The USS Michigan Launches Herself and Cruises the Great Lakes

US Wolvering/MichiganThe U.S. Michigan launched herself and began decades of adventures on the Great Lakes, including survey work, and clashing with Mormons and Rebel spies

The story of the U.S.S. Michigan begun in USS Michigan- Erie Beginnings and Battling with the British, continues with the U.S.S. Michigan embarking on her maiden voyage without her guns. Instead, she was fitted with a single 18 pounder which was all she carried for the next twenty years.

The Michigan was commissioned on August 9, 1843. She self launched on December 5, 1843, and was outfitted and completed the following year. She made her first Great Lakes cruise in 1844, with a crew of 106 men and was captained by William Inman who sailed with her until October 1845.

Serving Aboard the USS Michigan

In 1845 Captain Stephen Champlin, who was reportedly a cousin of Oliver Perry, took over as her skipper. Captain Champlin sailed the Michigan for three years and after him came 37 other commanders. These commanders included Oscar Bullus, Mr.Biglow, Mr. McBlair, Mr. Nicholas, Joseph E. Jouett, George Brown, James Billis, Mr. Wright, Charles Cashman, G.W.Hayward and Albert Kautz. The last was Lt. Commander William L. Morrison of Erie.

The captain and crew had comfortable quarters on the U.S.S Michigan. Shortly after the launching, the cabins and deck houses were rebuilt. A large pilot house was built for navigating and chart preparing; the bridge above was covered with awnings. Bridges extended over the paddle boxes amidships. True to the traditions of sailing ship days, the captain's cabin was aft on the main deck and consisted of a lounge with table, desk, and library, two staterooms and a bath, all paneled in dark woodwork. The sailors called this part of the ship "the holy of holies" because only the high ranking officers were permitted there. Young graduates of the naval academy at Annapolis vied for assignments on the Michigan. She became known as the mother-in-law of the Navy because many of her young officers married Erie girls. The arrival of the officers and their families also injected new life into Erie social circles.

The U.S.S. Michigan Has Some Near Misses

Despite the fact that she was a Navy ship, the U.S.S. Michigan had a peaceful career. Only four incidents in her long life involved American wars. The first happened just before the Civil War when she broke up a Mormon Colony on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. The Colony was ruled by King James Strang, "A New York lawyer." and it was a thorn in the side of local authorities. Strang's subjects were soon fighting among themselves and the Michigan was sent to the island empire to keep peace.

The second incident happened during the Civil War. Confederate refugees in Canada captured the passenger steamers Philo Parsons and Island Queen, near Sandusky, Ohio. They intended to capture the Michigan as well and turn her into a pirate ship to prey on lake shipping and ports and use her to free the Confederate prisoners held on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay. The scheme failed and the Michigan ended up chasing the captured steamers into the open waters of Lake Erie. They eventually escaped.

The Michigan's third near battle happened during the Fenian invasion of Canada in 1866. A group of 1,000-1,500 raiders gathered at Buffalo, New York, pretending to be laborers bound for the west. Their modest objective was to capture Canada. With their green flag flying they crossed the Niagara River at Black Rock and took over the ruins of old Fort Erie on the Canadian shore.

Advance scouts and hidden arms at Fort Erie and these were given to the raiders as they came ashore. All of this was without the knowledge or consent of U.S. officials, but the Canadians soon found out about the raiding party and hastily raised an army of volunteers to repel the invaders. In the resulting battle, the Fenians were dispersed, retreated to the river bank and headed back to Buffalo. The Michigan steamed to the scene and took the invaders prisoners of the government.

The Michigan in the Spanish American War

The final incident occurred during the Spanish American War while the Michigan served as a recruiting center. The first detachment that left the Michigan for service in different ships was: Lt. Bilisch; boatswain's mates, Bailner, Wilson, Burns, and several seamen. More than 5,000 men left from the Michigan. When Emmett Bean left the Michigan crew, Mrs. Bean carried her eight month old son to the station to bid her husband goodbye. That baby grew up to spend 30 years in the army.

The Memorial Day celebration in Erie in 1898 involved the Michigan. Patriotic feelings swept the town. Sailors from the Michigan and Captain Gridley from Erie were on hand. Captain Gridley was the captain of Admiral Dewey's flagship Olympia. All of Erie's many brass bands turned out in colorful uniforms. The replacements from the Michigan and those from the national guards were in line in their brand new uniforms.

The place of honor went to the old veterans from the Soldiers and Sailors Home. The Grand Army of the Republic, hundreds strong, proudly marched in line. Many of the men wore their black campaign hats and uniforms. They were led by Volney B. St. John, then commander of the G.A.R.

