Michigan Transportation History

Walk in the Water


Great Lakes CZ Article Shipping Early 19th CenturySteamshipVesselThingWreck

The following is a derivative article based on this version of this Citizendium article written by Russell D. Jones. This article is reprinted here under the CZ creative commons CC-by-SA 3.0 license. Text in this style is unchanged from that original article and may be subsequently redistributed according to the terms of the CZ license. Text in black (or blue for links) is a derivative work and may be subsequently redistributed by giving attribution to both The Citizendium and Michigan Transportation History under the terms of the CC-by-SA 3.0 license.

The Walk-in-the-Water was the first steamship built and operated on the Great Lakes?.


The Walk-in-the-Water was 135-feet long, had a beam of 32 feet, an eight-foot draft, and displaced 338 tons. As a bow figurehead, she carried a likeness of Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. The namesake of the ship was an Indian warrior who, during the War of 1812, had commanded an attack at the Battle of Fort Meigs?.1

Built in 1818 at Black Rock, New York, the Walk-in-the-Water was owned by the Lake Erie Steamboat Company?. Her regular schedule ran between Buffalo and Detroit with stops at Erie and Cleveland. She operated on Lake Erie for three seasons until being wrecked on November 1, 1821, near Point Algino, which is near Buffalo.

Like most early steamships, the Walk-in-the-Water was a sailing vessel with steam-powered side paddle-wheels installed as additional power. She had two high masts and was square-rigged. The boiler and stack stood amidships just aft of the forward mast. The paddle wheels were placed exactly amidships.

Passenger accommodations were all below decks. Like all transportation accommodations at the time, quarters were segregated by gender, the women's cabins located forward. Men's quarters adjoined the dining room. A male-only smoking room adjoined the baggage compartment aft.

For signaling the Walk-in-the-Water used a small cannon as the steam whistle had not yet been invented. The captain customarily fired a shot just before docking and just after departure.

First Voyage

The first voyage of the Walk-in-the-Water was started on August 23, 1818. To master the swift current of the Niagara River, the ship was towed by a team of 20 oxen upriver to Lake Erie. The first voyage booked twenty-nine passengers. The ship arrived in Detroit three days later after stops in Erie and Cleveland.2


Normal operations began in 1818. During the first season, the fare was $8.00 to Erie, $15.00 to Cleveland, and $24.00 to Detroit. By 1820, the fare had been reduced to $18.00 for a cabin to Detroit but just $7.00 for steerage.3

In June of 1820, the Walk-in-the-Water made an excursion to Mackinac Island? making it the first steamship on Lake Huron. The following August, the ship made a return to Mackinac and continued on to Green Bay, Wisconsin, making it also the first steamship to travel on Lake Michigan.


On October 31, 1821, the ship left Buffalo on its normal cruise. By the evening, a November Great Lakes storm blew up. The ship began taking on water and turned about for Buffalo. With its sails down and its wheels unable to stay in the water as the ship pitched in the swells, the ship could make little headway. She let go an anchor and began dragging it running aground south of Buffalo. All passengers and crew were rescued but the ship was a loss. Furniture, equipment, and the boilers were salvaged. The engine was again used in the Superior? built in 1822, which took up the Walk-in-the-Water's schedule.


Unless otherwise referenced, the source for most of this article is "Walk-in-the-Water," by the Kelly's Island Historical Association (2009). That article's availablility has been variable over the years. It's also available through the Internet Archive.

The KIHA article was sourced by an article written by a "Captain Hamilton" and made available to the KIHA courtesy of the Rutherford B. Hayes Memorial Library. That article is apparently not on the WWW.


1. Caleb Atwater, A History of the State of Ohio: Natural and Civil (Cincinnati: Glezen & Shepard, 1838), 215. Note that the original reference was to "The Family Magazine" of 1838, but this magazine seems to have just copied Atwater's text.

2. This is confirmed by B. O. Williams who claims that Charles Lanman's Red Book of Michigan (pp. 80 & 126) is incorrect. Williams witnessed the arrival of the Walk-in-the-Water at Detroit in 1818 and was "in the interior" in 1819. B. O. Williams, "Early Michigan: Sketch of the Life of Oliver Williams and Family," Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections 2 (1880), 38. Indeed, Lanman also claims that the first trip took "a whole week" which also seems to be incorrect.

3. Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, Chapter 8, 3rd Revised Ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1995).

Page last modified on January 02, 2020, at 08:43 PM EST

Page last modified on January 02, 2020, at 08:43 PM EST