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The USS Michigan

Port broadside view of the gunboat Michigan sometime between between 1890 and 1901 (
Port broadside view of the gunboat Michigan sometime between 1890 – 1901 (from

The USS Michigan was commissioned in 1843 and was the U.S. Navy’s first iron hulled warship. It was a paddle steamer though it still had full sails. It was built for deployment in the Great Lakes in response to the construction of two Canadian (British) steamers that were built at the time. The ship served during the Civil War and later conflicts including the action taken against mining strikes, detainment of Fenian reinforcements in battle of Fort Erie, and riot control in Buffalo after the assassination of President McKinley. It served the U.S. Navy into the twentieth century when it was finally decommissioned into the care of the Pennsylvania Naval Militia under the name USS Wolverine.  During this time its duties were limited to training cruises and celebrations.

The USS Michigan was the first Iron hulled man of war in the US Navy. Though many wooden ships had already been “iron-clad” by essentially strapping iron to a wooden ship, The USS Michigan‘s hull was made entirely of iron. Though it was set up much like the old wooden sea fairing ships, its iron hull was lighter and shaped differently than wooden ships which had a more circular cross-section. The strength of iron allowed the hull to be made about a third of the weight of a typical wooden ship. Iron is also more rigid than wood and a hull made of iron has very different properties than one made of wood. Wood has the ability to compress and bend so creating large ships for wood was hard. Wooden ships tended to bend under the different forces of waves, but an iron hull is much more rigid. Iron ships takes waves without bending. As a result the hull of the Michigan took on a more square shaped cross-section that was possible to use in wooden ships. The shape and weight of the hull made the USS Michigan a “shallow-draft” ship, meaning it sat about half as deep in the water as wooden ship. The shallow-draft design improved several aspects of the ship. For one it could maneuver into shallow harbors and rivers easily. This is important since the Michigan was meant to be sailed on the Great Lakes and its connecting rivers. Another important aspect of this design was the stability of the ship. The flat sides create considerably less roll when in choppy waters than a rounded hull would. The stability of the ship makes firing guns considerably easier and more accurate as the crew doesn’t have to account for a much roll. The shallow draft also means that there was a lot less water drag. Less drag meant that the Michigan was fast. It was rated at 12 knots which was fast for any ship at the time, but the Michigan recorded several trips that averaged 13 knots at only one-half to two-thirds steam.

Tensions with England had died down by the time the Michigan was commissioned, and she never saw battle with the ships she was built to protect the lakes against. However, it wasn’t long before the Civil War came around and the ship’s crew had to fight off Confederates who attempted to take the ship from Union hands. The details of the Michigan’s Civil War services are not expounded upon here. However, after the war the Michigan continued to serve a long military career.

One of the first actions the Michigan took after the war involved mining strikes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After the Civil War the Michigan was posted in Detroit in order to best be able to defend all the Great Lakes. Rumors were heard that old Confederate rebels were looking for retribution on some northern cities and the Michigan started heading up the lakes on patrol for these rebels. The Michigan didn’t find any Confederates all the way up Lake Huron and moved into Lake Superior. Upon reaching the mining town Marquette, the Michigan found the entire town in upheaval. Due to inflation after the war and the absence of the war-time production, the mining towns in the UP were laying off workers and cutting wages. The response was disastrous in Marquette. The iron mines were staffed mostly with immigrants while the rest of the country had been at war, and workers had moved rapidly into violent protest over the change in working conditions. The members of the crew sided quickly with the townspeople who ran the mines due to the violence displayed by the protesters as well as the fact that the strikers were still getting a much higher pay than the sailors were. The Michigan quickly made a show of force by disembarking its artillery onto a rail-car and arriving with an armed crew at the strikers’ camp. Surprised by this unexpected military presence the strike quickly disbanded. The Michigan found a similar situation in Houghton and Hancock in the copper mines. Though the Michigan’s crew couldn’t march into the strikers’ camp with howitzers like they had in Marquette due to the mountainous valley that the small mining was built on, the presence of the Michigan eventually helped calm the strike. The Michigan then visited Marquette again to find that the strike there had resumed, this time with more organization. The Michigan’s crew once again found itself defending the town. This time army reinforcements were called up and after a week or so the strikers had reached an agreement with the mining companies.

These strikes weren’t the only problem caused by the influx of immigrants during the Civil War though. After the war, tensions with England grew once again. Great Britain was sympathetic to the Confederates because the southern states had been long providers of cotton to their textile mills. In order to keep this flow of cotton England decided to support the Confederates. After the war ended the U.S. demanded some compensation from Britain for their interference though their influence was fairly minimal. Nonetheless, during these times of tension a faction of Irish revolutionists looking to throw off their British handlers grew and the group spilled into the America. This Irish-American faction was called the Fenian movement. Though not taken seriously at first, they managed to organize a three-pronged invasion of Canada. Tensions with Britain began to cool and the US wanted nothing to do with this invasion and took measures to try and keep contraband weaponry out of Fenian hands. Nonetheless, the Fenians managed to arm themselves and began their movement. The Michigan was dispatched to keep the Fenians from crossing into Canada. On May 31, 1866 all boat traffic in Buffalo harbor was suspended. Commander of the Michigan at the time, Andrew Bryson, described the situation:

