She was invariably described as “diminutive” because of her 92-foot length.
But the Omar D. Conger, a Port Huron-to-Sarnia passenger ferry, made a sensational exit nevertheless after 40 years of service on the St. Clair River
Launched in 1882, the ship seemed plagued by trouble early. Operating under the Port Huron & Sarnia Ferry Co. banner, she got stuck in river ice in January of 1893. The passengers were forced to disembark and make their way across the ice field to safety.
In June of 1901, she was struck by fire at her Black River dock in Port Huron. Rebuilt the following year, the 800-passenger ship went back into service, making daily trips between Black River and Sarnia’s Ferry Dock Hill.
On the Sunday afternoon of March 26, 1922, the Omar D. Conger was 40 minutes from departure to Sarnia.
Four members of the crew were below deck: engineer Ransome Campbell, fireman Clifford Althouse and deckhands Thomas Buckner and Kenneth Crandall. Some of them were working on the ship’s boiler.
Two other crewmembers had been delayed, and their tardiness saved their lives.
The steamer Cheboygan, with 200 passengers aboard, was approaching the Omar D. Conger and preparing to dock alongside her. The Conger’s boiler fires were lit, but water levels were dangerously low. When one of the crew opened a valve and allowed cold water to rush into the overheated boiler the result was sudden, tragic and spectacular.
A blast shook the entire waterfront and blew the ferry to smithereens. Massive chunks of boiler, deck plate and engine rocketed into the air. The powerful concussion shattered windows all across the dock area and knocked people to the ground.
Captain William Major was walking past the Falk Undertaking Parlor to the dock when his ship sank in the Black River. He watched as a 200-pound radiator sailed through the air and crashed through the funeral parlour’s roof, terrifying the mourners inside.
Another massive piece of debris tore into a neighbourhood house, which caught fire and burned to the ground.
Dozens of buildings were damaged, as was the ferry Hiawatha, which was docked near the debris and dust cloud that had once been the Omar D. Conger.
Though named in honour of a Michigan senator, it was the catastrophic ending for which she is remembered today.