On the Water

The Steamboat Indiana’s Last Voyage

Constructed in 1848, the Indiana was an early propeller steamboat on the Great Lakes. Like most freighters on the Lakes, the Indiana was neither large nor luxurious. It moved people and cargo around the lakes for ten years before coming to an all-too-common end.

On June 6, 1858, while carrying ore on Lake Superior, the Indiana went to the bottom. All 21 crew and passengers survived. One of the ship’s propeller blades had loosened, striking the ship’s sternpost, causing a serious leak. Located by a sport diver in 1972, the Indiana’s pioneering propulsion machinery was raised seven years later by staff of the National Museum of American History.

Diving for History

From 1991 to 1993, Museum staff made 211 dives in 120 feet of 34-degree water to recover artifacts and study the Indiana.

Photograph by Paul F. Johnston, Smithsonian Institution

Site Plan of the Wreck

The Indiana is preserved nearly intact on the sandy bed of Lake Superior. The position of the remains indicates that the bow hit the lake bed first, splitting the hull timbers open and spilling the iron ore cargo forward. The stern is virtually intact except for the missing deck houses and other structures, which broke away while the ship was still on the surface.

The Clipper Line

Watson A. Fox of Buffalo, New York, was the Indiana’s principal owner in 1854. This advertisement from a Buffalo business directory from that year offers an exaggerated view of his shipping interests—the Clipper Line only existed for a single year.

The Indiana’s First Captain

Alva Bradley was the Indiana’s first captain and one of the steamer’s first owners. In 1848, Bradley and a friend formed a partnership and hired itinerant shipbuilder Joseph Keating to build the Indiana at Vermilion, Ohio.

From E. M. Avery, A History of Cleveland and Its Environs: The Heart of New Connecticut (1918)

The Indiana’s Last Owner

Born in upstate New York, Frank Perew joined the Great Lakes shipping industry at the age of 17. He bought a half interest in the Indiana in 1854 and served as master until late 1856. Perew and his nephew were aboard the Indiana when it sank in 1858. He later managed a considerable shipping business and was so highly regarded that three Great Lakes vessels were named after him.

From L. B. Lane, A Memorial and Family History of Erie County, New York (1906-08)

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

What did the Indiana look like?

The Indiana sank when photography was new. There are very few contemporary photographs of Great Lakes vessels, and no known pictures of the Indiana. Shown here, the 1846 steamboat Globe is very close to the Indiana in size, shape, and overall configuration.

Indiana’s Power Plant

The Indiana was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 because of its pioneering engine, boiler, and propeller. The design of the propeller became widely used on the Great Lakes. These engineering drawings show the design of the ship's propulsion system. The builders are still unknown.

Propeller Indiana’s Hand Bell
Propeller Indiana’s Hand Bell


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This bell may have served as a watch bell signaling crew changes, a dinner bell, a fog bell, or all of the above.



The safe was found lying on the sandy lakebed next to the wreck. Inside were a single coin, a small medicine bottle, and a clasp, probably from a notebook or ledger.

Cup from Propeller Indiana [ca 1858]
Cup from Propeller Indiana


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A sport diver recovered the cup from the wreck.

The Propeller Indiana’s “Philadelphia Wheel” [1848]
The Propeller Indiana’s “Philadelphia Wheel”

The “Philadelphia Wheel”

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The Indiana’s propeller was manufactured by Spang & Co. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but its design is more of a mystery. A propeller designed by Richard Loper of Philadelphia is a close match. Widely used, it was sometimes advertised as the “Philadelphia Wheel.”

One of the intact blades is chipped and dented, suggesting a collision. Another blade is missing outside the yellow line, which marks where a piece broke loose, probably from hitting an object in the water. This piece struck the Indiana’s sternpost, literally “shivered her timbers,” and started the leak that sank the ship. The blade broke off completely when the ship struck the lakebed and was found at the wreck site. It is reproduced here in fiberglass.

Propeller Indiana’s Cargo of Iron Ore
Propeller Indiana’s Cargo of Iron Ore
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Was the Indiana overloaded? The Indiana’s cargo—iron ore—was found on deck. While the ore probably did not sink the Indiana, it may have made the vessel top-heavy and unstable. The three pieces of iron ore pictured here were among several recovered from the wreck.


Coal (above, left) was also found around the boiler in the hold, and historical sources show that it was also a common fuel on Great Lakes steamships.

  • Wood from Propeller Indiana
    Wood from Propeller Indiana


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    These partly burned logs from the Indiana’s boiler grate suggest that the boiler had been stoked just before the steamboat sank.

Ship’s Gear

  • Propeller Indiana’s Capstan [mid-1800s]
    Propeller Indiana’s Capstan


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    The capstan was used to pull a line for any number of tasks: raising or lowering anchors, hoisting sails and cargo, or other heavy jobs. Crewmen inserted timbers into the holes, and several men pushed on each timber as they walked around the capstan.

  • Propeller Indiana’s Steam Whistle [1848]
    Propeller Indiana’s Steam Whistle


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    The ship’s whistle, powered by a steam line from the boiler, was used to signal other ships or the shore. It was invaluable in foggy or dark waters.

Ship’s Tools

These hand tools were found in the Indiana’s engine and boiler space belowdecks.

  • Ship Tools from the Propeller Indiana, Shovel [mid-1800s]
    Ship Tools from the Propeller Indiana, Shovel


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    The crew used the shovel to add fuel to the fires.

  • Ship Tools from the Propeller Indiana, Hand Truck [ca 1858]
    Ship Tools from the Propeller Indiana, Hand Truck

    Hand Truck

    View Object Record

    The hand truck was the artifact that revealed the vessel’s identity when the wreck was located in 1972—the words “PROPR INDIANA” are stamped into its handle.

Cleveland Iron Mining Company

On its last voyage, the Indiana was transporting 280 tons of iron ore from the Cleveland Iron Mining Company’s mines at Iron Mountain, near Marquette, Michigan.