On November 11th, 1847, the steamboat S.S. Phoenix, was sailing across Lake Michigan. It carried an estimated 293 passengers, many of whom were emigrants from the Netherlands. However, many of these passengers would never go on to see their destination.
Around 4:00 am on November 21st, smoke began to escape the ship's engine room as the boilers overheated and set overhead wooden beams on fire. When the crewmen discovered the fire, the Phoenix was within seven miles of the town of Sheboygan.
Although at first, the crew managed to contain the flames, the fire raged out of control shortly after. The ship's passengers were alerted and First Mate Watts organized the crew and passengers into a bucket brigade (passing buckets of water down a line of people) in an attempt to fight the fire. The fire continued to grow. Watts ordered the ship to turn towards the shore, but the fire overwhelmed the engine room and the ship drifted until it stopped about five miles from shore and nine miles from Sheboygan.
While the Phoenix was being consumed by flames, the crew and passengers threw pieces of the cabin overboard and used them as floats. Two lifeboats, each carrying around 20 individuals, made it safely to shore. However, those aboard the lifeboats were exhausted from rowing and unable to return to rescue more people.
Two crewmen managed to save themselves by clinging to the side of the ship. The remaining 190 to 250 people aboard the ship perished. The water was freezing cold and most of the people who managed to remain afloat died from hypothermia. Those who remained aboard tried to climb up the rigging of the ship, but it burned and collapsed, sending those on it into the fire below.
In the nearby town of Sheboygan, a justice of the peace named Judge Morris woke up and spotted the flames on the lake. He ran down to the harbor and woke the crew of the steamer Delaware, who began building up the steam needed to take their ship out to assist. At around the same time,e the captain of the schooner Liberty saw the flames and he and his crew manned the ship's lifeboat and rowed for the Phoenix.
The Delaware arrived at around 7 am, but by then, the Phoenix had burned to the waterline. The Delaware was able to find three survivors: the ship's clerk and a passenger clinging to the rudder chains, and an engineer clinging to a door. It also retrieved five corpses from the water and a burnt-out drifting hulk. Soon after, the Liberty arrived, which was then followed by one of the Phoenix's lifeboats. The Delaware then towed the Phoenix and the Liberty's lifeboat to Sheboygan.
The cause of the tragedy has been largely believed to have been due to the negligence of one of the engineers, who let the boilers overheat. Unfortunately because of this negligence, many families perished through the flames or under the cold water of the Great Lake — among them, children making up most of the lives that were lost.
[Source: Michiganshipwrecks.org; The Burning of the Steamer Phoenix by Bill Wangemann, 1992]