Mystery Photograph

Steamer Northwest, likely at the pier in Cleveland, OH. The decks are crammed with excursionists. (Rick Brown Collection)

My friend Rick Brown acquired a carte-de-visite (CDV) recently which was labeled as the steamer Northwest of Cincinnati, Ohio. This didn’t look right to me. Yes, there were steamers on the western rivers by that name but this vessel looked too massive, with a hull that rose up high out of the water more typical of “coasters”–those vessels used along the eastern seaboard, or more likely, on the Great Lakes. A quick search of newspaper clippings from the 1860s when CDV’s were in vogue revealed that there was a large steamer by that name that plied the Great Lakes, often out of Cleveland. My friend Dale Niesen soon found the steamer listed among the “Historical Collections of the Great Lakes.” She was built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 1867 by George S. Rand. She had a wood hull and weighed 1100 tons.

Knowing the name of the steamer and that she worked the Great Lake routes was a good start, but it didn’t explain why the photograph would have been taken of her with so many passengers crammed on her decks and even standing on top of the wheelhouse. Noticeably present, in addition to finely attired men, are a fair number of ladies and some children. To me it had the appearance of an excursion—a day trip, if you will. There are clearly too many passengers onboard to be comfortably accommodated for anything longer than an excursion of a couple hours. Daytime and even moonlight excursions on the lake were extremely popular at the time.

Intuitively I began to search old newspaper articles mentioning the words, “steamer Northwest” and “excursion” and Cleveland in the 1867 to 1870 timeframe. I found several excursions that took place during this period aboard the steamer Northwest—too numerous to list them all. One of the first in which the steamer was chartered was the 4th of July Celebration in 1867—its first year on Lake Erie. An extract from the article appearing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on 5 July 1867 describing that event states, “The steamer Northwest made an excursion at noon yesterday, from Erie to Port Dover, Canada. The Cleveland Cornet Band accompanied the party, which numbered fully 1,500 persons. The boat got back at 9 o’clock in the evening.” Just a few days later, on 11 July 1867, the Cleveland Daily Leader printed an announcement for an “Excursion to Lake Superior” to be made by “the elegant steamer Northwest” and informing readers that “several parties from Eastern cities have engaged passage” for the trip that planned to leave Cleveland and visit the “North Shore, Isle Royal, Fort William, and every point of interest on the South Shore. The steamer is entirely new, very commodious, and one of the best furnished boats in every particular over the lakes.”

There was an excursion party from Marion, Ohio, that chartered the steamer Northwest “for a few hours’ sail on the lake” in September 1868. The occasion was not stated and the party was “five hundred strong.” That same month, the “splendid steamer Northwest” carried excursionists to Put-in-Bay Island and return for the day. No occasion was stated.

In 1869, there were more excursions in the fall. In early August, the steamer Northwest was chartered to transport excursionists on a picnic to Black River and return—a benefit for the 2nd Baptist Church. The crowd was described as “happy and joyous…young and old, male and female, to the number of 700 persons.” The boat left the pier at 9:30 a. m. and returned in the evening.

Aside from a few smaller and shorter excursions, there was another made in September 1869 to Put-in-Bay to celebrate the anniversary of Perry’s Victory there during the War of 1812. It was hosted by the 7th Regiment and accompanied by a brass band.

In the early 1870s there were several more excursions of a similar nature.

My hunch is that the photograph was likely taken to commemorate one of these shorter excursion events in the late 1860’s at Cleveland during which time Cleveland was the home port of the steamer Northwest. I don’t see anyone in shirt sleeves—even the dock workers—and the clothing of the passengers suggest a fall wardrobe to me so I suspect this was either the excursion to Black River or to Put-in-Bay, or possibly even a GAR encampment meeting.

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