There is considerable excitement in the City as to what their [Fenians] immediate object is, and fears are entertained that they may seize the steamer m and attempt to make a landing in Canada. I am all ready to cooperate with the shore authorities in preventing such a movement, and with this end in view, I have considered it prudent and necessary to keep sufficient quantity of steam to enable me to move at any moment. [1]

The attempt to prevent the invasion was not what could be called a success. Though many troops and munitions were captured by the Michigan and her patrol, much of the Fenian army still managed to cross due in part to delays caused by a Fenian sympathizer on board the Michigan. With the Fenian army already in Canada, the Michigan’s crew was put into action indirectly during the battle of Fort Erie that ensued. The ship was used to deny reinforcements of the Fenian movement to the battle and arrested men involved in the movement. The other prongs of the invasion of Canada faltered and the Fenian movement collapsed. Though it was unlikely that the Fenians could have succeeded in any real capacity to take Canada, the actions of the Michigan kept the situation from escalating into full bloody war.

Though it had a long career of keeping the peace on the Great Lakes, the USS Michigan never fired a shot of war. The ship had been the long-lived flagship for the US Navy in the Great Lakes, but technology had surpassed her and the old ship was left with the jobs of surveying rivers and helping move grounded ships. The ship became technologically obsolete and in 1905 the USS Michigan was renamed the USS Wolverine so that the name Michigan could be used for a new battleship. The Wolverine was turned over to the care of the Pennsylvania Naval Militia. Until this time, the Michigan was very well kept. In fact the Michigan was a testament to the longevity of an iron hulled ship. When the Michigan’s hull was inspected in 1905, the hull was found to be “free of corrosion and other damage.”[4] However, left to the care of the militia, the Michigan began to degrade much quicker. Even so, the inspector of the ship in 1910 still gave a good report of the ship:

The underwater body was found to be in very good condition, with the exception of the plates under the boilers and under the fore hold. Under the fore hold the plates were corroded through in two places; under the boilers the plates were generally weakened and several rivets had been knocked out while chipping the inner skin. All this corrosion was internal. All holes mentioned… were plugged with rivets and a coat of cement from two to three inches in thickness was put on the ship’s bottom under the boilers. [2]

The Wolverine stood up against the lakes impressively over its lifetime. As mentioned by the inspector, all the corrosion in the hull was internal meaning that the lakes didn’t do the damage. Rather, over fifty years of service and wet floors caused any holes to be found. The longevity of the Wolverine proved iron to be a cheaper and better investment than wooden boats, and at the turn of the century, many more iron or steel boats were made for commercial use.

For the most part the Wolverine was used as a training and recruitment ship. Though in 1901 she was dispatched to Buffalo after the assassination of President McKinley as a means of riot control. During this voyage the Wolverine was recorded to have reached its record speed during this time of 14 knots.[3] Nonetheless, the ship continued to be used primarily as a training vessel. As a result the ship continued to have new equipment installed in order for proper training to take place. In 1912 the ship was decommissioned from the US Navy and loaned to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia. During her time of service there she mostly ran training exercises.

Probably the highlight of the ship’s career as the Wolverine involved the USS Niagara. The USS Niagara was originally part of Oliver Perry’s fleet in the war of 1812. The hull of the Niagara was found at the bottom of Misery Bay across from the city of Erie. Though it could not be concluded that this was the original Niagara and no original plans of the Niagara were ever found, the hull was nonetheless raised and rebuilt to researched specifications of the original ship. In 1913, the Wolverine towed the reconstructed, 480 ton USS Niagara from port to port during the centennial celebration of the Battle of Lake Erie in which Oliver Perry’s fleet defeated that of the British.

The bow of the Wolverine on display

In 1923 a connecting rod broke in the port engine and ended the USS Wolverine’s active career. After years of political ownership bouncing and neglect, the ship was eventually scraped after fundraising efforts failed to preserve the ship. The historical significance of the ship was lost in the midst of the Great Depression and subsequent World War. Her bow was donated and now remains as a memorial in Wolverine Park on Lake Erie. It’s a shame that the ship that lasted over one hundred years and through several wars would find itself scrapped, yet we can still remember its testament to the change in naval technology and honor the peace it helped keep and lives it saved for so long.

Primary Sources

  1. Bryson to Welles, May 30, 1866, Commander Letters, Roll 85, Letter 200
  2. Addendum to log entry, May 17, 1910, Logbook #82 (Wolverine), March 26, 1910, through November 11, 1910.
  3. Wilson, L. (1908). The Oldest Iron Vessel in the World. The American Marine Engineer, 3, 23-25.

Secondary Sources

  1. Rodgers, B. (1996).  Guardian of the Great Lakes: The US Paddle Frigate Michigan (pp. 1-221). Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.
  2. MICHIGAN, U.S.S.; 1843; Naval Vessel; AMERICAN. (n.d.). Great Lakes Maritime Database.
  3. Michigan I (SwStr). (2015, August 10). Naval History and Heritage Command.
  4. Morris, J. (n.d.). The U.S.S. Michigan; A Neglected Chapter in the Development of America’s Steam Navy. 500 Years of Natural Science, 346-360.

For Further Reading