August 27, 1863: The wreck of the sidewheel steamer Sunbeam

On this day on Lake Superior in 1863, the sidewheel steamer Sunbeam wrecked off Michigan’s Keweenaw Point. The Sunbeam was just a year old, having been built by Bates & Sons at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as the Victor, a steamer with a side propeller—an innovation that failed. The vessel was refitted with a standard sidewheel and renamed the Sunbeam. Outbound from Superior City, the Sunbeam was traveling in the company of the steamer Michigan when she broke up and foundered offshore twenty-four miles west of Copper Harbor with eight passengers and a crew of twenty on board. Every passenger and all but one member of the crew took to lifeboats, and each of the lifeboats capsized and took their passengers down with them. Only wheelman John Charles Fregeau of Superior survived. He had given up his seat in a lifeboat for a female passenger and swam to some wreckage and lashed himself to it. He spent thirty hours on the water until he reached shore and rode out the storm in a cavern, reportedly sustained by a “large bottle of port wine that had drifted near.”

The Sunbeam. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index)

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