Michigan Transportation History

SS Henry Clay

SteamshipVesselGreat LakesSide-wheel PaddleThingPublic The Great Lakes steamship Henry Clay was built in Buffalo in 1825 and abandoned ten years later after running aground in a storm.

The Henry Clay was a low pressure (60 psi), schooner-rigged, side-wheel paddle steamship of 300 tons launched on June 9, 1825, at Black Rock, Buffalo, New York. The ship was designed and built by E. Meritt (who had apprenticed with Henry Eckford ) and was similar to Meritt's Constitution. The Henry Clay was, at the time of her launch, considered "not surpassed by any vessel afloat."1 The ship was described by U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thomas L. McKenney "as being in one of the first class" and "surpassed by few, if any, either in size or beauty of model, or in the style in which they are built and finished."2

The Henry Clay, mostly owned by Detroiters, was operated in conjunction with the Superior on a four-day schedule between Buffalo and Detroit. The ships left every fourth day from Buffalo at 9:00 am and Detroit at 4:00 pm. Each stopped at Dunkirk, Portland, Erie, Grand River, Cleveland, and Sandusky en route. Steaming time was 36 hours with however much additional time needed for the stops.3

On April 25, 1827, the Henry Clay opened the season with Captain Wlater Norton, a captain of "well known politeness" and with extensive "experience and skill as a seaman."4 In the pre-dawn mists of September 2, 1827, outside Grand River on Lake Erie, the Superior, sister ship to the Henry Clay, collided on the port side of the Henry Clay. The collision caused "considerable" damage but was quickly repaired and the Henry Clay was soon back in service.5

In 1828, the Henry Clay seems to have been taken off its regular schedule. On August 22, it left Buffalo for a trip to Green Bay. The return voyage supposedly had Lewis Cass on board who was negotiating with the Indians of Wisconsin.6 The Detroit Gazette suggested that gentlemen and ladies of the upper class should book passage on the Henry Clay with Cass and to "extend their fashionable journeys to make a tour of the Great Lakes." It seems though that the author was lamenting the hot August weather in Detroit by imagining "cool breeze of Huron," the "shady shores of Superior" (which were inaccessible by steamship in 1828 as the St. Marie's Falls were still not navigable), and "how delightful it would be to roll on an iceberg this afternoon."7 This was probably a special summer excursion for the needs of Cass.

The Henry Clay was put up for auction on September 15, 1835, at Black Rock.8 Whether or not the ship was sold, it was beached during a storm at Black Rock November 16.9 Thereafter, the ship was abandoned.10


1. Black Rock Gazette, June 14, 1828, p. 2, c. 6.

2. Inland Seas, Fall 1996, p. 182.

3. Inland Seas, Fall 1996, p. 182.

4. Buffalo Emporium, April 26, 1827; Inland Seas, Fall 1996, p. 182, quoting a Buffalo newspaper at the launch of the ship in 1825.

5. Michigan HeraldCleveland Weekly Herald, September 13, 1827, p. 3, c. 4.

6. Detroit Gazette, July 24, 1828.

7. Detroit Gazette, August 7, 1828.

8. Buffalo Whig & Journal, August 12, 1835.

9. Cleveland Daily Herald, November 17, 1835.

10. Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, Lytle-Holdcamper List, 1790 to 1868.

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "SS Henry Clay," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on April 20, 2020, at 01:01 PM EST

Page last modified on April 20, 2020, at 01:01 PM EST