A Lake Superior Lifesaver Reminisces – Summer 1968

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Dr. Julius F. Wolfe, Jr.

John F. Soldenski

From the picture window of his trim home overlooking Bengal Lake, southwest of Hibbing, Minnesota, on the famous Mesabi Iron Range, John F. Soldenski still watches rolling waters fleeing before a gusty northwestern. Perhaps this view stirs old memories, since for 33 years he lived with turbulent Lake Superior and Lake Huron at his very front door. Now in his seventies, John Soldenski is one of the few men still living in the Lake Superior country who once plied an oar from a surfboat seat or plodded those dreary, sandy miles on the lifesaving beats between the isolated stations of the U.S. Life-Saving Service stretching from Whitefish Point to Grand Marais, Michigan. For eight years, 1912-1920, with time out for U.S. Navy service, he was one of that valiant band of men patrolling Michigan’s “shipwreck coast” on eastern Lake Superior. Then came an opportunity for transfer to the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and for an additional 25 years he served in remote, wild outposts which warn Great Lakes mariners, including extensive tours of Lake Superior duty at Rock of Ages Light, Isle Royale; and Huron Island Light off Michigan’s Huron Mountains in the Upper Peninsula; as well as at Thunder Bay Island Light, Lake Huron.

I encountered Mr. Soldenski quite by accident. Having studied Lake Superior shipwrecks for a number of years as a research project of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, I had made several beachcombing trips along the Michigan coast. The last two years, in company with Boy Scouts Bruce and Tom Schoenberg of Duluth, I had undertaken camping and photographic expeditions in this “shipwreck country.” Stories of our work had been carried in Lake Superior area newspapers, while our pictures have been presented often over local television programs.

Learning of the study through these channels, Mr. Soldenski had written to the University, and we enthusiastically made his acquaintance.

As we exhibited our colored slides of the Michigan shore west of Whitefish Point to Mr. and Mrs. Soldenski, one afternoon at Christmas-time, 1967, we enjoyed the experience of peering through a veritable window into the past of a half-century ago, for this was the very area that Mr. Soldenski had patrolled when a young surfman back in 1912. What fascinating anecdotes he could tell! As a broad-shouldered, six- foot, eighteen-year-old living in Grand Marais, Michigan, he had followed the adventure trail by applying to the U.S. Life-Saving Service for employment. The pay of a surfman in those days was comparable to that for sawmill or woods work. Over the next eight years (aside from World War I) his assignments took him to the following stations scattered roughly ten or a dozen miles apart westward from Whitefish Point: Vermilion Point, Crisps Point, Two Hearted River, Deer Park, and Grand Marais itself. Grand Marais was civilization – a village of some hundreds of persons, with docks and sawmills, connected to the outside world by a railroad. But the other spots represented the epitome of isolation, with access by oars in a small boat (very uncertain on Lake Superior), or by foot. Vermilion Point was the “Alcatraz” of the Life-Saving Service, as it was a 40-mile hike one way from Grand Marais. Yet, homesickness overcomes hardship, and Mr. Soldenski recalled that several times he had made the 80-mile, round trip on foot during a three-day pass, just to be at home for a few hours.

Life was rigorous at these wilderness stations. The buildings were standard, similar to those remaining at Deer Park. The headquarters housed the keeper’s family, an office, and some equipment. Smaller cabins often accommodated married crewmen (at least the No. 1 surfman, or assistant keeper), but the unmarried surf men resided in the loft, a combination living room and bunkhouse comprising the second story of the boathouse. As he examined our slide picture of the Deer Park boathouse, Mr. Soldenski noted that the outside stairway leading to the crew room had either fallen away or had been dismantled. For living quarters these were not bad, but as a fire precaution for the hallowed lifeboats stored below, cooking was not permitted therein. A special cook shack and mess cabin for the surfmen was provided a short distance away. This, he remembers, was often a shoddily-built affair, drafty and poorly insulated. In a cold spring or autumn, the only warm place was up the stovepipe.

