Warship on the Great Lakes - USS Michigan

 1844: First USS Michigan Enters Active Service on Great Lakes

USS Michigan


The USS Michigan was the United States Navy's first iron-hulled warship. Commissioned in August 1844, USS Michigan was considered a technical experiment using new techniques and materials as a working experiment for the U.S. Navy. The ship served for sixty-eight years, the third-longest active service of any Navy vessel. Assigned to patrol the long U.S. border with Canada from Niagara to Duluth, she rescued dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors, enforced law and order throughout the upper Great Lakes, and recruited thousands of sailors for the Navy. 

Building the USS Michigan -  The Most Advanced Warship at the Time

Attacks by rebels on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes during the 1837 Canadian Rebellion led the British to arm two steam-powered gunboats, stationed to defend their side of the lake. In response, the United States saw a need for an advanced U.S. gunboat of its own on the lakes. For these reasons, the USS Michigan was commissioned. The ship was built in Erie, Pennsylvania, and was propelled by the steam-powered sidewheel. As was common in early steamers, the USS Michigan also had 3 masts for wind power and the steam engine. The combination of steam engines and the use of sails was crucial for this technically advanced warship to further travel range and ensure the ship would be maneuverable in the event of a steam engine failure. The vessel was rated for speed 12 knots; an incredible rate in those days. 

The ship was assigned to patrol the Great Lakes from March to December. During the winter, the ship returned to Erie to stay for the duration of the winter. The ship was docked in Erie during the winter due to the ship's inability to travel the frozen Great Lakes.

Action on Beaver Island

When United States District Attorney George Bates decided to arrest  King James Strang on Beaver Island in 1851, he asked President Millard  Fillmore to support the iron-hulled paddle steamer USS Michigan the most formidable warship on the Great Lakes. The Mormons had mounted cannon on a sailing that was hard aground in the harbor. When the USS Michigan's arrived with it's imposing black hull, menacing eight-inch battery,  and a full complement of Marines, it assured that there would be no resistance to the federal arrest warrants Bates carried.

The Timber Rebellion

In 1853, the USS Michigan was assigned to stop massive timber thefts from federal land along Lake Michigan. During this period, the national government-owned large scores of land in the western Great Lakes region. These federal lands were heavily forested areas primarily located along the coasts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. The government's intentions with these lands involved harvesting the valuable timber from them to construct U.S. warships. An increasingly large assembly of criminals, tagged with the name of Timber Pirates, saw the stockpiles of government-owned wood throughout the region as easy profit. These pirates and rebels were a relatively unorganized group of criminals who scoured the Great Lakes region to search for timber to steal from existing government stockpiles. The goal of theirs was to steal and smuggle government-owned wood from the area to be sold for profit elsewhere. Her crew managed to capture several "timber pirates" who were then sent by train to  Detroit for trial before U.S. District Judge Ross Wilkins.

Collision with the Buffalo 

On May 5, 1853, there was a collision between the USS Michigan and the largest steam-powered timber ship to sail the Great Lakes. The USS Michigan was kneading south on Lake Huron off Port Sanilac headed for New York, for her yearly resupply. At 3am while the two ships were passing, the timber ship Buffalo suddenly vired 90 degrees into the  USS Michigan. While the collision badly damaged both ships, both were able to continue to sail. 

Commander Bigelow of the USS Michigan had woken up to the sound of the ship crashing into his. Incensed at this seemingly intentional collection, the USS Michigan turned around and pursued the timber steamship. He brought the warship alongside the steamer Buffalo and asked if the steamer's crew needed any assistance. The unit indicated that they required no help, so Bigelow let the Buffalo continue her journey.  However, he turned and followed the ship back to Chicago, where the USS Michigan was out of commission for two weeks of repairs. 

After repairs were made, the USS Michigan, with US Marines' aid, captured several timber pirates. These operations are credited with ending the 1853 Timber Rebellion in a federal victory. But the illegal logging trade continued to as late as the 1870s.

Murder on Beaver Island

The USS Michigan was moored to the dock at Beaver Island Harbor on  June 16, 1856, when two fallen-away Strangites assassinated their "king." James Strang on the pier just in front of the ship.  After the murder, the killers surrendered to the Michigan captain, who delivered them with the sheriff at Mackinaw Island, the nearest civil authority not controlled by Strang's men. However, the men were never convicted.  One theory is that the Michigan captain, Commander William Inman, knew of the plot. 

Civil War Service

During the first two years of the Civil War, the USS Michigan toured Great Lakes ports, enlisting four thousand sailors for the Union Navy.  In the summer of 1863, rumors of Confederate plots to invade the North from Canada caused the Navy to increase Michigan's armament to fourteen cannon, including six powerful Parrott rifles. In October 1863, Michigan was assigned to guard the Union prisoner-of-war camp on Johnson's Island just inside Sandusky Bay. While she was there,  Confederate agents did make two attempts to seize her and release the prisoners, but neither attempt was successful, and no Confederate force ever came within range of her guns.

Ironically, the government often used Michigan's armament and crew to keep civil order rather than repel British or Confederate invaders. During the Civil War, Michigan was called upon to use her imminent appearance to check draft riots in Detroit, Milwaukee, and  Buffalo. Just after the war, in 1865, her crew helped put down armed strikes by iron and copper miners at Marquette and Houghton. A year later, she thwarted a raid into Canada by hundreds of members of the  Fenian Brotherhood, Irish-Americans. In this battle of Fort Erie, the Irish planned to occupy Canada until Britain freed Ireland.

Final Years as A Training Ship

USS Wolverine


The USS Michigan was renamed the USS Wolverine in 1905. The ship remained in service as a training vessel until 1923. One of her last acts as an active warship was in 1901 when she was sent to Buffalo after the assassination of President McKinley due to the fear of riots. The Wolverine was recorded to have reached its record speed of 14 knots during the voyage to Buffalo.



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