Events

The SS Tashmoo and her date with doom

By Don Lochbiler | The Detroit News

It was remarkable that old rivermen should be so persistent in

predicting the Tashmoo was bound to come to a bad end.
Never did an excursion steamer have more glory in her early years. But the Tashmoo was a
side-wheeler that bore an Indian name. The old timers never stopped shaking their heads over this
unfortunate combination.

Still, she was a proud and luxurious ship. For decades she was the best-loved vessel on the Detroit River. Her fame was so great that most Detroiters came to thinkTashmoo Park was named after the boat, instead of vice versa.

The SS Tashmoo cruises down the river with a Detroit News Excursion in the summer of 1936.

Tashmoo Park was the pleasure spot set in the pleasant greenery of the St. Clair Flats (in the area of Harsens Island), where the steamer Tashmoo stopped several times daily on trips between Detroit and Port Huron. When the park opened in 1897 it was regarded as the crowning touch that gave Detroit as fine a summer playground as any city on the lakes could boast.

Besides its stately groves of old trees with plenty of picnic tables, a baseball diamond, swings and rides, the park had a casino and a dancing pavilion so big everybody goggled. It had real Indians too. They paddled over from the Canadian reservation on nearby Walpole Island and sold moccasins and beadwork to fun seekers from Detroit.

 

Belle Isle bridge concert
The Tashmoo, at right behind the dock, and a sister cruise ship Promise at the foot of Woodward.

Developed by the Star-Cole Line, the park was delightful for one-day family excursions on the steamer Darius Cole or the big new Greyhound. At 50 cents a round trip,it was a real bargain.

A reporter for The Detroit News-Tribune took the trip and was enthusiastic about what he found:

“One’s first trip to the Flats is a red-letter day in life’s calendar. This western Venice seems to be a spot where tired feet and dusty pavements are no more, but where the people float through liquid streets.”

Since establishment of the Lake St. Clair Fishing and Shooting Club in l872–later to become the Old Club–private clubs, cottages and hotels proliferated at the Flats. Tashmoo Park broadened the resort’s popularity base to include virtually all Detroiters.

 

Belle Isle bridge concert

The hotels ran a wide gamut. At Joe Bedore’s, six-bottle men always could be sure of lusty companions. At the other end of the scale, the Island House offered rustic charm to many families from the South who came year after year to escape the heat back home.The dignified Muir House, operated by Mrs. C. M. Muir, was advertised as “the only temperance house at the Flats.”

In 1897, the newest and most pretentious hostelry was RiversideHotel, a mile beyond Star Island. It attracted admiration for its fine expanse of lawn between themain building and the dock. Under rainbow-hued parasols, women guests paraded on the lawnand verandas to watch the passing show of Great Lakes vessels threading the channel hardly afair-sized croquet stroke away.

Ore and grain freighters were numerous, but the big attractions were the cruise ships for the Upper Lakes. Waving passengers thronged their decks. The Detroit &Cleveland Navigation Co.’s new steamer, the City of Mackinac, took cruisers to Mackinac Island from Detroit at $12.50 for the round trip, meals and berth included. The Detroit, Windsor & Soo Line offered a seven-day trip to Georgian Bay and Lake Superior for $l7. The aristocrat of cruise ships, the Canadian Pacific’s Alberta, charged $20 for a journey to Fort William, Ontario.

 

Belle Isle bridge concert
The original Joe Bedore’s Hotel, circa 1890.<BRCLEAR=ALL>

The most welcome sight of all for ship-watchers at the Flats,however, was the Tashmoo. The schedule she maintained through the resort area seemedincredible. In less than an hour, the Tashmoo made 10 stops.

What words can recapture the excitement of a Tashmoo landing? The seemingly reckless approach to the dock; the spouting foam of the reversed paddlewheels bringing her to a sudden halt; the shouted greetings across the narrowing span between ship and shore; the clanging bells. Swiftly followed the accurately tossed hawser loops dropping on the piles, the gangplank lowered and the passengers hurrying off while the never-stilled engines throbbed impatiently.

Within seconds the rising gangplank nipped at the heels of any dawdling passenger. Retracted hawsers whistled through the air; bells clanged again; more spoutsof foam. Then the fluttering handkerchiefs of farewell dwindled behind. Only the Tashmoo could do it with such flair.

She had her trial run in 1900. Adm. George Dewey and his bride were among her first passengers. Her epic race with the City of Erie and President Theodore Roosevelt’s ride on her soon after he became President added to her eclat.

