the Northern Light. She will be launched about Nov. 1st., and be finished in time for next spring’s business. She will carry about 16,000 bushels.”[4]

The possibility of “recycling” the Globe’s engines is intriguing.  There were two propellers named Globe on the Lakes in 1860. One was built as a paddle-wheeler in 1848, and converted to a screw steamer a few years laterit.  It had exploded in the Chicago River in the fall of 1860, taking with it sixteen crewmen.[5]  The following spring, the pioneer salvage diver, Martin Quigley, set about the process of recovering as much value from the wreck as possible, and no doubt, was being paid to clear the river in front of the wharf where the Globe had exploded.  Recycling engines was a long-established practice on the Great Lakes, although there was probably little of the Globe’s boilers worth more than scrap metal. The cylinder, however, might have survived. While Globe had run her first eight seasons as a paddlewheeler, her wheels had been removed in 1856 and twin screws installed.  In one source, she is described as having two oscillating engines installed at that time.[6]

The other Globe was one of the first generation of Great Lakes propellers, having been built in 1846. In June 1861, this Globe had been acquired by Captain John P. Ward, E. B. Ward’s son.  The Ward’s may have been considering building a new hull for the 15-year old engine.  In the end they did not, and the aging Globe was sold to John C. Williams by the following spring.[7]

Detroit Locomotive WorksIn January 1862, the Detroit Tribune offered more specific news about the steamboat then on the ways in Newport.  The story drew particular attention to the engine “which will be propelled on a principle unlike anything ever seen in western waters.” It had, according to the report, been “tested at New York wi

th very satisfactory results, particularly in regard to speed.” Construction was occurring at the Detroit Locomotive Works, while John and James Brennan were building the boilers back at Newport.[8] The work of the Brennan’s in Newport is interesting because, like the Locomotive Works, their principal works were in Detroit as well, where for the last decade they had been fabricating marine boilers and a variety of other products.[9]

Because the ship’s launch does not appear to have been reported, the first notice of Water Witch came with her appearance in Detroit at the beginning of the 1862 season.  Again, what drew immediate attention was her engine.  That it was a walking-beam engine was no particular surprise.  The single cylinder, walking-beam engine was among the most widely used configurations on the Great Lakes … for paddlewheelers!  Standing on the ship’s centerline and aligned in a fore-and-aft orientation, the vertical motion of the piston was employed by a pair of connecting rods to rotate a heavy shaft, on the ends of which were the ship’s paddle wheels.  The crowd accumulating at Brady’s dock on the Detroit riverfront was surprised to see a walking beam set sideways or athwartships rather than the conventional fore-and-aft alignment.[10]

Geared beam engine for Cunard’s Jura, (Clyde, 1855)

While the January report cited examples of this unique arrangement in New York and the April article said more vaguely “East,” a better reference would have been to the Clyde in Scotland. One of the first trans-Atlantic screw steamships, the City of Glasgow, had been equipped with what British engine builders called a “geared beam screw engine.” Between 1852 and 1855, Cunard had a number of its first screw steamers, including the Jura, equipped with this class of engine. The weight of the cylinder was kept close to the keel and had a relatively short stroke.  On the other side was a large geared wheel which connected to a smaller geared wheel which rotated one of the shafts.[11]  One of the claims made in Detroit for the configuration, apart from the fact that there were a lot of cogs or gears, was that the reduction in the gears meant that the engine could turn the shaft two and a half times faster and thus the vessel could make better speed. This remained to be proved.[12]

A further description of the Water Witch focused on her other features.  Thirty feet abaft her stem she had a water-tight bulkhead of “solid oak timber inlaid with India rubber lining.”  In terms vaguely reminiscent of those describing the Titanic, they claimed “in any event there is a portion of the hull which cannot be submerged.”  Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case.  There were other improvements described in the working of her capstan, windlass, and her “pony” engine, none of which appear to have resulted in patents.

The officers were:

Captain: Sweeney
First Mate: Belman
Second Mate: McIntyre
Chief Engineer: Rouse
Second Engineer: Stonebrake
Clerk: Gordon
Steward: Adams

Captain Barney Sweeney is best known for his many years of service with the Goodrich line on Lake Michigan, for whom he was the senior captain and later the commodore of the fleet.[13]  But Sweeney had sailed for Ward prior to being appointed to the Water Witch. Some years later he would reminisce about sailing on the Samuel Ward on Lake Michigan in the early 1850s. In 1856 he had been in command of the Traveller when it came upon the burning steamboat Niagara.[14]  During a Lake Superior storm in the fall of 1860 he was in command of the steamboat Gazelle when she was wrecked attempting to make Eagle Harbor.[15] The Water Witch was getting an experienced, if still relatively young, captain.

