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Crowded Pier and Steamboat (1878 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-27190

Boating in the Storm

Photos of boats being tossed around in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico during the recent Florida hurricanes bring to mind a near tragedy on Madison’s lakes.

In the 1870s, visitors to the resorts on the south shore of Lake Monona traveled there by steamboat. Shortly after 8 p.m. on Sunday, August 10, 1879, a terrific storm hit Madison with wind, a dense black cloud of dust, and rain. Not long before, the Scutanawbequon, with Captain Jones at the wheel, had left the Winnequah pier with forty passengers, two thirds of them women and children. Their departure had been delayed 15 minutes while Dr. Favill attended to a patient at Winnequah.

As the boat was half way across the lake, past Squaw Point and headed for Angleworm Station at the foot of Hamilton Street, the wind picked up from the northeast, accompanied by black clouds and lightning, striking the starboard broadside. The awning, stanchions, smokestack, whistle, and lights were carried off with a crash. The sky became dark as pitch. Women and children began to cry wildly; the men tried to calm them. With no steam to maneuver, Captain Jones did his best to keep the nose of the boat turned into the wind. The craft was slowly pushed backward in the water; 40 minutes later it struck the bridge of the Northwest Road, halfway between the shore and the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul tracks (this was nearly 80 years before John Nolen Drive was built across the lake).

Michael Cashen, the yardmaster of the West Madison railroad depot, and E. D. Pardee ran to the scene carrying lanterns, and they and others helped rescue people from the steamboat, most of whom had to wade through water up to their waist before clambering onto the railroad embankment. About the time they were all out of the water a train came thundering from the north in their direction. Many from the boat scrambled to the railroad bridge and hung underneath from the timbers. Fortunately, by waving a lantern, Captain Jones was able to stop the train in time and avert a disaster.

Mark Gajewski