Thursday, July 4th, 1946. It was a near-perfect day on Lake Erie, much like it is today. On this post-war holiday, vacationers filled the beaches and roads around Port Clinton, Ohio, the center of one of the midwest's premier vacation spots. The Convict Ship Success, which had been a local topic of conversation - and gossip - since being brought here the previous August, lay almost unnoticed offshore as the holiday revelers focused on swimming, picnics, fishing, and other activities. Holiday vehicle traffic was heavy.
Sometime in the late afternoon (no one knows exactly when), someone glanced out from shore and noticed a column of dark smoke rising up from somewhere near the center of the grounded ship. As more and more onlookers took notice, the beginnings of a fire took hold and began to lick at the dry wood and in a fairly short time the read third of the vessel was fully ablaze. Like moths to a flame, boat large and small were pulled to the scene and began circling. A number of people on shore who had boats rushed to them so they could witness the fire up close. Some grabbed still or movie cameras to document what was was happening. And not only boats: At least one airplane did a flyover to check out the scene.
On shore, meanwhile, traffic was jammed along nearby roads as motorists stopped to watch the blaze, finding any place they could to pull over. And what a show it was, as the conflagration gradually consumed the entire vessel. The heat was intense, fanned by a stiff evening breeze. As Port Clinton had no fire boats, no attempt was made to put out the blaze.
The fire continued on into the night. No one knows exactly how long it took but, before it ended, the famous old ship had burned to the waterline, nothing rising above the lake's surface more than a foot or so save for a blackened section of the middle mast.
The water was sprinkled with debris from the ship, which washed ashore for days afterward. Local residents, eager for a souvenir, scoured the beaches for anything they could find, and many a local garage, attic, or curio box still contains a charred piece of wood from the ship. It was well known that the ship had been built of teak, so even a small chunk of the prized wood was considered a lucky find. Many of these pieces were cut or carved into souvenirs. (I own a letter opener that someone had whittled from a piece of teak.)
After the fire there were many rumors circulating about the cause of the fire. There was no question that it had been arson. The only question was, who had done it? The most obvious theory was that it had been local youths acting on a dare or as a holiday prank. But others suggested a more sinister motive; that the ship's owner, Walter Kolbe, had had someone destroy the ship, supposedly because he was catching heat from the local coast guard. Some years ago I attempted to verify this but was informed by the coast guard that records from that era were no longer kept. So unless someone steps forward to reveal some personal knowledge of what happened that day, we will likely never know. I for one would like to have a conversation with that person.
Of course, it would be just between us.
(This article has been cross-posted from my sister blog: A Century at Sea.)