Although almost every mention of the Water Witch in the press identified her as owned by Eber Brock Ward, when she was formally enrolled in Detroit on 30 April 1862, her owner was listed as “Florence Brindle.”  Who was Florence?  She was the eighteen-year old orphaned niece of Ward, the fourth of five girls born to Ward’s sister, Sally.[16]  Two weeks earlier, on 17 April 1862, Florence had been added to the owners of the Sea Bird, a group which included her Aunt Emily Ward. She would also be among the owners of the B. F. Wade, which followed the Witch off the ways in Newport.[17]  Why Eber Brock Ward chose to enroll these vessels in the name of his sister, nieces and nephews is not documented but one might speculate that in the recovery from the Crash of 1857, Ward was attempting to protect his assets from creditors through family. Florence remained the nominal owner of Water Witch despite her marriage the following spring.[18]  Control, however, was firmly in the hands of Eber Brock Ward.

Eber Brock Ward (from Wikimedia)

Ward, along with his uncle, the late Samuel Ward, were among the dominant steamboat men in the mid-nineteenth century.  As such, they are usually mentioned in fairly respectful tones in historical accounts.  The “Encyclopedia of Detroit” declares:

“His successful endeavors enabled him to become Detroit’s first millionaire, as well as a highly influential businessman throughout the Midwest. …During his life, Ward was an active philanthropist, donating large amounts of money to various cultural and social institutions.”[19]

The account of his first cousin, David Ward, written well after Eber’s death painted a distinctly more colourful picture:

“After Uncle Samuel’s death, his willed estate, in addition to a considerable property possessed before by Eber B. Ward, mostly given him by Uncle Samuel before his death, constituted Eber B. Ward comparatively a very wealthy man at about 1855, considering the poverty of the then new West. Thus, at about 44 years of age, it came to pass, though he was largely so before that age, that E. B. Ward became an overbearing, egotistic, vainglorious, dishonest, tyrannical, vindictive, aggressive, energetic, selfish man, largely devoid of conscience. This tyrannical, envious, vain, selfish, grasping, energetic man soon spread out his then comparatively vast fortune in some legitimate investments, but mostly in illegitimate dishonest schemes, in view of showing his financial ability, power and consequence. His schemes were largely the grasping of others’ property, paying therefor little or no equivalent.”[20]

Among David’s charges was the claim that E. B. had placed sentinels around the doors of Uncle Samuel’s residence when Samuel was dying so that only E. B., his sister Emily and their lawyer could enter in order to revise a will which cut out Samuel’s siblings and their descendants in favour of E. B..

Some years after E.B.’s death, William L. Bancroft wrote a memoir of Capt. Samuel Ward for the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society.  In it he included a paragraph on E.B.’s business achievements, and another on his personality:

“In brief, I esteem him to have been a better man than did many of his contemporaries. One of his sturdy and honest old captains writes me that “he was the devil.” Possibly he was, in passion or in a storm. But his habitual brusqueness seemed the workings of a mind that intuitively grasped what others reasoned out. With him, to see was to decide, and his decisions barricaded argument. He was impatient of words and tolerated no rivalry. In this, no doubt, he often inflicted wrong and humiliation. Perhaps as against rivals he was grasping or even unjust. But his mind was too absorbed on the future to admit much heed to inchoate surroundings. It was as though he felt he had no time to hesitate or argue.”[21]

However it was described, E. B. Ward was a hard man to work for and a harder man to cross.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland), 3 May 1862, p. 4

The Water Witch took her place in a line of steamboats and propellers that ran in the Cleveland, Detroit and Lake Superior Line via the seven-year-old St. Marys Falls Canal.  The season’s advertisement had Water Witch scheduled to leave Cleveland on her first trip on April 25.  She missed that sailing, but as she took her place in the line on May 7th, the Cleveland Leader reported that she was intended to extend her trips beyond Ontonagon to Superior, Wisconsin at the head of the lake.   Undoubtedly they were banking on the Water Witch’s new engine to give her more range on the same schedule.[22] That said, when she cleared Cleveland on May 7, it was for Ontonagon.

The early days of the Water Witch were not without problems. Before she left Detroit, her upper works had been damaged at the stern by a vessel under tow on the Detroit River.  On her third trip up, in mid-June, her shaft broke on Lake Superior while twelve miles out of La Pointe.  She started rapidly leaking.  The India-rubber re-enforced water-tight bulkhead held and in consequence her fires kept the boilers operating.  Thanks to that, her pumps were able to keep up with the water coming in.  While being afloat was a good thing, she was dead in the water.  While some have written about all early steamboats on the Great Lakes being equipped with sails, there was no reference to canvas in the troubles that confronted the Water Witch. The accounts of the event credit some 73 or 75 oarsmen for towing her twelve miles across Lake Superior to La Pointe. She was subsequently towed back to Detroit for repairs by a succession of her Ward Line running mates:  the Planet to Portage Lake; the Sea Bird to Detour; the Planet on down to Detroit.[23] She would not be back in operation until the last week of July.

