The Tragedy of the ‘G. P. Griffith’

My child! My child! by John C. McRae, c. 1855. LOC LC-USZ62-136505

I can’t even imagine what it was like to cross the Atlantic in the mid-19th century. By modern standards, the ships were TINY! Even the innovative Great Western, launched at Bristol, England, on July 19, 1837, was only 212 feet long.

But no matter how daunting the journey, thousands of immigrants braved the ocean waves to come to America in search of a better life and greater freedom—or in the case of the Irish and Germans in the 1840s, to escape the Potato Famine that was killing thousands through starvation. At Dunbrody, Ireland, when I saw a replica of one of the so-called Famine Ships or Coffin Ships that packed desperate Irish men, women and children into cramped hull space. I was dumbfounded at the thought of anyone passing through Atlantic squalls on such pygmy vessels.

Any immigrant reaching the Promised Land of America, whether on a Famine Ship or a better class of passenger vessel, must have breathed loud sighs of relief when they set foot on solid ground again. That makes what happened on the G.P. Griffith on Lake Erie seem like a cruel joke of capricious gods.

Last Voyage of the G.P. Griffth

Most of the 326 passengers who boarded the paddlewheel steamer Griffith at Buffalo, New York, on June 17, 1850, were immigrants from England, Germany, Ireland and Scandinavia, on their way to Chicago. About 3:00 in the morning fire broke out when, according to “Maritime Disasters” in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Case Western Reserve University), paint stored by the boilers burst into flame.

The ship was only seven miles off Willoughby, Ohio, and the captain steered for shore. One survivor said the passengers remained calm, knowing they were so close to land. But a half-mile from salvation the Griffith became mired on a sandbar. Calm disappeared; passengers flung themselves overboard. The captain threw his mother-in-law, his wife and his child, as well as the wife of the ship’s barber over the side, then dove to join them, according to early reports in the Buffalo Republic. He was seen going under with his wife in his arms. Reportedly, when the body of the ship’s steward was found, he was clasping the hand of the captain’s child. Of that group, only the barber’s wife survived.

Worst Great Lakes Shipping Disaster

Two women were found alive, clinging to a settee, but most who sought safety in the water drowned. Back onboard the ship, those who couldn’t escape or chose not to jump perished in the flames. The passenger log was also consumed by the fire, so no accurate accounting of the dead can be made. Estimates of how many died vary from 250 to nearly 300. A historical marker at Willowick, Ohio, gives the number as 287. The identities of 97 of the dead are unknown.

It remained the deadliest Great Lakes shipping disaster until 1911 when the SS Eastland capsized in port at Chicago, claiming nearly 850 lives—just 20 feet from the dock.

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