Postcard: Whaleback Steamer Christopher Columbus, Chicago to Milwaukee

This is not a Milwaukee building, but it’s interesting nonetheless. This undated postcard shows the Christopher Columbus whaleback steamer. SS Christopher Columbus was the only whaleback ship ever built for passenger service, the longest whaleback ever built (at 362 feet), and reportedly also the largest vessel on the Great Lakes when she was launched.

The World’s Fair Steamship Company ordered the boat to ferry passengers to the Columbia Exposition (hence the name of the boat.) She was elegantly furnished. Her grand saloon and skylighted promenade deck contained several fountains and a large aquarium filled with trout and other fish of the lakes. The cabins and public spaces were fitted out with oak paneling, velvet carpets, etched glass windows, leather furniture, and marble. Shops and restaurants were provided for the passengers.

The ship was built for speed, making the six-mile run from Chicago’s downtown to the Jackson Park site of the Exposition in under 20 minutes. She had an estimated capacity of 4,000–5,000 passengers on her four decks, but it was reported that she carried 7,000 on her maiden voyage. The Columbus carried between 1.7 and 2.0 million passengers during the exposition, with only one fatality, a crew member. After the exposition ended the Columbus entered passenger service.

The boat had at least four accidents. In June 1895, on just the second day of its summer ferry season, the Christopher Columbus suffered an explosion caused by a steam pipe becoming disconnected while she was underway, enveloping the ship in a cloud of blistering steam. The accident happened, it was reported, while racing with a rival ship, the Virginia of the Goodrich Line, from Milwaukee to Chicago, although its captain denied the claim. Thirteen people were injured.

In 1896, she struck the Buffalo Street swing bridge in Milwaukee. Swing bridges open by spinning horizontally from a pier in the middle of the river. The bridge was three-quarters open and had 75 people on it to watch the boat pass when the accident happened. The bridge was displaced three feet, and had it moved another six inches, it would have fallen into the river. The City attempted to stop the boat from navigating so far upriver but eventually realized it didn’t have the authority because the river was under control of the war department.

In June 1905, as the Christopher Columbus was being towed out of the Chicago River, she collided with the schooner Ralph Campbell. It suffered no damage.

And in 1917, the boat had its most serious accident. Recent floods made the Milwaukee River unusual treacherous, causing the ship to collide with a water tower. The tower topped and flooded the Columbus’ decks with about 25,000 gallons of water. The collision killed 15, 16 or 18 passengers, by various accounts. Milwaukee police estimated 20,000 Milwaukeeans flocked to the river the following day to watch “the grewsome search for bodies.”

She was scrapped in 1936.


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