John M. Osborn (steamboat)

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John M. Osborn under sail.
Name: John M. Osborn
Owner: George F. Cleveland and the Cleveland Iron Mining Company
Port of registry: Detroit, Michigan  United States
Builder: Morley & Hill of Marine City, Michigan
Completed: 1882
Fate: Sank in Whitefish Bay 27 July 1884 after she was rammed by the Alberta
Notes: United States Registry # 76307
General characteristics
Class and type: Propeller, wooden steam barge

891.02 Gross Register Tonnage

710.95 Net Register Tonnage
Length: 178 ft (54 m)
Beam: 32 ft (9.8 m)
Depth: 14 ft (4.3 m)
Propulsion: Propeller

The John M Osborn’s short career as a wooden steam barge lasted just two years. The Osborn sank with the loss of five lives when she was rammed by the larger, steel hulled Alberta who was called a “steel monster" and "terror of the lakes". The Osborn’s wreck was discovered 100 years after her sinking. The wreck was illegally salvaged in the 1980s. Many of the Osborn’s artifacts became the property of the State of Michigan after they were seized from Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The State allows the museum to display the artifacts as a loan. The Osborn's wreck is now protected by the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve as part of an underwater museum.


The John M. Osborn was a propeller wooden steam barge built in 1882 by Morley and Hill in Marine City, Michigan. She rebuilt in 1884 in Cleveland, Ohio for increased tonnage. [1] She was owned by owned by George F. Cleveland and the Cleveland Mining Ore Company. [2]

Final voyage

Captain Thomas Wilford’s wife Fannie and his two daughters, Cora and Adelaide were on board the Osborn on her final day of 27 July 1884. They enjoyed a sunny day walking the deck, attending Sunday school services, and talking to the sailors, including the mate, George F. Cleveland, who also owned the Osborn. The children were to put to bed as night fell and a thick fog developed. Mrs. Fannie Wilford was uneasy and stayed near her husband’s side on deck near the bow. [3]

The wooden Osborn was downbound for the Soo Locks with a cargo of 1,120 tons of iron ore and towing two schooner barges, the George W. Davis and the Thomas Gawn. [4] [5] The Alberta was upbound with her usual amount of passengers and freight on her regular run between Owen Sound, Ontario and Port Arthur, Ontario. [1] [4] The Osborn carefully whistled her approach through the fog but one ship whistled once for a starboard course and the other ship whistled twice for a port course. [3] Shipwreck historian Frederick Stonehouse wrote:

As reported in the local papers, ‘the barge blew three whistles, the Alberta answering, and checked down to seven miles per hour, but in a moment the Osborn appeared under the Alberta’s bow and the latter struck her midway between the main and mizzen masts on the starboard side, cutting her almost in twain.’ [2]

When the larger 263 feet (80 m), 2,282 ton, steel steamer Alberta rammed the smaller 178 ft (54 m), 891 ton, wooden Osborn, she penetrated 16 ft (5 m) to the center of the ship cutting her almost in two. [4] The large gash in the Osborn’s hull caused the water to hit her hot boilers which exploded and immediately killed two crewmen. [3] [5] The Alberta stayed locked with Osborn long enough for Captain Wilford and his wife to transfer to her. One of the Alberta’s passengers jumped to the Osborn to save three lives, including Captain Wilford’s children. While this rescuer from the Alberta was still below decks, the Osborn broke free and took his life and two crewmen. [2]

Following the collision, the Alberta was vilified by the press. In her first year of service, she was involved in four minor collisions and a fifth major collision that sank the Osborn. [4] The Cleveland News Leader said of the Alberta, "This huge steel monster, during the few months she has been afloat has become the terror of the lakes. Proud of her reputation as one of the fastest side-wheel steamers on fresh water, she has been run in an extraordinarily reckless manner." [3] The Buffalo Daily Courier reported, “Since the collision much has been said about [the Alberta] being cumbersome and unwieldy, to which the accident was partially attributed. [4]

