Note: This story is from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery.
There are many interesting tales of tragedy and heroism associated with Great Lakes shipwrecks, and one we found intriguing was that of the steamship Independence and one of her crewmen, Amos Stiles, the man who never smiled again.
The Independence was built in Chicago in 1844, and her owner, J. M. Averill, originally intended her to be used in the trans-Atlantic trade. The wooden hulled ship was 119 feet long, with a width of 26 feet. Averill’s dreams of financial success with his ship quickly turned into a nightmare when it was determined the Independence could not carry enough fuel to travel such a great distance. Another setback was the discovery that the ship’s Ericson propeller had design flaws that made it so agonizingly slow that a man walking could travel faster than Independence could at full power.
Realizing his new ship’s limitations, Averill had her outfitted with sails to increase her speed, and Independence was modified and put into service on the expanding Great Lakes shipping routes. Portaged around the rapids at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan in a slow overland journey taking seven weeks, Independence was launched in Lake Superior, becoming the first steamship to sail the lake’s treacherous waters.
The shipping industry on Lake Superior is dangerous even today, and was even more so in the early days before radar, radio communications, and satellite-aided navigation. Any number of dangers awaited the men who sailed the lake’s hazardous waters, from the perils of hidden shoals and reefs, to collisions with other vessels, fires, and the constant threat of bad weather. Independence would prove to be yet another victim of the lake’s dangers.
On April 21, 1853, the ill-fated ship met her end in a sudden and violent manner. Independence left Sault Ste. Marie heavily loaded with winter supplies destined for settlements on Lake Superior’s western shore. Soon after she left port a boiler exploded and the little steamer plunged to the bottom, taking four of her crew with her to watery graves. Independence, the first steamship to sail Lake Superior, became the first steamship to perish on the lake.
Only one crewman from the Independence, Amos Stiles, survived the explosion, when he was blown skyward and landed in the frigid water. Struggling to stay afloat, Stiles managed to grab a bale of hay that was floating among the wreck’s debris and used it as a life raft.
The brave sailor was not safe yet. Superior had more trials to test his will to live. The current swept Stiles a half mile through churning rapids, where he bounced over rocks and fought to keep his head above water. Having escaped death twice within a very short time, Stiles was eventually pulled from the water and saved.
Some say it was nerve damage suffered from his traumatic experience, while others claim it was the terrible memories he carried from the wreck when he saw his shipmates go under, and narrowly escaped death himself, but for whatever reason, Amos Stiles wore a permanent frown from that day onward, and became known in Lake Superior lore as the Man Who Never Smiled Again.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an autographed copy of Terry’s popular cookbook, Miss Terry’s Kitchen. I don’t care if you can’t even boil water, if you follow her recipes and directions, you’ll be the hit at any campground potluck dinner or with your own family every time they sit down at the table. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – When people tell me “You’re going to regret that in the morning,” I sleep in until noon, because I’m a problem solver.