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Lake Erie

This was originally going to be a very different post. A few weeks ago, I drove up to a lakefront park in Willowick, Ohio, to get a photograph of the historical marker for the sinking of the Griffith.

Lake Erie

On June 17, 1850, a steamer called the G. P. Griffith was en route from Buffalo to Toledo on Lake Erie when a fire erupted in the dark hours of the early morning. The boat was a few miles out from the shoreline, east of the city of Cleveland. The crew attempted to steer to shore and lodged the ship on a sandbar. Contemporary accounts estimated that 286 people died out of the over 300 on board. Some burned, some were probably crushed by the paddlewheels or falling wreckage, and many drowned, a number probably increased by cumbersome clothing made weightier by concealed valuables. Many passengers were immigrants moving further west carrying money on their persons. Because there was no definitive list of passengers and crew, the number of survivors has been estimated as between 40 and 87.

I had planned to write about the historical marker because it is, for many of the victims, their only memorial. Following the disaster, the citizens of Willowick buried over 100 recovered bodies in a mass grave on the the shoreline. Over time, erosion reclaimed the grave and the remains plunged, for the final time, into the lake water.

The Griffith Disaster

Then, while walking through Fort Meigs Cemetery, I found a cenotaph for the captain and co-owner Charles C. Roby and his family

Roby

Roby, a successful merchant,  and another man, Studdiford, purchased the G. P. Griffith in the preceding winter, and Roby decided that he wished to captain the steamer for that voyage and take along a number of family and friends.

Roby

According to the accounts of the disaster, Roby asked crew members to help his family safely reach shore, but none were successful.  Roby, his wife, mother, and daughter all perished along with most passengers and crew. Some state that Roby’s second child perished on the Griffith, but the placement of his name on the monument in relation to the three confirmed dead in the sinking – Charles, Amelia, and Abby – suggests otherwise.  However baby Charles died, the monument in Fort Meigs Cemetery stands in memory of one family destroyed.  The historical marker in the park, while less personal, stands as the lone memorial to the families decimated on June 17, 1850, who were unable to leave such a marker for themselves.

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