Skip to main content

Sailor With A Paintbrush

July 2024
1min read

A retired Great Lakes ship captain left a singular record of steamboat days on America’s inland seas

In August, 1818, the fist time a steamboat landed at Detroit, local Indians gaped in amazement at what certain white settlers had facetiously heralded as a giant canoe drawn by sturgeon. Even when they had been disabused of this notion, they still experienced no less wonder when informed that the mysterious boat was run by steam power. A quarter century later, though steamboats had become a familiar sight on the Great Lakes, that indefatigable bluestocking, Margaret Fuller, could still find them objects of romance. Describing a steamer that she had observed one night on Lake Michigan, she rhapsodized: “It was glowing with lights, looking many-eyed and sagacious; in its heavy motion it seemed a dowager queen. …” But then, who could help admiring the brightly painted boats, some of them as ornate as floating Gothic mansions? Of course there were dissenters; Charles Dickens commented that the high-pressure engines of the pulling side-wheelers “conveyed that kind of feeling to me, which I should be likely to experience, I think, if I had lodgings on the first floor of a powder-mill.”

Until the 1850’s, when railroads reached the Mississippi, the quickest and cheapest route to the West lay by water; and for an immigrant bound for the pre-emption lands of Wisconsin, Illinois, or Michigan, the Great Lakes passage was inevitable.

One of the most remarkable and charming records of steamboat days on the Lakes was left by a retired Lake Ontario shipmaster who had a penchant for history and water colors. During the 1870’s, a decade after he resigned his last command, Captain James Van Cleve began to fill great ledgers with an account of fresh-water navigation. Before his death in 1888, at the age of eighty, he made four copies of his Reminiscences of Sailing Vessels and Steam Boats on Lake Ontario —certainly a laborious undertaking, for each one was entirely handwritten and contained about a hundred illustrations. The open book at the left, with its water colors of two Canadian steamers, its neatly composed, nautically phrased script, and a bill of lading included for good measure, is a typical sample of the Captain’s technique. The delightful specimens of his work presented herewith are reproduced through the courtesy of the Buffalo Historical Society and Mr. Erik Heyl.

James Van Cleve was a genuine steamboat pioneer. Not only had he sailed on the Ontario , the earliest American steamer on the Great Lakes, but he was directly responsible for the building of the Vandalia , the first propeller-driven craft on those waters [see the imaginary meeting of the two ships on pages 48–49]. The Captain’s last years, however, were spent in relative obscurity—and in the completion of his singular artistic and literary project.

Robert Cowley
Lake Scenes and Side-wheelers

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.