Success aground at Sandusky, Ohio
Laid down in 1840 in Burma as an East Indiaman, the Success carried trade from Southeast Asia to England. Within a few short years, she was transporting settlers to Australia’s Swan River. But in 1852, the Success’ crew, overtaken by gold fever, abandoned her at Melbourne. The Victorian government soon purchased the 137-foot vessel along with four other hulks to confine its burgeoning “criminal” population.
Moored off Williamstown, the Success was fitted out with cells to hold its cargo of prisoners. Over the next years, tragedy and terror stalked her decks - first with prisoners and then with women and boys held in government detention. In 1885, when the Australian government deemed the “felon fleet” inhumane, the ships were ordered broken up. Somehow the Success escaped the fate of the others. Alexander Phillips acquired her and converted the hulk into a floating museum, featuring all the horrors of Australian prison life. Despite his efforts, Phillips’ venture was less than successful.
Purchased by a syndicate, the Success sailed to England in 1895. She toured ports throughout the British Isles, where curious visitors flocked to the ship to see her cells, torture chambers, and wax figures. In 1912 the Success crossed the Atlantic once more. This time she sailed for America, where huge crowds met her at every port-of-call.
Fact and fiction merged as her devoted crew of showmen thrilled visitors with horror stories and tours of ghoulish exhibits. Eventually, truth gave way to myth and she became erroneously known as the “Convict Ship” that had transported convicts from England to Australia.
In 1915, the Success sailed south, passing through the Panama Canal to take part in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition. Indeed, the old ship lived up to her name; her tour of the West Coast was an unqualified “success!” Under new ownership, she returned to the Panama Canal and toured ports in the Gulf region, the East Coast, and along the Mississippi.
In 1923 she made her first tour of Great Lakes ports where thousands packed the old vessel at Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. After sailing the Great Lakes for nearly a decade, the Success found a permanent home in Cleveland.
Neglected, more than a century old, and no longer seaworthy, the Success was towed from Cleveland to Sandusky through the efforts of Harry Van Stack. A South African native, Van Stack had hired on in 1925 as a lecturer. Following a heavy storm, she settled on the bottom alongside her moorings. In 1945, her final owner towed the Success to Port Clinton, where she grounded in 16 feet of water a half-mile off shore. Fall storms and ice took their toll until only her teak timbers could be salvaged.