But on Dec. 8, 1927, the doubts the old river men expressed for so long about the steamer came to the fore. That was the day the Tashmoo, in the worst storm on the river in years, disappeared without a soul on board.

 

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Theodore Roosevelt on board the Tashmoo in 1902.

A 60-mile-an-hour gale was blowing, driving snow before it. During the night the temperature dropped 40 degrees, to 8 above. In the predawn blizzard The Detroit News dispatched a reporter and photographer to assess storm damage along the waterfront. At the office of the White Star Line, successors to Star-Cole, at the foot of Griswold, the team for the paper found the big story in the person of a white-faced watchman, Robert McCrumb.

McCrumb waved at the dock where for many weeks the Tashmoowas moored at winter anchorage, made secure by 14 heavy steel cables.

“She’s gone,” he said. “Gone right up the river.”

McCrumb remained at his post while the storm mounted. “Then the cable started snapping,” he said. “They went one after the other, like they were grocery string.”

McCrumb heard a crash, muffled by the wind, moments after the Tashmoo broke loose. On this tip the newsmen pushed their way a block east, to the Woodward Avenue dock of the Detroit and Windsor Ferry Co.

What the Tashmoo hit, they learned, was the ferry Promise. Anton Mensen, her engineer, and three crewmen leaped to the dock after the impact. They were getting up steam for the ferry’s first morning run across the river.

 

Belle Isle bridge concert
The Tashmoo, with no one aboard, batters the old Belle Isle Bridge Dec. 8, 1927. afterbreaking away from its moorings during high winds.

“Just like she was starting on her regular summer run up to Port Huron,” a crewman volunteered.

Taking off in their vintage Model T roadster, the searchers made their next inquiry at the foot of Randolph, home base for the fireboat James Battle. Had anyone seen the Tashmoo heading upstream?

“No, and we haven’t seen the Flying Dutchman, either,” answered a skeptical fireman. When further explanation convinced him that he was not being ribbed, he offered a suggestion: “There’s only one thing can stop that fool boat,” he said. “The Belle Isle Bridge.”

Visibility was near zero when the Model T reached the bridge, but long before the searchers sighted the Tashmoo they could hear the anguished banging of the ship against the concrete abutment. And then, there she was–listing tipsily to port, her sides gashed,but still seemingly determined to batter her way up to Lake St. Clair.

Two tugs arrived, and after a struggle to get lines aboard, they pulled the Tashmoo away from the bridge. In tandem formation, they tried to tow her to the Detroit Shipbuilding Co. dock at the foot of Orleans, where she was built.

Still she wasn’t subdued. Abeam of the Walkerville ferry dock at the foot of Jos. Campau, the Tashmoo snapped the hawser and once again plunged upstream toward the bridge.

 

Belle Isle bridge concert
Passengers relax on the Tashmoo deck in 1906.

She was only 10 yards from it when the tugs got lines on her once more. This time she followed them to harbor.

Repaired and refurbished, the Tashmoo lived on for nine more years until the sad night of June 18, 1936.

She was chartered for a moonlight ride that evening by the Pals Club,a Hamtramck social group. A crowd of 1,400 gathered at the foot of Griswold. River traffic delayed the Tashmoo’s return from her day trip, one of the cut-rate Friday excursions to Port Huron sponsored by the News. She left dock at 9:20 p.m., 20 minutes after her longtime rival in the moonlight trade, the Columbia, was speeding downriver.

The Tashmoo made up most of the deficit. She reached Sugar Island,near Grosse Ile, at l0:35 p.m., and started on the cruise homeward at ll:20. As she came out of Sugar Island Channel a shock was felt throughout the ship.

Passengers were told that there was engine trouble. Jean Calloway’sorchestra played on, and the dancing never was more lively. But in the engine room it wasdifferent. The Tashmoo had struck a submerged rock. The wound was mortal.

As water poured in through a hole in the hull faster than the pumpscould handle it, the engine room crew stoked the boiler fire in a swirling, waist-deep flood. Capt. Donald MacAlpine called for full speed ahead.

Ten minutes after the shock, the Tashmoo docked at the Brunner-Mond Co. coal wharf above Amherstburg on the Canadian side. Only after passengers and crew were safely ashore did the grand old steamer sink to the bottom in 18 feet of water. The Tashmoo’s days of glory were over.