Lost To The Lake: The Story of the Island Queen

Steamship Island Queen
photo: Historical Collections of the Great Lakes - Bowling Green State University

The Island Queen's story starts with laying of her keel in July of 1854 on Kellys Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio. She was to replace the steamer Islander, which had served western Lake Erie and provided transportation to the mainland for the residents of Kellys Island for eight years. The keel was 110 ft. long and made from oak grown on the island. Her beam was 18 ft and she was designed as a side-wheel paddlewheeler of 149 gross tons. In January of 1855, during a mid-winter thaw, she was towed to Sandusky for the installation of her wood burning boiler and steam engine at the firm of N. G. Olds & Company. The crosshead or A-frame style steam engine was a modified design of Robert Fulton's first successful steamboat engine, a type popular in many early 19th century side-wheelers. The steam engine itself was recycled from the steamboat Lake Erie, also known as "Little" Erie, that had burned at Detroit in 1844. Island Queen's first cruise came in the spring of 1855 and her Captain, George W. Orr, was pleased to see that she easily cruised at 10 mph.

Crosshead marine steam engine, as shown in a British engineering text of the late 1830s.
diagram: MaritimeTexas.net

Island Queen quickly took up her duties shuttling passengers, freight and carrying news between Kellys Island, Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island, Middle Bass Island, Port Clinton and Sandusky. She was very popular with the locals. Occasionally she towed other vessels, like the six new Revenue Cutters she brought from Huron, Ohio to Sandusky in September 1857 and she helped pull the schooner Arctic off a reef she had grounded on near West Sister Island. Island Queen also made trips to Gibraltar, Michigan and as far north as Detroit.

Many ships are involved in exceptional events and Island Queen was among them. Every major port kept records of the first vessel each shipping season to arrive or depart. Island Queen made the list of firsts for Detroit when she arrived from Sandusky March 10, 1859. But in 1865 Island Queen became involved in what was probably the northern most naval military action of the Civil War.

Johnson's Island Prison Camp
photo: Sandusky Public Library

The Union Army had established a prisoner of war camp for Confederate officers on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay in April 1862. The 16.5 acre camp was the only Union prison dedicated to housing officers, including several prominent generals. Additionally, it also housed regular enlisted men with a peak population of about 15,000 prisoners. The island site was chosen to reduce the chances of escape, but several prisoners attempted to walk to freedom in Canada across what they hoped was a frozen Lake Erie in winter. Conditions must have been good on the island since the prison provided one of the lowest mortality rates among prisoner of war camps. Only 200 prisoners died of disease, food shortages or cold Ohio winters on Johnson's Island. Island Queen was the first ship to bring prisoners from Sandusky to the island. In addition to Johnson's Island being guarded ashore by Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the surrounding waters were patrolled by the first iron hulled warship of the United States Navy, the three masted, steam powered side-wheeler USS Michigan.

USS Michigan on Lake Erie in the 1860's.
photo: US Navy via Wikipedia

Two men conceived a daring plan to cause havoc by unleashing a Confederate army in the heart of northern Ohio. John Yates Beall was born in what is now West Virginia in 1835. He enlisted in the Confederate Army, but was wounded in the chest and became incapable of active service. Still wishing to be of use to the Confederate cause, he conceived a plan to launch privateers on the Great Lakes and was commissioned as a member of the Confederate States Navy. Little is known of Charles H. Cole before the war, but he claimed to be a Captain in the Confederate Army and a Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy.

Cole went to Sandusky in August, presented himself as an executive of an oil company, and befriended several officers from the USS Michigan and the Johnson's Island prison staff by lavishly wining and dining them. He spent a considerable sum of money on the task and was sometimes accompanied by his exceptionally charming "wife" who was actually a prostitute with Confederate sympathies. The plan was to arrange a dinner for the officers aboard the Michigan, drug the wine to incapacitate them, and then take over the ship with compatriots who would board from another ship. They would then take the ship to the Johnson's Island prison, where Cole had succeeded in secretly placing ten Confederate soldiers among the guards on the island. The prisoners would be freed and form an army lead by General Isaac Trimble, the highest ranking officer held on the island. The whole plan hinged upon Cole drugging the officers, sending a signal to the raiders on the ship commandeered by Beall and the successful takeover of the Michigan.

Steamboat Philo Parsons
watercolor: Fr. Edward J. Dowling

Beall recruited a force of volunteers and made for the Canadian shore along the Detroit River. On September 18, 1864 he boarded the steamer Philo Parsons at Detroit where it began its regular route down to the islands in Lake Erie and then on to Sandusky, Ohio. The steamer also stopped at various points along the Canadian side of the Detroit River and, unbeknownst to her crew, picked up the rest of the Confederate raiding party along with a chest containing revolvers and hatchets. As the Philo Parsons steamed toward Ohio the raiders took command of the vessel and Beall ordered the crew to head for Kellys Island, just five miles from the Johnson's Island prison. The ship was running low on fuel so she made a stop at Middle Bass Island to pick up wood to fire her boiler. It was there that the Island Queen tied up alongside the Philo Parsons since it was occupying her usual berth at the dock used to replenish her firewood. Much to the surprise of Beall and his raiders, Island Queen was carrying a group of unarmed Union soldiers on leave, but they did not fight the armed raiders. Realizing that he could not spare men to guard all the passengers on Philo Parsons and Island Queen, Beall ordered them ashore on Middle Bass Island and left with the two steamboats. Soon after he scuttled Island Queen on a nearby reef.

