Share this article

print logo

STAMP TIES LANCASTER TO STEAMBOAT DISASTER

The Lancaster Presbyterian Church is pictured on a U.S. postage stamp. Sort of.

So is Jim Keysa's house. In a manner of speaking.

But the church, the house and one of the latest 25-cent stamps issued by the Postal Service do have one thing in common -- the upper Great Lakes' first steamboat, wrecked way back in 1821.

The stamp depicts the Walk-in-the-Water, an early Buffalo claim to fame and one of five pioneering steamers pictured on a transportation commemorative issue that debuted in March. And the Village of Lancaster church and house have what is left of the shipwreck.

Salvaged beams from the Walk-in-the-Water, driven ashore here in a November gale, were hauled inland and used to erect the steeple at Lancaster Presbyterian. Some of the wooden planks left from the church job were used as siding on an addition to the house nearby.

"I got the stamp and took it to choir practice and showed it around, and a couple of the men said, 'Gee, look at this,' " said church member Judith P. Martin. "The pastor's wife said she had that stamp, too, and
never even noticed."

Keysa, who lives in the early 19th-century house once used by the congregation's pastor, said the link between the inland community and the waterfront shipwreck was Walk-in-the-Water passenger James P. Clark. He was an early Lancaster settler and sawmill owner who survived the disaster and had a keen eye for the worth of the wrecked steamboat's timbers.

"They probably realized the significance of the first steamship on Lake Erie at that time, and wanted to incorporate some of it into their church," Keysa speculates. "And if he had his own mill, he would know the value of wood."

Clark had reached the Cayuga Creek Settlement in 1808, and his family was involved in the formation of the Presbyterian congregation there in 1818 -- the same year the Walk-in-the-Water was built by Noah Brown. The steamboat was launched at the mouth of Scajaquada Creek and was towed up the Niagara River by the "horned breeze" of a yoke of oxen to reach Lake Erie.

The age of sail still dominated the Great Lakes then, with only two steamboats on Lake Ontario and the Walk-in-the-Water on the upper Great Lakes. Steamboating was a chancy business, too, in an era with few harbor improvements. In that first season under the aptly named captain, Job Fish, the Walk-in-the-Water managed to run aground near Erie just over a month after it was launched.

Still, the first trip covered the distance from Buffalo to Detroit in an astoundingly quick 44 hours and 10 minutes, and ports as far away as Lake Michigan would soon grow used to the Buffalo boat's cargo and passenger shuttle service.

Named either for a Wyandot chief or the reported remark of an Indian watching Robert Fulton's pioneering steamboat, the Clermont, on the Hudson in 1807, the 135-foot side-wheel steamer was considered a great success -- even if Fish, a Hudson River captain who didn't take kindly to the waves of the open lakes, did head back to a job on his sheltered river as soon as he could.

On its last trip from Black Rock in the 1821 season, though, bound for Detroit under Capt. Jedediah Rogers, the Walk-in-the-Water ran into the teeth of an Oct. 31 gale that ended in disaster.

Not far into the lake, the steamer labored through the night against wind and waves; anchors were dropped but were dragged along the bottom as the ship was driven toward shore.

Near dawn Nov. 1, Rogers told his crew and 60 passengers that he was going to cut the anchors and beach the steamer, their only hope of survival. The plan worked -- the boat was wrecked on the beach near Buffalo Creek, but everyone was saved.

The Walk-in-the-Water was "beached about 100 rods above the lighthouse," according to a newspaper account. Measured from the site of the 1818 lighthouse, now a grove of trees near the entrance to the Coast Guard base, the shipwreck would have occurred not far from the site of the Outer Harbor's new marina and restaurant development.

A survivor, Mrs. Alanson W. Welton, later wrote that "the boat struck the beach in a fortunate spot for the safety of the passengers and crew -- near the lighthouse -- and all were saved. The warm fireside we gathered around at the lighthouse was comforting to our chilled limbs, and our hearts warmed with gratitude to God for deliverance from our peril."

Clark, the Lancaster businessman, wrote in his diary that "although I was not thrown overboard like Jonah, I was hard put to reach land."

The most valuable part of the vessel, its engine, soon was salvaged and installed in a new boat built in Buffalo Creek -- the Superior, which later figured in efforts to win Buffalo the coveted designation as western terminus of the new Erie Canal.

And, apparently, Clark had his eye on the timbers -- which would have to be hauled by teams of horses or oxen far inland, over primitive dirt roads.

"When you think what it took in those days, to haul it from Lake Erie," wonders custodian Dave Breckinridge, at Lancaster Presbyterian, Broadway and Lake Avenue.

Armed with a flashlight, he's leading an expedition to a shipwreck site -- up ladders to a school rooftop, across and up again to the sharply sloping church roof, balancing along the length of the roof ridge to an access door in the tall bell tower.

Inside, his flashlight reveals aged wood boarding and massive hand-hewn beams, the mark of ax and adz plainly visible. Some of this wood -- oak and maple timbers 10 to 12 inches square -- came from the land of nearby families; some came from Clark and the Walk-in-the-Water, which was wrecked 11 years before the church went up in 1832.

The shiplap planking on the front of the church may have maritime origins, as well -- the same shiplap siding appears on a small addition to the 1831 Thayer-Ely-Keysa house at 5453 Broadway, and tradition holds that the wood for that 1834 addition was "what was left over from the church," notes Keysa, a director emeritus of the Landmark Society.

"It's a story that comes down through the years," he adds, pointing out that only a few families have occupied the house, despite its long history. "There's a very good possibility the stories are correct."

There are no comments - be the first to comment