However, there may have been some ulterior psychological motive in the Life-Saving Service’s skimping on cooking and eating accommodations — surfmen possibly wouldn’t eat too much (and get out of shape) nor waste valuable time talking over meals, if the surroundings were uncomfortable! Also, during the summer, spaces between cook shack boards offered an open invitation to the myriads of mosquitoes and black flies; these likewise made meals short. (One might add that a Minnesota Scout-master and two Boy Scouts experienced the veritable “black fog” of Michigan bugs during the beachcombing trip of July 1967. Hence, we could appreciate Mr. Soldenski’s mention of hurried summer meals in the cook shack “cage.”)

Most duty days had a definite routine. There were the daily foot patrols along the beach on a 24-hour basis, with each station’s surfmen going approximately halfway to the next station for a rendezvous with the patrol coming from the opposite direction. This meant a hike of ten or twelve miles per watch. Telephones had been installed in shelter huts behind the beach for the check-in at the meeting points. (One of these was still intact several miles west of Deer Park in July 1967, with the names of Coast Guardsmen scrawled on the walls, and dates from the early 1920’s.)

When the surf was rolling, then came the rugged surfboat drills. With an open water sweep of 150 miles, northerly winds pile up enormous waves, meeting in triple and quadruple banks of breakers all along the Michigan coast west of Whitefish Point.    Since these were the winds that caused shipwrecks, lifesavers had to be prepared to put out in any sea.

Hence came long and arduous hours of boat launching, backbreaking rowing through boiling surf, and harrowing breasting of deeper water waves, either with oar power or by motor. This was rigorous work, leaving the oarsmen first perspiring, then chilling. The return to shore was even more exacting, as a following sea could easily dump a surfboat, flipping it stern over bow. Mr. Soldenski remarked how the keeper of each boat crew, riding in the stern, trained himself in the use of the drogue, the dragging instrument that held the stern down, as the surfboat carved its way shoreward through the breakers. Even then, life-savers often received an icy bath in practice sessions. Anticipating capsizes, lifesaving boat captains meticulously trained their men in proper procedure for abandoning an upsetting lifeboat. The men were taught to avoid jumping feet first into the shallow breakers, since by so doing they often struck bottom with sufficient force to throw off their cork life preservers over their heads. Early life vests apparently had no leg straps, only chest wrappings and a lifesaver who lost his life jacket in a breakers upset could easily lose his life. Mr. Soldenski commented that this was one lesson he learned well and never forgot. (Our scout party could appreciate the chill of an unexpected dunking in Lake Superior; our beachcombing hikes in the hot July sun were punctuated by periodic dips in the Lake. Only a few minutes in those numbing waters would send us running to the hot sand with skins of blue! No wonder that life-jacketed, shipwrecked sailors floating in the Lake could live only a few hours at best.)

Several times, as we exhibited slides of our artifactual discoveries, Mr. Soldenski clarified the details. A few miles east of Deer Park the Schoenberg brothers found an intact 12-foot dory protruding from the sand, a good 75 yards from the present water’s edge. The little craft, obviously very old but in a remarkable state of preservation, had been repainted repeatedly with a battleship gray marine paint. Possessing a shipwreck hunter’s imagination, I had hopefully identified this as a ship’s dinghy, possibly from the ill-fated lumber hooker Adella Shores that had disappeared with all hands in the Spring of 1909. She had the same paint job, the records say. But Mr. Soldenski pricked my balloon of fantasy.

He recounted how an old keeper, John Anderson, then at the Two Hearted River station, was a small boat builder. A State of Mainer before his migration to the Lake Superior country, Captain Anderson in his spare time constructed many of these dories (a skill he had learned on the Atlantic coast) for sale to lifesaving crewmen all along the shore, or to fishermen and Grand Marais villagers. Mr. Soldenski identified our find as Keeper Anderson’s handiwork, not a memento of a long lost ship.

ZACH CHANDLER in distress

About three miles east of Deer Park, Bruce and Tom also dug from the sand a five-foot block of oak, two feet thick, in which were recessed two ten-inch copper pulleys. This weighed well over a hundred pounds. This time Mr. Soldenski identified a sail or winch chock from a wooden ship. Since the position of this discovery was approximately the site of the stranding and breakup of the lumber schooner Zach Chandler, October 29, 1892, it is probable that we had uncovered a definite shipwreck relic here.

