The story is full of mystery. Events from long ago fade from living memory and records are often lost or incomplete.
According to Silver Creek historian Louis Pelletter, the nearby waters of Lake Erie hosted such a mysterious event in 1838. A steamship tragedy, the sinking of the George Washington, claimed the lives of dozens of people, but the surviving information is fragmentary. Pelletter described attempting to piece together the story during a September 22 lecture at the Sheridan Historical Society.
He’s trying to make a historic plaque for the Washington, like the one he oversaw for a similar shipwreck in the Erie region of that time. However, the Washington proved more difficult to understand.
“The Erie has tons of information on it, there are books…but there’s not much on the Washington,” said Pellette. Then he discovered, while doing his research, “Everything we talked about with Washington is wrong.”
For example, he had heard that the ship was going from Buffalo to Cleveland and was commanded by a man named Boyd on June 16, 1838, when it burned near Silver Creek. However, “I’m going to tell you a lot of misinformation at the same time that I give you information.”
Pellette found he was really going from Cleveland to Buffalo. He was also apparently crossed out by a man named Brown – his name was crossed out in a recording and replaced with Boyd, for unknown reasons. “Boyd died on the boat, or ashore anyway, he was on the boat and he died, so you would say the captain went down with the boat. Where Captain Brown actually survived,” Pellette theorized.
Boyd “I tried to save people, he tore down doors. He did everything he could while the ship was on fire. When he got to the point where he couldn’t do any more, he jumped in and then swam to shore. The Washington was about two or three miles from the shore of Silver Creek…he apparently went there and they said because the water was cold he had overheated, even though it was summer, that which probably caused a stroke or something and he died on the shore.”
Continuing his research, Pelletter found the sinking listed as occurring on four different dates. A late 19th century local historian, who was apparently on the scene when the survivors came ashore, had it as June 30, 1838. However, Pelletter is pretty sure it was June 16.
“It’s hard for people today to think about 1838 and what life was like. I always tell people, being a former police officer, that there are no emergency services at all. No hospitals, no doctor other than maybe a country doctor with limited knowledge…and there is no light, we are still candle based,” he said.
An unknown person at the lakeside saw the ship on fire between 2 and 3 a.m. and rode his horse to alert nearby settlers. “They said the fire probably started in the boiler, which they normally did at the time because the floors were all wooden. There’s really no known reason why it happened. The Erie was easy, they had painters…they put all their turpentine near the boilers, they blew it up, it had the whole ship on fire.
Another vessel, the North American, saw the fire and rushed to the scene, but did not arrive until around 6 a.m. “By the time they get there, the ship is burnt to the waterline,” said Pellette.
As the fire worsened, the Washington was unable to move, with only one lifeboat found to be inoperable. Anyone who remained alive on the ship had to jump.
Residents who responded to the spectator’s warning “Be careful and because of the flames you can see all the passengers in the water, all the wreckage of the ship…and there is a general panic because they are two or three miles away and they are all drowning. Some of them are very badly burned.
Residents took boats from the port area to rescue some people. The North American also picked up a few people. However, citing an old account, Pelletter said: “Mr. Shields is the sole survivor of his family of seven. A lady lost three children. Mr. Michael Parker lost his wife, parents, sister and child. A husband and wife threw their children by overboard then jumped in, the woman was the only one to survive.Several passengers went into convulsions of terror and then died in the flames.
The owners of the boat said only 18 people died, but there were possibly 80 to 100 people on board. Even that is unclear, as the ship’s passenger log burned in the fire.
Throughout the summer of 1838, a local newspaper followed the bodies that washed up near Hamburg. “We usually think there were around 50 people (who died). The newspaper, they were counting them. Twenty, then it became 30, then it became 40, because they kept finding them. said Pellette.
The historian ended his speech by noting that Congress passed legislation to protect the safety of steamship passengers just a month after the fall of the Washington.