Cheering crowds lined the streets as their favorites passed by. This was also a time of anxiety. Victories were being won daily but the casualty lists were also growing. There was talk of draft and many anxious parents prayed for the end of hostilities. The Civil War had ended but 33 years before and visions of the frightful casualties of that war were still fresh. One of the most famous commands in battle involved Captain Gridley of Erie and Admiral Dewey. At the Battle of Manila, Admiral Dewey ordered, "When you are ready, Gridley, fire."

Captain Charles Gridley, a former Michigan officer and the husband of an Erie woman, commanded Dewey's flagship Olympia in that battle. The Spanish fleet was annihilated with over 2,000 men killed and wounded and property loss by capture and sinking reached $6,500,000.

The Michigan Helps Understand Human Digestion

Tradition has it that the Michigan was also indirectly responsible for providing the medical world with a living example of working human digestion. She was cruising between the Les Cheneaux Islands when the famous French Canadian woodsman was brought for treatment to the ship's doctor at one of the ports of call. His abdomen had been accidentally pierced and healed with an opening that led his digestive organs visible.

The wounded man, Alexis St. Martin, was brought aboard the Michigan and taken to Mackinac Island where his abdomen was studied and noted by the equally famous Doctor William Beaumont, the army post surgeon stationed there. Dr. Beaumont was known for his early and remarkable discoveries in intestinal surgery and gastric digestion. His professional records stand as medical classics. Dr. Beaumont studied the digestive system of Alexis St.Martin for years and Alexis St. Martin survived him by twenty years.

The Michigan Does Survey Work and Trains Recruits for Naval Operations

For many years, the Michigan was used mainly in survey work and training recruits for naval operations. Many modern Great Lakes charts are a result. Between tours of duty, the Michigan took time out for repairs. She spent the winter of 1893 in Buffalo undergoing necessary repairs. Then she steamed into Erie harbor resplendent in white gold trimmings. The news of her coming spread about the city. People visited the dock despite the miserable weather to gaze upon the "iron steamship." Then the Michigan received orders from the Secretary of the Navy to proceed to Chicago for the World's Fair of 1893

In 1902, the Navy re-christened the USS Michigan the Wolverine, and she served as a training ship for sailors in the Spanish American War and World War I.  The Michigan enjoyed many adventures on the Great Lakes, but she always returned to her home port of Erie, Pennsylvania. The return of the Michigan to her dock in Erie always brought the city to life. In November of 1893, the Michigan returned from Chicago on a dark, drizzly and dreary day. Pedestrians hurried along the streets wrapped in great coats buttoned to their chins and collars turned up to their ears. The rain continued until 11 o'clock and mixed with snow. A rumor went around that Mayor Scott was ill and could not participate in the reception.

The USS Michigan Returns to Erie, Pennsylvania

The Michigan arrived early. It had been the intention of the Michigan's commander to remain outside the peninsula until 2:00 to await the reception committee, but the wind was so high that he slid into the harbor at 11:30 and cast anchor a little way out from the public dock. Her arrival was announced to the astonished citizens by the wild hooting of whistles. From the time the ship arrived until 2:00 o'clock, a steady stream of people had been marching down State Street. When the band and reception committee reached the dock, they found several thousand people. Erie always loved the return of the Michigan.

When the Spanish American War ended, the Michigan went back to her pre-war duties on the Great Lakes with full crew. She was berthed in the West Slip at the foot of State Street where Erie people could look across the bay and see her-white, with her shining brass and the neatly trimmed lawn adjacent, her picturesque crew marching in all of the local parades in blue uniforms and white leggings, drawing her little Gatling gun after them. The gun was always pointed out as the most destructive weapon of war ever invented.

The lawn of the Michigan’s berth was kept neatly trimmed in summer. Many visitors walked or rode down State Street in Erie to look over the ship and visit with members of the crew. In winter sailors kept the ice clear of snow for skating. The crew was a jolly lot and all sports minded. In the summer they had an excellent baseball team. When the ship was on a cruise, the team was in demand in all the ports for games with the local teams. The football team was comprised of a bunch of huskies and they had a bear cub mascot.

The USS Michigan Becomes the Training Ship Wolverine

On July 15, 1902 the Michigan was involved in an unfortunate accident that foretold her future. Moored at her dock in Erie, she was rammed by a heavy freighter, the M.B.Grover. The Michigan sustained $15,000 damage. This time the Navy repaired her and gave her a new name, Wolverine. A new salt water battleship had been named Michigan and the Navy didn't want confusion.