At one spot east of Deer Park, where the beach sand became unduly soft and the walking difficult, the Schoenberg brothers had climbed the 60-foot sand bank south of the Lake. At the top, they discovered a well- worn trail paralleling the Lake on the edge of a beautiful red pine forest. They called to me, and I joined them. Here was a spectacular view, a commanding sweep over Lake Superior. Immediately, I surmised that this was a lifesaver’s trail which gave better visibility on days of rough surf, or when low surface fog clung to the Lake. And this young forest fascinated me, splendid red pines approximately fifty years old, a much finer forest than most of the second growth adjoining. Having some forester’s training, I observed that the growth began narrowly near the Lake and expanded broadly to the south. Since a natural forest of this type is often a product of a past forest fire, I wondered what could have started the fire which made possible the growth of these young red pines on Michigan’s desolate littoral with no human habitation at hand. (Man is the worst fire bug.) Lightning was my only deduction. Then we mentioned this forest to Mr. Soldenski.

“Boys,” he smiled wryly, “I am the reason for that forest.” Then he recounted how, on a dry summer day, with a strong northerly wind, during the early World War I period, he had been on beach patrol. To avoid poor footing and blowing sand, he had followed the ridge trail. He was smoking a pipe. Coming to fallen trees across the trail, he decided to take the lakeside route. Jumping from the ridge, he skidded in sand down the bank and returned to the beach for the trip back to the station.

To his consternation the next patrolman over this beat reported a forest fire. Soldenski and several lifesavers returned to the fire scene. Tracking himself in the soft sand of the bank, he discovered that the fire started on the edge of the woods just where he had been. Yet, he was sure that he had dropped no match nor his pipe. Suddenly, the truth dawned on him, When he had jumped off the bank top, a gust of wind had whipped some of the embers from his pipe into the second growth scrub forest, and within minutes after he had passed, a forest fire was rolling! Trained as a Michigan woodsman, Mr. Soldenski recalled how sheepish he felt about causing a forest fire. He was glad to know that natural reforestation had done so well.

At one point, the former lifesaver stopped my slide discussion of the beach east of Deer Park and asked Bruce and me if “the grave” was still there. Perplexed, we asked “What grave? “Then he related that east of Deer Park, near the half-way point to Two Hearted River, was a little forest-covered ridge jutting into the beach sands, and on this high ground was a small wooden cross marking the grave of a drowned sailor known to lifesavers only as “Sailor Jack.” The beach patrolmen would customarily pay their respects to this unknown victim of Lake Superior. At one time, lifesavers rather frequently had to bury unidentified bodies cast up on this shore. Mr. Soldenski could only guess at the ship from which the anonymous dead man came. Possibly the unfortunate seaman had been a crewman of either the steamer Adella Shores or the schooner George Nester, both lost to the northwest in 1909. He may have been a crewman from the brand new steamer Cyprus which capsized off Deer Park in October 1907. He might have been among the 26 who went down off the Huron Islands in 1905 with the steamer Iosco and barge Olive Jeanette. Conceivably he could have been  Bannockburn crew-man when that vessel disappeared north of Grand Marais in November 1902 or he may have been aboard the ill-fated schooner Nelson that foundered off Grand Marais in 1899. There are so many possibilities, as the waters to the northwest claimed victim after victim prior to World War I.

As we showed pictures of the Two Hearted River station site, now marked only by remains of foundations, sidewalks, and a scattering of ornamental willows or poplars, Mr. Soldenski asked if “the cemetery” was still there. Again, our reaction was “What cemetery?” We hate to miss significant landmarks, but here we had overlooked something. Southeast of the old station, he recollected, on a hill overlooking the river, was a cemetery for those who had died here. I had been unaware of any fatalities in line of duty at these Michigan stations, but it just hadn’t occurred to me what a serious risk disease would be in such a spot, as timely medical help was not available. Buried in the Two Hearted River cemetery were Surfman Ben Grame, Mrs. Albert Ocha, wife of Captain Albert Ocha, hero of the Wallace rescue at Marquette in November 1886, and several of the Ocha children. A contagious disease, such as diphtheria, was a dreadful curse to children in such an out-of- the-way place as this.

