WALK-IN-THE-WATER, the first steamboat on Lake Erie, was built at Black Rock, NY, in 1818 under the supervision of Noah Brown and Robert Fulton. A paddlewheel-driven boat 132′ long and 32′ across the beam, it had a smokestack 30′ high set between 2 sails, which were used when the winds were strong enough. Its first captain was Job Fish. The steamer could accommodate 100 cabin passengers and a large number in steerage; it also had a smoking room, a baggage room, and a dining room.
The origin of its name is uncertain; it may have been named for Wyandot Indian Chief Walk-in-the-Water or, according to Capt. Baton Atkins of Buffalo, NY, may have been adopted from the exclamation “walks in the water,” made by an Indian upon seeing Fulton’s first boat, the Clermont, in 1807.
A painting of the Walk-in-the-Water from a UK collection.
Walk-in-the-Water’s maiden voyage from Buffalo began on August 25, 1818, with 29 passengers bound for Erie, Grand River, Cleveland, Sandusky, and Detroit. Traveling about 8-10 mph, the steamer completed the entire trip in about 9 days. Cost was $18 for a cabin and $7 for steerage. When it arrived in Cleveland, most of the village inhabitants came to greet it.
An illustration of Detroit in 1820 includes the steamboat Walk in the Water.
Steamboats had a great impact both on transportation and on the economy of the great lakes. Travel was not only quicker but more reliable. And as Bill Loomis reports, the hotel business in the young city of Detroit picked up dramatically after the invention of the steamboat.
After running aground near Erie in September, the boat was repaired and became the first steamboat in Lake Michigan when it traveled to Mackinaw and Green Bay in 1819. Walk-in-the-Water was wrecked during foul weather on November 1, 1821 near Buffalo while carrying 18 passengers and a full cargo, but all on board survived. The loss was estimated at $10,000-$12,000. After the wreck, the engine was placed in the Superior.
Steamers like the Walk-on-the-Water were critical in bringing immigrants and settlers to Detroit and the Michigan Territory from New York and the Eastern seaboard, particularly after the opening of the Erie Canal October 26, 1825, providing for the first time a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
By 1836, 90 steamers a month were arriving, each one jammed with settlers. In 1837 three steamers arrived in Detroit a day. They grew bigger, carrying 700 passengers, then more than 1,000.
A busy Detroit riverfront is depicted in this 1838 etching from an original sketch by Fred K. Grain. It was used as a Christmas greeting card by the Eaton-Clark Company of Detroit and Windsor, which was founded in 1838.
Bill Loomis, “Grand hotels of early Detroit: Cotillions, Celebrities and Turkish baths“, Detroit News, April 21, 2013.
Bill Loomis, “How one bad review delayed the settlement of Michigan”, Detroit News, June 3, 2012.