A notice in a local paper, The Union City Times, published in a small town outside of Erie, reveals the influence of the Michigan, even inland. Dated October 3, 1905, the notice says that Charles Kern, recruiting agent for the U.S. Navy attached to the man of war Wolverine, now in her winter quarters in Erie Harbor, was in Union City last Thursday. Mr. Kern was looking up recruits in mechanics of map reading, all grades of seamen, firemen, coal passers, others. The men were wanted immediately to fill up the complements of the Wolverine. The applicants, he said, must be between 17 and 35 years old and the pay ranges from $10 to $70 per month and board, according to ratings.

In 1910, the Navy loaned the Wolverine to the State of Pennsylvania for use as a training ship for the state naval militia, Captain William Morrison in command. Many future sailors and officers received their initial training on the Wolverine. The ship remained in this capacity until the beginning of World War I in 1917 when she was returned to active duty.

Even as the Wolverine, she continued to make history. During July, August and September of 1912, which was the Centennial celebration of Perry's victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, the Wolverine was busy. She towed Perry's ship, the Niagara, which had been raised and rebuilt. The two venerable ships went on a like cruise to Great Lakes ports. The two old battle wagons were manned by mixed crews regular Navy and naval militia. Hundreds of thousands of people viewed the two vessels in their voyage with celebrations at all the ports of call.

The Wolverine Continues Her Training Ship Role

Approaching World War I, the Wolverine was again active as a training ship. Hundreds of sailors watched their city skylines fade into the distance from her decks. Three days after the United States actually entered World War I on April 7, 1917, Captain Morrison and his men left for Philadelphia where their unit was broken up and the men transferred to different ships. The boys from the Wolverine saw service throughout the world, scattered on many vessels.

When the war was over the old ship resumed her career as a training ship. Captain Morrison went back into command and she made periodic trips up the lakes until 1922 when crews were sent to Erie from Philadelphia for training. Some of them were reserves, others from the regular Navy. During one of the trips disaster struck the Wolverine. On August 12, 1923, steaming through the Straits of Mackinac, returning from a training cruise, she broke a port engine connecting rod. The crew made temporary repairs and discovered that she could run under her own power at about five miles an hour.

Later that same night a storm blew up on Lake Huron and the crippled Wolverine had to shelter at Harbor Beach, Michigan, until noon the next day. Then she continued to limp home to Erie, sailing into the harbor unassisted. Although her engine was repairable, funds weren't available. The Michigan's career was over.
A caretaker came aboard, but she gradually showed the signs of neglect. In January 1927 there was a movement afoot in Erie to have the Wolverine turned over to the Boy Scouts of Erie County, who would arrange to have the boat taken from its present moorings at the public docks across the bay to the state park on Presque Isle Peninsula where a mooring place could be provided. The Scouts would then see that she was kept open year around for visitors. She could also be turned into a training ship for Sea Scouts or be made into a museum and a meeting place for the Boy Scouts, the Naval Reserves, and other groups.

The Wolverine's Career Ends

Later, the War Department through the action of Congressman Milton W. Shreve, turned the Michigan over to the City of Erie. Erie loved the ship, but did not have the money to take care of her. The city council decided to let her go to some other port. Finally, her last commander, William L. Morrison, and another Erie sailor, Captain P.D. Grant, arranged to have her towed to Crystal Point in Misery Bay. With the aid of the tug Commander Perry, the Wolverine was towed there on November 23, 1928. She was supervised by the Presque Isle State Park Commission and guarded by the police to protect her from vandals.

But the police could not stop the ravages of time and dry rot attacking the Wolverine’s decks and cabins. She floated in a few feet of water. The broken connecting rod hung where it had fallen during her last cruise. The galley ranges, iceboxes and store rooms were thick with dust and the white tile floor in her once spotless galley showed in patches through a blanket of dirt. The ports no longer housed her once bristling guns. Different groups of civic and military organizations made repeated attempts to raise enough money to purchase the Wolverine from the Navy and restore her. They all failed.

Time and dry rot prevailed and the Navy finally condemned the Wolverine. She was sold to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Original USS Michigan, Inc., on July 19, 1948. Fundraising efforts failed to raise enough money for her restoration and preservation, and she was cut up and sold for scrap in 1949.

The Wolverine was sold for scrap in 1949, 106 years after her self launching in Erie. The money made from her sale was used to erect a plaque in Erie in memory of the warship that never fired a hostile shot but kept peace between the United States and Canada. Some parts were sent to lake ports where she formerly berthed. In 1950, the prow of the Wolverine was moved for restoration to the Erie Maritime Museum where it is currently displayed. The head boards and wheel of the Wolverine are in the mariner's museum in Newport News, Virginia.