In early September Water Witch, in the reverse of her experience a few weeks earlier, came across the schooner Sunbury adrift some eight miles off Eagle Harbor on Lake Superior.  Sunbury had been caught in a heavy squall, both her masts broken, and then thrown on her beam ends.  The propeller towed Sunbury into Copper Harbor.[24]

In 1863 the Water Witch and three other Ward steamers were chartered to the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada to run from the rail head at Sarnia to Milwaukee and Chicago.  Her line mates were Montgomery (1856), Antelope (1861), and B. F. Wade (1862).  She also had a new captain in George H. Ryder, who the previous season had commanded Ward’s City of Cleveland.

Milwaukee Sentinel, 14 Sept. 1863, p. 3

Early in the season she was lying in the Chicago River when she was struck by the schooner William Jones.  The Jones was being towed up the river when she fouled the Water Witch, “crushing in her smoke stack and cracking and otherwise severely injuring her walking beam.”[25] The report may have been exaggerated because the propeller cleared Milwaukee later that week for Sarnia, having loaded 100 barrels of flour on board there.[26]

The Water Witch continued with a relatively uneventful season, until it was winding down in the fall.  On November 8, she touched at Milwaukee where she picked up 400 barrels of flour.  On board were Captain Ryder and a crew of 22 men.[27] The B. F. Wade, following two days later,  reported her touching at Mackinaw before proceeding Southward on Lake Huron. She was last seen on the 10th, in the midst of a gale.  At that point her smoke stack was gone. When the Wade passed the entrance to Saginaw Bay, she passed the upper works of a propeller floating in the lake.  On the 12th a metallic life-boat was picked up near Point au Sable by the schooner Hyphen.  In an era before painting the name of the vessel on life preservers and lifeboats became mandatory, no one could be positive that it belonged to the Water Witch, but it was considered “probable.”  The Meteor, with Captain Redmond S. Ryder (George’s brother) in command, made a final trip up to Bruce Mines on the north shore of Lake Huron where she took on a cargo of 186 tons of copper ore.  She returned to the Canadian shore looking for signs of the Water Witch or possible survivors.  The keeper of the Cove Island light off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, had just returned from a trip along the Canadian shoreline but had seen or heard nothing.[28]  Of the 23 men on board, only the name of her captain was reported.

So why had the Water Witch been lost?  According to the Detroit Free Press (which had the Ward advertising account to bear in mind), she “was considered a staunch craft. Whether it was swamped, blown up or sunk by collision is not known, but the fact of her being a new vessel would lead to the belief that it was neither of the two first.”[29]  The Goderich Signal, which was under no such constraints, said:

“She was probably the swiftest propeller on the lakes, and was of remarkably staunch build, but her machinery was an experiment, consisting of a cog-wheel engine and walking-beam working athwartships. It is possible that she became unmanageable by the disarrangement of some part of her machinery, but the disaster may have been caused by her being too heavily laden to weather the gale.”[30]

B. F. Wade (Newport, 1862) with her original geared beam engine. (Great Lakes Maritime Collection, Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library)

In the two seasons Water Witch served on the Lakes she had suffered damage to her engines twice, so this is not unreasonable speculation.  Certainly, there is relatively little evidence, beyond the B. F. Wade and the further deployment of the unique geared beam engines in the region, and of course the fact that the Wade’s engine was replaced six years later.[31]

Somewhere under the waters of Lake Huron, probably near the entrance to Saginaw Bay where various elements were seen or recovered, lies the hull of the Water Witch together with her very unusual engine.  Perhaps its discovery will help us answer some of the questions that her contemporaries could not.



A special thanks to Mike Michaels for the questions that led to this post, Pat Labadie for helping answer some of the questions, and Ted McCutcheon for sharing the photograph of his magnificent model.

[1] Detroit Free Press, 17 Nov. 1863, p. 1 ( quoted by Albany Evening Journal at

[2] William L. Bancroft, “Memoir of Capt. Samuel Ward with a sketch of the Early Commerce of the Upper Lakes,” Michigan Historical Collections, v. 21 (1892), pp. 344-45. (;view=1up;seq=358)

[3] Antelope: ( Eber Ward Owen was the 23-year old son of Eber Brock Ward’s sister Abbie and her husband, Capt. Benjamin F. Owen. He would die in January 1863 (

[4] Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, 21 Sept. 1861 quoting Detroit Tribune (

[5] Globe explosion:

[6] GLOBE (1848, Steamer):

[7] GLOBE (1846, Propeller):  The Globe burned to the waterline in 1863, was rebuilt as a barge in 1868 and finally lost in Put-in-Bay in 1874.

