September 21, 1844: The schooner Jon Jacob Astor sinks off Copper Harbor

On this day on Lake Superior in 1844, the John Jacob Astor sank at the Fort Williams dock in Copper Harbor, Michigan. The Astor, considered the first American commercial vessel to sail Lake Superior was named for John Jacob Astor, who started the American Fur Company and built a post at Fond du Lac in 1816. A German-born businessman and investor, Astor came to the U.S. after the Revolutionary War and made his fortune in fur trading, real estate, and smuggling opium, and is considered to be the America’s first millionaire. By the 1930s, the demand for beaver fur to make hats in Europe was dramatically declining—silk hats were now all the rage. So the American Fur Company tried its hand at fishing Lake Superior, building the 111-ton schooner John Jacob Astor at Point Aux Pins in 1835 to transport fish and supplies. The firm added two more vessels over the next few years, the Madeline and the William Brewster. The catch was impressive, but the market for fresh fish was small—and then disappeared after the 1837 financial panic. The fur company gave up on commercial fishing before 1840. When Astor died in 1848 he was the wealthiest man in the U.S., worth a reported $20 million—about $530 billion today. Duluth once had a park in Fond du Lac named for Astor, but it was renamed Historical Park. A replica of the American Fur Post was built in nearby Chamber’s Grove Park in 1935 and demolished in 1968. Read more about Astor here, his Fond du Lac fur post here, the history of sailing vessels on Lake Superior here, and the history of commercial fishing on Lake Superior here.

A modern paining of the schooner John Jacob Astor by Grand Marais, Minnesota, artist Howard Sivertson. See more of Sivertson’s work, which feature historic scenes of Lake Superior and Minnesota’s North Shore, here.