Sunday, July 20, 2008

Voyage Of The Damned - The Adventure Of The "Michigan"

Today, a voyage like the final one taken by the schooner Michigan could not happen. The public outcry, understandably, would be too strong/ Our tastes have changed considerably from those of out 1820's ancestors. But, in their defense, let it be noted that the world of the 19th-century was notably different from our own. Public hangings were still presented; many believed that such punishments were a deterrence to crime. Some criminals, guilty of less-serious deeds than those that called for the gallows, were publicly whipped, or branded with red-hot irons. In that context, the promotion created by three hotels in Niagara Falls seems, well, understandable, if not acceptable.

The 1820's were the beginnings of the tourist trade in Niagara Falls. Improvements in roads and railroads made it possible for many on both sides of the border to reach the Falls in a week or less [in those days, that was truly rapid transportation]. At first, the Falls themselves were more than enough reason to visit the bustling communities. (A note: for the most part, tourism in those early days was on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. This was for a simple reason, still true today; while there are some spectacular views of the rushing waters on the American side, the best overall view of the scene belongs to Canada. The Americans, aware of the logistics of the site, devoted most of the efforts to bringing industries that needed water power to operate their machinery) As time went on, however, the early entrepreneurs of Niagara tourism realized that more than the majestic waters would be required to attract large groups of visitors. During the summer of 1827, William Forsyth, manager of the Pavilion Hotel, on the Canadian side of Niagara, had an idea. He got in touch with two other hotel operators, John Brown, who ran Canada's Ontario House, and General Parkhurst Whitney, who ran the Eagle Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York. They agreed to join forces and present a bizarre spectacle for those visiting Niagara Falls at the end of the main tourist season.

Forsyth bought a condemned lake schooner named the Michigan. It was about 16 feet in height from keel to deck, more than suitable to go over the Falls [in those days, the water depth at the Horseshoe Falls was estimated at around 20 feet; power creation demands have since reduced the depth to about three feet]. But Forsyth and his partners had other, more disturbing plans for the stunt, plans to send a living "crew" with the Michigan.

The promoters sent handbills throughout Western New York State and Ontario [then known as Upper Canada], reporting that the Michigan's last voyage would feature a crew of "ferocious wild animals". The handbills went on to note that "panthers, Wildcats, and Wolves" were being sought, but that "vicious and worthless dogs, such as possess strength and activity" would be used if none of the other animals proved available. September 8th was selected as the date for the voyage.

An estimated ten thousand persons came to Niagara to see the spectacle. They must have been a little disappointed at the animals presented; the most vicious of the crew members were two young bears. A bison added color, while the rest of the cast of characters included a goose, two raccoons and a dog [some reports added a few more creatures, but nothing on the scale of the "ferocious wild animals" the promoters had promised]. To dress things up a bit, the Michigan was decorated as a pirate ship, with mannequins dressed as pirates lashed to the vessel/

Around six pm, the Michigan's last voyage began with its being towed by a paddle steamer from Black Rock [now part of modern-day Buffalo, New York] to Navy Island, near the beginning of the Niagara River rapids before the Falls. There, the derelict schooner was cut free, to begin its trip to oblivion. Near the start of the rapids was a huge island, Goat Island [today part of the Niagara Reservation New York State Park, then privately owned]. The bears chose that spot to successfully jump off the boat, and swim to safety on the island [their eventual fate is unknown]. The pounding, pummelling water of the rapids tore giant holes in the hull, forcing the Michigan lower and lower in the water. Most of the animals were caged or tied to the deck; they had no choice but to complete the trip over the Falls. Of that crew, it was reported that only the goose survived its trip through the maelstrom. What happened to it after the voyage is unknown.

As noted, certainly such a trip would not be permitted today. But the world was a different world then, and what was considered "entertainment" very different as well. But the voyage of the Michigan was the first recorded "stunt" at Niagara Falls, opening the door for the many performers and [if truth be told] crackpots who followed/ Next time, we'll talk about the first HUMAN stunter at Niagara. Till then, be well and happy.


Laane said...

Thank you for this interesting post.
I'll let the children read this too.

Sassy Mama Bear said...

I can imagine PETA would have been there in this day and age to stop that stunt, but what an interesting read...definitely curious about the first human stunt. Never been to the falls but someday I hope to get there, on the Canadian side.

Mike Golch said...

Intersting but what a way to treat animals. and a ship for that matter. but than again the US Navy have sunk ships as target pratice. and even used old warships for A-bomb tests.