A lawsuit brought by the owners of the Osborn and her cargo lasted nearly three years. The United States District Court ruled both vessels were at fault for excessive speed for conditions. The Osborn loss was about $88,000 and the Alberta’s damages was about $20,000. Following admiralty rule for both vessels at fault, the damages were divided by deducting the Alberta’s loss from the Osborn’s loss and equally dividing the remainder with a pecuniary result of the Alberta’s owners paying the owners of the Osborn and her cargo $33,000. [4] Years later Stonehouse concurred that thick fog and both ships traveling too fast for conditions was the likely cause of the disaster. [2]

Wreck history

The wreck of the John M. Osborn was discovered 100 years after she sank in 1984 by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society [GLSHS] and the Oddessey Foundation of Lansing, Michigan. [2] In 1985, shipwreck historian Frederick Stonehouse wrote, “Reportedly the Osborn is nearly intact and a time capsule of an earlier era of Great Lakes maritime history. “ [2] However, Great Lakes diver Steve Harrington reported by 1990, “The remains of the J.M. Osborn were discovered in the mid-1980s and were quickly stripped for the benefit of a local museum. State officials turned a blind eye to the salvage operation.” [6] Michigan’s Antiquities Act of 1980 prohibited the removal of artifacts from shipwrecks on the Great Lakes bottomlands.[7] The Michigan Department of Natural Resources [DNR] 1992 raid on the GLSHS offices and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum included seizure of artifacts that were illegally removed from the John M. Osborn . [8][9]

Wreck today

Artifacts from the Osborn's wreck are on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a loan from the State of Michigan by a 1993 settlement agreement with the GLSHS following the DNR raid on the museum in 1992. [8] [10] [11] The Osborn lies in 165 feet (50 m) of water at 46°51.974′N 85°05.210′W / 46.866233°N 85.08683°W / 46.866233; -85.08683 in Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior. .[12]

Scuba diving to the Osborn wreck requires advanced technical diving skills. Great Lakes diver Steve Harrington reported, “Today, the J.M. Osborn is upright and mostly intact. Divers enjoy exploring the hull, cargo holds, and cabins of the vessel. The name board and other key artifacts were recovered by the museum." [6]The Osborn wreck is protected for future generations by the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve as part of an underwater museum.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Great Lakes Vessels Online Index". Bowling Green State University. Retrieved 11 January 2009. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Stonehouse, Frederick (1985, 1998). “Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast: Maritime accidents from Whitefish Bay to Grand Marais, Michigan”, pp. 41 - 42, Avery Color Studios, Gwinn, Michigan, USA. ISBN 0-9332212-43-3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Captain Wilford - a Hero of the Inland Seas". Word Press That Woman's Weblog. Retrieved 18 February 2009. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Alberta, (St.S.), 1884, Official No. C85768". Maritime History of the Great Lakes. Retrieved 18 February 2009. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stonehouse, Frederick (1973). “The Great Wrecks of the Great lake: A directory of the shipwrecks of Lake Superior”, p. 53. The Book Concern, Printers, Hancock, Michigan, USA. LCCN 73-75623.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Harrington, Steve (1990, 1998), p.p. 321 - 333. Divers Guide to Michigan, p.321, Maritime Press & Great Lakes Diving Council, Inc., St. Ignace, Michigan, U.S.A. ISBN 0-9624629-8-5
  7. "Michigan DNR 1992 Investigation Report of GLSHS". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 07 February 2009. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Storey, Jack, (4 December 1992). “Shipwreck artifact dispute simmers”. Evening News, p. A1.
  9. "Michigan DNR 1992 Affidavit of Search Warrant". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 07 February 2009. 
  10. "State of Michigan Settlement Agreement with GLSHS". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 07 February 2009. 
  11. "State of Michigan Artifacts on Loan to GLSHS". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 16 February 2009. 
  12. "Michigan Preserve". Michigan Underwater Preserves Council. Retrieved 11 January 2009. 

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