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July 9, 1876: The Burning of the St. Claire

On this day on Lake Superior in 1876, the steamer St. Claire caught fire and burned to the water line. Twenty-Seven of the 32 people on board perished after jumping into frigid Lake Superior waters near Ontonagon, Michigan. The St. Claire had arrived in Ontonagon the night before, after having departed Duluth—the steamer’s regular route ran along Lake Superior’s south shore from Duluth to Keweena Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and along the North Shore from Isle Royale to Duluth. She left around midnight, and by 2 a.m.—when the fire was first discovered—was about 14 miles northeast of Ontonagon and five miles from shore near what was called Fourteen Mile Point. The fire itself prevented the crew from launching all but one of its life boats. The newspapers suggested that those who panicked and dove into the icy waters right away all perished, while those who kept their heads survived. The five survivors included J. B. Sutphin, who would later serve as Duluth’s mayor. Sutphin was in the meat-packing business and was traveling with 23 head of cattle and some sheep, all of which “suffocated or burned to death.” Sutphin and the rest of the survivors tried heroically to save their fellow passengers.

John B. Sutphin. (Duluth Public Library)sutphin