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~ U.S. Navy Gunboat Michigan ~

U.S. Navy gunboat Michigan
1844-1949

GLM Anchor

MICHIGAN, the first iron-hulled warship in the U.S. Navy was built for the defense of Lake Erie following the Canadian rebellion when the British Government had armed two steamers there. Designed by naval contractor Samuel Hart and built by Samuel Stackhouse (Stackhouse & Tomlinson of Pittsburgh) her plates were rolled at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the latter part of 1842 and carried overland to Erie, Pennsylvania for assembly. Her measurements were: Length, 163.25 feet; Beam, 27 feet; Depth, 9 feet. She was built to carry two 68 pound guns and 12 thirty-two pound carronades. On launch day, December 5, 1843, she stuck partway down the ways and resisted all attempts to be budged. The next morning the ways were found empty! The MICHIGAN had launched herself during the night and was comfortably floating a distance offshore in Lake Erie.

 

In May, 1851, the USS MICHIGAN headed for Beaver Island with U.S. District Attorney, George C. Bates, Marshal Knox and five deputies aboard to aid in the arrest of James Jesse Strang, the head of a radical Morman colony on Beaver Island. Stang was freed shortly afterward, but assassinated five years later.

 

In 1853 the MICHIGAN was called upon to help curtail rampant timber theft in place of the small Revenue Cutter, INGHAM. The presence of the big gunboat would have cut deeply into the pockets of the lumber interests, who had been profiting so nicely from ill-gotten gains, and something needed to be done about it. The USS MICHIGAN was upbound on Lake Huron in calm, clear weather. At 2:15 a.m. on Friday, May 6th, the lights of an approaching downbound vessel were sighted. Evasive manuevers were taken by the MICHIGAN but each move was mirrored by the oncoming craft. When almost alongside the other vessel, now recognized as a large propeller, suddenly veered directly towards the port bow of the MICHIGAN in an obviously intentional attack, slamming into the port quarter as the gunboat made attempts to avoid the collision. Upon learning that the Michigan, although dented and her quarterdeck in ruins, was not leaking the infuriated commander ordered chase upon the steamer, which had not even slowed it's progress to offer assistance. Her speed being unimpaired she caught the steamer with ease and, coming alongside, discovered it was the BUFFALO, the largest propeller on the lakes at the time. I cannot imagine whether it was overconfidence or stupidity that would cause the captain of a wooden-hull vessel to ram it into an iron-hull gunboat. Commander Bigelow, of the MICHIGAN, was obviously of a calmer disposition than this writer. Rather than file a "protest" I believe I would have been sorely tempted to utilize other options while directly alongside the propeller. While rammings were known to happen on the Great Lakes, so were sudden unexplainable disappearances.

 

In October, 1853, U.S. Timber Agent Willard and U.S. Marshal Durkee, aboard the USS MICHIGAN made a broad sweep of Great Lakes ports, shutting down mills and making arrests, most of which concluded with only small fines or minimum jail time.

 

During the Civil War several Confederate plots were concocted to seize the USS MICHIGAN and use her guns to force the release of Confederate prisoners held on Johnson's Island, in Lake Erie. The propeller PHILO PARSONS was seized as part of the final plot to capture the gunboat. When the plot failed the PARSONS was run up the Detroit River to Sandwich, where she was looted and burned. Throughout the war the three masted gunboat continued to cruise the Great Lakes, providing a sense of security by her armed presence.

 

The USS MICHIGAN was renamed WOLVERINE on June 17, 1905 and decommissioned May 6, 1912. Turned over to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia she spent 11 years in summer training cruises for the U.S. Naval Reserve. In 1927 she was loaned to the city of Erie as a relic and sold to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Original USS MICHIGAN, Inc., on July 19, 1948. Efforts to secure funding for her restoration and preservation failed. She was cut up and sold for scrap in 1949. A very unglorious end not befitting of her career. The next year, however, her bow and cutwater were erected as a monument near the same shipyard where she was built.

 


Sources:

- Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships

- Historical Collections of the Great Lakes

- Detroit Free Press, 22 May 1851

- "History of Manistee County, Michigan", 1882

- Ludington Daily News, 5 July 2003

- "Great Lakes Crime", Frederick Stonehouse, 2004

- "Guardian of the Great Lakes: The U.S. Paddle Frigate Michigan", Bradley A. Rogers, 1996





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