Monday, May 16, 2011

Spring / Summer of History - Civil War 150-Lake County, Ohio - USS Michigan and Fairport Harbor

A little known relic from the American Civil War stands on a hill next to a lighthouse in Fairport Harbor, Ohio.  It is the foremast of the USS Michigan, the first of the ironclads for the U. S. Navy.  The iron castings were made in Pittsburgh and transported via oxcart to Erie, Pennsylvania.  The ship was assembled in 1843, launched that November and began a career that spanned 107 years.  The US Michigan (renamed the Wolverine in 1905) was an iron paddlewheel gun-boat that operated on the Upper Great Lakes continuously through 1923.  The USS Michigan / Wolverine was a vessel that weighed in at 685 tons.  It was 163' in length.  Its beam was 27' and its draft was 9'.  The crew at full complement numbered 88 and its Civil War armaments included a 30 pounder(1), 20 pounder(5), 24 pounder(6) and 12 pounder(2).

Early Career:
The USS Michigan, homeport Erie, Pa., had its first recorded incident in 1850 when timber pirates rammed the ship in an attempt to avoid capture.  1851 marked another notable event when the ship was involved in the capture of James Jesse Strang, a dissident from the Mormon colony, near the Straits of Mackinac.

The Civil War:
Although the USS Michigan cruised the Upper Great Lakes for most of the war without incident, its presence did deter four Confederate induced panics.  In 1863, Lt. William Henry Murdaugh, CSN did plan a Confederate attack from Canada.  Stonewall Jackson eventually gave up the idea and the mission was never realized.  In July 1863, a series of NYC riots erupted causing a series of Civil War panics to arise.  The USS Michigan cruised the Detroit region and one month later cruised the Buffalo region to quell public unrest.  Autumn 1864 marked the USS Michigan's most important mission.  While laying off Johnson's Island in Ohio, the home to a Confederate POW camp, the crew was able to capture a spy and thwart a Confederate covert action.  Twenty Rebels had seized the vessel Philo Parsons.  Soon thereafter, they seized and burned the Island Queen.  Their mission was to gain control of the Great Lakes. The Rebels had hoped to contact their spy at Johnson's Island after he had wrestled control from the Michigan's crew thus eliminating the Union Naval presence there.  With the spy's capture, the Confederates on board the Parsons left the Great Lakes enroute to Canada never to return.

Later U.S. Navy Service:
1866 saw the Michigan involved in the ending the Fenian Brotherhood invasion of Canada. In 1905, the name USS Wolverine was assigned to the Michigan to free up the state name for another ship.  The Wolverine was decommissioned in 1912 but returned to active status during WWI.  It was also used by the Pennsylvania Militia for 11 years.  It towed the Brig Niagara during the centennial celebration of the War of 1812.  A broken cylinder rod ended her active career in 1923. She was grounded at Misery Bay.  In 1927, The USS Wolverine was pushed to Presque Isle Bay as a relic.  By 1949 failed restoration funding attempts led to her being scrapped.  Her prow became a monument at Wolverine Park in Erie, Pa.  In 1988, the prow moved to its current location in the Erie Maritime Museum.

The USS Wolverine and Fairport Harbor:
The Wolverine did visit Fairport when it towed the Brig Niagara into the harbor on its War of 1812 centennial ports visit.  However it was the effort of the Fairport Harbor Historical Society that brought the foremast permanently to Fairport.  It seems that the late USLSS Station Fairport Capt. Niels M. Rasmussen served as a boatswain on the USS Michigan in the 1880's.  He transferred into the life-saving service, served in Erie and finished his career in Fairport in 1916. The Rasmussens continued to live in Fairport. His son, a Lake County sheriff had once desired to enlist on the Michigan.  Almost every part of the USS Michigan / Wolverine was sought for museum collections.  The head boards are in a museum in Newport News.  Carroll Mitchell, FHHS president, Austin Headland, Congressman Francis P. Bolton and members of the FHHS were able to secure the mast.  On July 4, 1950 with the aid of the Fairport Mardi Gras committee, the mast of America's first ironclad warship found its permanent resting place next to the keeper's dwelling at the Grand River Lighthouse in Fairport Harbor, Ohio.  The Museum, located on 129 Second Street, opens on Memorial Day Weekend and offers visitors many historical and maritime insights into the days past of Lake County, Ohio.

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