[8] Buffalo Courier, 18 Jan. 1862, p. 3 (

[9] Johnston’s Detroit city directory and advertising gazetteer of Michigan, with and appendix carefully revised.(Detroit, MI: James Dale Johnston & Co., 1861), p. 64 ( and p. 122  (

[10] Detroit Free Press, 27 April 1862 (

[11] Denis Griffiths, Steam at Sea: Two Centuries of Steam-powered Ships (London:  Conway Maritime Press, 1997), p. 36.  Griffiths cites John Bourne, A treatise on the steam-engine in its various applications to mines, mills, steam navigation, railways, and agriculture, with theoretical investigations respecting the motive power of heat and the proper proportions of steam-engines, elaborate tables of the right dimensions of every part and practical instructions for the manufacture and management of every species of engine in actual use, (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1866), p. 319. (Unfortunately the Plate XXIX was left folded when it was digitized. and Arthur J. Maginnis, The Atlantic Ferry: Its Ships, Men and Working (London: Whittaker and Co., 1892) p. 47. (

Another “geared beam engine” was put into the Circassian (Belfast, 1856), built for the North Atlantic Steam Navigation Company, and used as a transport to India during the Sepoy Mutiny and captured in 1862 while running the Civil War blockade. (Paul Silvertone, Civil War Navies, 1855-1883, (New York and London: Routledge, 2006) p.79 (

[12] Buffalo Courier, 18 Jan. 1862 ( A much later account claimed that she had been capable of making 18 mph. Port Huron Daily Times, 27 Oct. 1882 (

[13] Door County Advocate (Sturgeon Bay, WI), 31 Aug. 1889, p. 5 ( Advocate, 16 Feb. 1911, p. 1 (

[14] Daily British Whig (Kingston), quoting Milwaukee Sentinel

[15] Buffalo Daily Republic, 19 Sept. 1860 quoting Detroit Tribune (

[16]  She had been born on 25 Dec 1843 ( In 1863 she married David Porter Mayhew of Ypislanti (

[17] Sea Bird   The owners of the Sea Bird also included David Gallagher, who may well have been among the Gallagher’s who lived in Newport who, like Wolverton, were related to Samuel Ward’s wife. The S. Clement was enrolled in the name of Florence’s sister, Mary Ann Brindle. (

[18] She would become the second wife of David Porter Mayhew, a professor of the Michigan State Normal School in Ypsilanti, MI, who would become its second principal in 1865 (, before it evolved into Eastern Michigan University.

[19] Andrew Donovan, “Eber Brock Ward,” Encyclopedia of Detroit (Detroit Historical Society)

[20] David Ward, The autobiography of David Ward, p. 4 (

[21] William L. Bancroft, “Memoir of Capt. Samuel Ward, with a Sketch of the Early Commerce of the Upper Lakes,” Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, Historical Collections v. 21 (1892) p. 342.

[22] Cleveland Leader, 6 May 1862, p. 3 (

[23] Both Planet and Sea Bird  were controlled by Ward.  Planet even had his son, John P. Ward, in command. Detroit Free Press, 27 June 1862, p. 4 (

[24] Detroit Free Press, 6 Sept. 1862, p. 4 (

[25] Chicago Tribune, 25 Apr 1863, p. 4 (

[26] Milwaukee Sentinel, 28 April 1863, p. 4 (clearance on 26th)

[27] Milwaukee Sentinel, 18 Nov. 1863, p. 4. (

[28] Daily News (Kingston, ON), 4 Dec 1863. (

[29] Albany Evening Journal, 18 Nov. 1863 quoting Detroit Free Press. (

[30] Goderich Signal, 24 Nov. 1863. (

[31] B. F. Wade(1862, Propeller):

2 thoughts on “The Water Witch (1862)

  1. Pat Labadie says:

    Wonderful job, Walter! You obviously did some very thorough research and have shared with us some fascinating info! The Ward Line steamers clearly played a significant role in the evolution of Lakes watercraft!

  2. Wayne "Mike" Michaels says:

    Walter has been so patient with all of my many questions regarding both the Water Witch and the R.G. Coburn. His help has been invaluable in both my research and in mentoring and tutoring me on how to learn about the rich history of these valuable marine artifacts. His article brings the Water Witch to life … drawing upon and combining so many individual pieces of research … and giving us a concise and full history of this ship. THANK YOU, Walter!

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