As Beall and his raiding crew waited for a signal from Cole to attack Michigan, his crew became increasingly convinced that they had been found out by Union forces and the attack would fail. The crew effectively mutinied and Beall chose to order Philo Parsons back to the Canadian side of the Detroit River where they could escape. Beall's raiding crew were correct in concluding the plot had been discovered: Charles Cole had been arrested aboard Michigan and spent the rest of the war in prison. After arriving at the Canadian dock across from Detroit, Philo Parsons was stripped of its piano, mirrors, chairs, trunks and bedding, and scuttled in relatively shallow water. Within a few days the steamboat was easily raised, pumped out, the interior damage quickly repaired and it returned to a normal schedule by September 2nd. Island Queen had been sunk in nine feet of water which also allowed her to be easily raised and she resumed regular service September 26th.

John Yates Beall
photo: Public Domain - Wikipedia

Beall proceeded to New York, attempted to derail a train that December and was caught. After a trial for hijacking the Philo Parsons, attempting to derail the train and acting as a spy against the United States, John Yates Beall was convicted and executed by hanging at Fort Columbus, Governors Island, New York on February 24, 1865.

George Orr resigned as captain of the Island Queen in 1865, due to ill health, and she was sold in August 1866 to serve in the Detroit River making trips between Detroit and points in Ontario, Canada. Her help to other mariners continued: In November of 1871 the Island Queen was reported to have pulled the Mountaineer off when the schooner ran aground on one of the islands in the Detroit River. In July of 1874 she was reported to have broken her steam engine crosshead. Island Queen was stripped of her boiler, steam engine and cabins in the summer of 1875, and her hull was made into a barge. The last published report of the barge indicated that Island Queen had arrived at Detroit in tow during the first week of December 1875 with a load of lumber from Bay City, Michigan. Sadly, one of the other three tow-barges, Waurecan, broke loose and was driven on a reef off Point Au Barques in Lake Huron. Several of the crew had their feet amputated due to damage from the freezing water, including the wife of the captain.

Steamboat Ruby
pencil sketch: Fr. Edward J. Dowling

The engine of the "Little" Erie and Island Queen eventually found a home in the new hull of the 120-foot excursion steamer Ruby, built in Trenton, Michigan in 1875. She worked the waters of western Lake Erie and the Detroit River until the spring of 1879 when Ruby was chartered to run excursions from Chicago. Unfortunately, Ruby burned to the waterline at her slip in Chicago May 17, 1880. Her sleeping captain and watchman narrowly escaped by jumping in the river. Ruby's machinery was recovered by July, but afterwards the engine was lost to history. The unpowered remains of the hull was rebuilt as a 3-masted schooner and she hauled lumber on Lake Michigan until she was abandoned in 1894.

Schooner Ruby Hauling Lumber
photo: public domain via Historical Collections of The Great Lakes

Island Queen's companion in the failed Confederate raid was involved in another historic event, an event that would mark its end. The steamboat Philo Parsons was purchased by Judge Henry Fuller of Chicago and moved to Lake Michigan in 1866 for use as an excursion steamer and fruit carrier. The ship serviced Holland, Saugatuck, Douglas, South Haven and St. Joseph by picking up fruit in the evening and returning to Chicago overnight for morning delivery to the produce market on the banks of the Chicago River. Fruit could be moved from the orchards in Michigan to grocery stores in Chicago within a day. After the fruit was unloaded, passengers could take a steamboat trip out of Chicago later in the morning to visit the Michigan lakeside resort towns and the ship would then be repositioned for another fruit transport run that evening. The combined business was profitable and efficient.

Steamboat Philo Parsons
drawing: Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Unfortunately, Philo Parsons was at a slip in the North Branch of the Chicago River on the evening of October 8, 1871. Though Mrs. O'Leary's cow has since been exonerated, the Great Chicago Fire did start in the O'Leary's barn south of the river and it quickly spread. A combination of wooden bridges and flying sparks from the conflagration allowed the fire to cross the river twice before it came to Philo Parsons slip. The ship was so thoroughly destroyed by the fire that its remains were not discovered until 1876 and all that remained of value was the engine ironwork. Coincidentally, the steam engine had originally seen service in the steamer John Owen which had also been destroyed by fire in April of 1860. The meagre remains of Philo Parsons raised hull were eventually towed to a ship boneyard on Lake Michigan north of the river and abandoned on the beach.

Chicago Riverside After The 1871 Fire
photo: ChuckmanChicagoNostalgia.wordpress.com

Sharon Pisacreta (June 2014)

Resources for Island Queen, Philo Parsons, USS MIchigan and the Confederate Plot:
Leslie Korenko, Kelleys Island 1862-1865 Civil War, the Island Soldiers, & the Island Queen
Wharton Jackson Greene, Johnson Island Prison: An Original Compilation With Photos From The American Civil War
David R. Bush, I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison

Jim Murphy, The Great Fire
Island Queen at Kellys Island Historical Association
USS Michigan at Wikipedia.org
John Yates Beall at Wikipedia.org
The Execution of John Yates Beall at Correction History
Johnson's Island
Philo Parsons at Great Lakes Vessels Online Index
Ruby at Great Lakes Vessels Online Index
Little Erie at Maritime History of the Great Lakes