On November 21, 1847 the propeller steamer Phoenix burned, with the loss of 190 to 250 lives, seven miles north of the Sheboygan Harbor. At the time of her loss the Phoenix carried close to 300 passengers and crewmen. Most of the passengers were Dutch immigrants bound for Sheboygan. Her burning is considered one of the worst disasters in the history of the Great Lakes.
During the late 1840s thousands of immigrants flooded into Buffalo, New York. Most considered the water route through the Great Lakes easier than traveling overland to reach the farmlands of mid-America. Approximately 350 of these boarded the Phoenix in Buffalo on November 11, 1847, for the last trip of the shipping season.
Built in 1845, the propeller driven Phoenix was among the latest and newest of her type. (Until that time most of the steamers built were sidewheel steamers. The first propeller-driven steamer, the Vandalia, had appeared on the Great Lakes only two years before, and most considered it a very radical departure.) Captain G.B. Sweet was in command of the vessel.
During the stormy passage through the lakes the captain fell and suffered an incapacitating injury. The battered Phoenix entered Manitowoc Harbor November 20 to discharge a few passengers and take on fuel. Near midnight the weather cleared and the seas calmed, and the ship departed for Sheboygan, now only thirty miles away.
After several hours of travel, passengers sighted the lights of Sheboygan, now just seven miles away. Excitement spread among the immigrants. After traveling thousands of miles, they were at the end of their journey.
Suddenly crewmen discovered a small fire in the engine room. Overheated boilers had set the overhead wooden beams on fire. At first the crew contained the flames, but soon the fire raged out of control. The first mate gave the order to abandon ship.
The Phoenix's two lifeboats carried 41 persons to safety, and two crewmen saved themselves by clinging to the side of the ship. All the rest perished. Entire families disappeared in the roaring flames, or beneath the frigid water. Most of those who died were children.
The crew of the steamer Delaware, in the Sheboygan Harbor, saw the flames and set out for the disaster as soon as they could get up steam. But when rescuers arrived they found only the dead, and a burnt out drifting hulk. The ship had burned to the water line. The Phoenix towed the smoking hull to the Sheboygan Harbor, where it settled to the bottom in shallow water.
Many survivors reported Mr. David Blish, a first class passenger, to be a hero. Mr. Blish, a merchant from Southport (now known as Kenosha), formed a bucket brigade to fight the flames, comforted lost children, helped others over the side, and refused to take a seat in a lifeboat himself. The flames finally drove him into the water, and he was last seen swimming, holding onto a small child. They did not survive.