The elegant steamship Christopher Columbus operated a popular summer excursion run between Chicago and Milwaukee from 1894 to 1931. Longer than a football field and licensed to carry 4,000 passengers, the Columbus averaged 2,500 people per trip – mostly Chicagoans wishing to sample the delights of Milwaukee during the boat’s two-hour layover in the Cream City.
A crew of 170 operated the ship and looked after the passengers. The Christopher Columbus was fitted with electric lighting, oak paneling, velvet carpets, etched glass windows, leather furniture, and marble countertops. Skylights illuminated the promenade, which contained several fountains and an aquarium filled with Great Lakes fish. The ship had several shops, restaurants, a full orchestra, and a dance floor that accommodated 500 couples. The Columbus also featured several large clubrooms for organizations wishing to hold meetings aboard ship.
Its “whaleback” hull was the boat’s most distinctive feature. The only passenger vessel of the roughly 40 Great Lakes whalebacks built, the Columbus was the brainchild of designer Capt. Alexander McDougall. Its cigar-shaped hull had a flat bottom for maximum capacity in shallow rivers and a rounded top to easily shed water. A spoon-shaped bow minimized stress on the low-riding hull. The top of the hull featured six large-diameter watertight turrets supporting its upper passenger decks. Not only was the hull exceptionally stable, its watertight design meant the hull could be submerged completely by storm-driven waves without endangering the ship.
The ship’s arrival was a daily summertime event for 37 years. Each afternoon the big ship glided up the Milwaukee River and docked just south of the Michigan Street bridge. For an extra 75 cents, a story in the Milwaukee Journal noted, Columbus passengers could tour the city in “tallyhos,” massive 30-passenger sightseeing wagons, each pulled by a team of six matched horses. The usual route was from the Goodrich docks, east on Wisconsin Avenue to the lake, north on Prospect Avenue to North Avenue, then west around Reservoir Park and south over the Holton Street viaduct.
Many of the ship’s excursionists passed up the tour in favor of heading straight to the nearby Schlitz Palm Garden where they contentedly remained until departure time.
For serious drinkers, the party started long before they arrived at Milwaukee. A former general agent of the steamship line said onboard beer sales accounted for a good portion of the ship’s revenue.
The Columbus entered service in spring 1893. Built by McDougall to promote his whaleback design and the workmanship of his Superior, Wis. shipyard, the Columbus carried passengers between downtown Chicago and the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition grounds, a distance of six miles. An estimated 2 million passengers rode the Columbus to the fair that year.
When the Columbian Exposition closed, the ship began operating a daytime excursion round trip from Chicago to Milwaukee in 1894. This brought the Columbus into competition with another steamship company, the Goodrich Lines. The Goodrich Virginia, a 285-foot twin-propeller express liner, and one of the finest ships on the lake, already operated between Chicago and Milwaukee.
The Virginia originally departed Chicago in the morning and returned as a night boat. A round trip ticket cost $2.50 and included a fine meal on board. When the Columbus started serving Milwaukee, the Virginia’s schedule was adjusted to match its rival.
In its June 7, 1894 edition, the Milwaukee Journal reported:
The whaleback Christopher Columbus, which will arrive next week, will receive a warm welcome. The Goodrich line announced today that any rate made by the Columbus to Milwaukee would be promptly met, and that the Virginia will run Sunday excursions – something which the Goodrich people have never before done. It will be a battle to the death, for the Goodrich line is determined to drive the whaleback out of the Milwaukee business, regardless of the cost of the struggle. The Virginia is being put in shape to develop all the speed there is in her.
With identical schedules and nearly identical speeds, racing took place almost daily. On calm days, the Columbus (fast, but built for summertime service) generally won but in rough weather the powerful Virginia (designed for year-round service in all conditions), was unbeatable.
Both ships paid a price for the rivalry. In June 1895, a burst steam pipe disabled the Columbus. It was rumored the accident happened while racing the Virginia. Not long afterward, a boiler exploded aboard the Virginia during a race, killing several crew members.
On the evening of July 18, 1897, the Christopher Columbus departed its Michigan Street moorings for its 5 p.m. return to Chicago, followed minutes later by the Virginia. Almost immediately, the crew of the Columbus realized they had left behind 25 passengers, mostly children. The Columbus stopped and dispatched a tug to collect its tardy passengers. As they were boarding the Columbus in mid-river, the Virginia approached and, ignoring signals, sideswiped the Columbus while attempting to squeeze past. Fortunately no injuries occurred and damage was relatively slight.
Before the rivalry got entirely out of hand the Goodrich Line acquired the Columbus in 1898. The Virginia returned to being Milwaukee’s “night boat” for Chicago. It was a good outcome for everyone concerned. Goodrich was an exceptionally well-run operation and very popular with passengers.
Goodrich regulations, for example, required crews to scrub the white upper decks daily and polish the brass fittings until they shone like gold. Even the fire axes stowed in glass-fronted cabinets were buffed and shined until the blades reflected like mirrors. Once a year, all Goodrich ships were freshly painted, top to bottom, inside and out.
The company was also serious about safety. Fire drills were required once a week and all the company’s ships were equipped with far more firefighting equipment than the law required.
Year after year, the Columbus departed Chicago mid-morning for its round trip run to Milwaukee. The passengers marched up the gangways in droves, the beer poured freely, the orchestra played on, and the money rolled in.
Then disaster struck.
On July 24, 1915, the Eastland, a large excursion boat owned by another company, capsized without warning while boarding passengers in the Chicago River and 844 passengers and crew died. It was the worst loss of life in Great Lakes maritime history.
Ominously for the Columbus, and despite the Eastland‘s history of stability problems, Chicagoans looked at the unusual whaleback and whispered that here, too, was a dangerously top-heavy excursion ship.
The Goodrich Line addressed the rumors head-on. With great public fanfare, the company loaded the upper decks with a million pounds of sandbags, a weight far greater than its maximum passenger load. The company also extended an open invitation to anyone who wished to ride along, and quite a few curiosity seekers took them up on the offer.
In the middle of the Chicago harbor, the sandbags were shifted to the extreme right side of the ship. This caused nothing more than a slight lean to that side. After circling the harbor triumphantly with its radically off-center load, the Goodrich Line capped the demonstration by having a tugboat tie on the right side and try its hardest to pull the ship over. All this effort resulted in a very mild 12-degree list.
A few days later, the Columbus departed on its usual run to Milwaukee – with a capacity crowd aboard.
It was a triumphant day, but the good times were already drawing to an end. The Goodrich fleet would see a boom in traffic during World War I. Afterward, improved roads and the rise of trucking companies and private automobiles began to drain away the line’s freight and passenger business. The Columbus continued on the Milwaukee-Chicago run until 1931. The arrival of the Depression was the final straw. Goodrich went into bankruptcy. Under new ownership, the Columbus was featured at the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago in 1932-33. She was then stored for a few years before being scrapped in 1936 at Manitowoc.
During her nearly four decades of service, the Christopher Columbus carried more passengers than any other vessel on the Great Lakes. In its long service, the ship suffered only one accident that resulted in fatalities. It happened in downtown Milwaukee and it remains one of the most bizarre chapters in Great Lakes maritime history. Read it here.