It is often stated that iron clad warships were a product of the American Civil War. Most maritime historians are aware of the powerful iron hulled L'Gloire, or the H.M.S. Warrior of 1860. While these ships are often given credit as the first iron hulled ocean going warships, another ship lies overlooked in history seventeen years before.
Out of the U.S.- Canadian tensions of the 1830's came a growing demand for the U.S. Navy to reestablish a presence on the Great Lakes to protect U.S. interests in the region . Though the Navy had a presence on the Lakes in both previous wars with Britain, all of the warships possessed at the end of the War of 1812 had either returned to merchant service, or had been sunk to preserve them. When it was learned that the Canadians were building two war steamers, many in the region were alarmed. One of these, the Minos, was reported as having sides that were over two feet thick, and strapped with iron, making her impervious to small cannon shot.
An amendment to a fortifications bill provided for a U.S. steamer for the defense of Lake Erie. This was to be a modern ship, to challenge the Canadians Upshur stated in a letter to concerned congressmen that, "I am determined to build this vessel of iron instead of wood for two reasons... I was desirous to aid in... developing and applying to a new use the immense resources to ascertain the utility of building vessels of so cheap and indestructible material."All of the vessel's hull and engines were made and assembled at the Stackhouse and Tomlinson Iron Works in Pittsburgh, far from blue water. After making sure all the parts fit, the hull was disassembled and shipped overland to Erie, Pennsylvania, and then re-erected on the ways. The new ship was christened Michigan, and she was launched on 4 December 1863. The ship was propelled by a set of paddle wheels, 21 feet in diameter. The paddle wheel houses were decorated with a large carving of an eagle and shield. The engine had two cylinders, both of which had a 36 inch bore and eight foot stroke. Two boilers consumed the ship's 120 tons of coal to obtain 330 horsepower. The ship also carried three masts and was rigged as a barkentine for open lake sailing. On trials, under engine alone, the ship made ten and a half statute miles an hour. A full crew consisted of 106 officers and men. As originally designed, the ship could have carried bow and stern pivot guns and twelve broadside guns. The tensions with Canada having eased by her launching, she was restricted by treaty to one 18 pounder cannon, which was placed on her forward pivot. During the Civil War however, the treaty was politely disregarded and she was equipped with a 30 pounder Parrot Rifle, five 20 pounder Parrot Rifles, six 24 pounder smoothbores, and two 12 pounder boat howitzers.
She would never fire a shot in anger, but she was rammed by pirates on Lake Huron, became embroiled in the assassination of a Mormon leader, and ultimately arrested the Irishmen that had tried to take over Canada to hold it hostage for their native land. But for the most part, she was involved in surveys and assisting vessels in distress. With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the Michigan's duties increased. She would become an important logistics link, ferrying would be sailors from east coast ports between Buffalo and western Lake Erie ports where they boarded trains for Cairo, Illinois, and the fleet on the Mississippi River. She also spent time at anchor, guarding the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island. Two attempts were made by the Confederates to capture this vessel and reek havoc on the midwestern states. One was successful in capturing to US Merchant Ships in Canada. Neither group would gain the decks of the Michigan however, and she remained untested in combat.
In 1905 she was renamed Wolverine, to free her original name for a new battleship. In 1909, when she was taken on trials she was still able to obtain ten miles an hour. At the age of seventy, she was given the honor of towing the original U.S.S. Niagara, which had been raised and rebuilt, on a great lakes tour. In August of 1923, while on a cruise with the Pennsylvania Naval Militia, a connecting rod broke, ending her active career. Her second name, Wolverine, was given to the large side-wheeler Seeandbee when she became a training aircraft carrier in 1942. A unique ship herself, the second Wolverine was one of two coal fired side wheel aircraft carriers in history, and sailed the coast of Illinois as a landing trainer for pilots from Glenview Naval Air Station. After the World War II, this ship was declared surplus and scraped.
Dedicated supporters saved the original Michigan from wartime scrap drives, but, after several failed attempts to obtain funds for her restoration she was scrapped in 1949. Her prow was given to the city of Erie and was set in concrete and is on display.