Mr. Soldenski thought that the ruins of the abandoned station at Two Hearted River were not in the same position as he remembers the buildings. This is possible, as several times the tremendous surge of Lake Superior storms drove raging waters over lifesaving stations initially constructed too close to the water’s edge, and forced reconstruction some distance to the south on higher ground. It was his recollection that the Crisps Point station had to be moved three times, with the last installation adjoining the lighthouse placed on top of the bluff south of the Lake.

Naturally, the discussion eventually got around to shipwrecks. Several unfortunate accidents had occurred during the years Mr. Soldenski was patrolling the beaches. He could throw no light on the Henry B. Smith disappearance in the Great Storm of 1913, This 525-foot, ore-laden steel steamer figuratively sailed from Marquette into oblivion, along with her 25-man crew.1 He was very familiar with the lumber hooker disaster, when the Hines Company’s wooden steamer C. F. Curtis and her barges A. M. Peterson and S. E. Marvin foundered or stranded off Grand Marais, costing 28 lives.2 The doomed trio had left Baraga, Michigan, November 18, 1914, encountering a vicious northwesterly snowstorm. All day long on November 19, lifesavers at Grand Marais could hear the steamer whistling for the harbor, but the howling gale drowned out the return sound of the Grand Marais fog horn. Mr. Soldenski believes that the driving waves finally forced the steamer and her barges into shallow water off the point east of Grand Marais where they quickly broke up. Many bodies and much wreckage were found between Grand Marais and Deer Park, and two men actually reached shore alive, probably by ship’s lifeboat, one to die of exposure on the sand ridge south of the Lake a few miles east of Grand Marais, and the other to drown on the east edge of Grand Marais harbor when, blinded by the snow, he missed the trail to the town.

It is possible that the schooner Marvin sank much farther to the east. As far as is known, the hulk of the Curtis and Peterson never were found.

Our retired lifesaver remembers November of 1919 as the busiest for his stretch of Lake. On November 13, the composite steamer John H. Owen disappeared some sixty miles to the northwest with 22 men.3 Despite wild rumors to the contrary, the beach patrol found no bodies then. (The Schoenberg brothers, in July 1967, discovered, several miles west of Deer Park, the rotting remains of an ancient lifering partially buried in the sand with faintly stenciled letters “— W E N.” This could be a relic of that sinking.) Then, on November 14, the wooden coal carrier H. E. Runnels missed the piers at Grand Marais, grounding outside and going to pieces just north of the Coast Guard Station.4  The crew was rescued by Coast Guardsmen through dexterous use of the Lyle gun and lines to guide a surfboat back and forth from the beach to the stricken ship.    Mr. Soldenski commented that, with the Grand Marais keeper confined to bed, Captain John Anderson, a passenger on the visiting Coast Guard Subchaser No. 438 out of Chicago, took command and guided the surfboat, although the success of the operation also was due to the ingenuity of local Coast Guardsmen and civilians stationed at Grand Marais. Keeper Anderson, eight Coast Guardsmen, and four Grand Marais civilians were awarded the Treasury Department Gold Life-Saving Medal on June 3, 1920, for their work on the Runnels.

Surfman Soldenski’s greatest disappointment came one week later, November 22, 1919, when he was a crewman at Vermilion Point. Late in the day the lookout there reported a lumber hooker and her barge, obviously in distress, coming down from the west, being escorted by a large steel steamer. A tremendous northwesterly storm was blowing, and the temperature well below freezing. The Vermilion boat crew managed to launch, but in the meantime the steamer Myron, having dropped the barge Miztec, was swept to the east, followed closely by the large ore carrier Adriatic. Desperately the lifeboat attempted to catch the foundering vessel in the growing darkness, yet, as the lifesaving craft came within sight, the sinking carrier suddenly dove for the bottom, about a mile and a half northwest of Whitefish Point, covering the lake surface with thrashing timbers from her cargo.5   The lifesavers saw the steel vessel veer into the sinking site, as if to attempt a rescue, then hurriedly steer north for deep water. They could only surmise that rescue had failed when the large ship remained at the scene, What they did not know was that freezing  Myron crewmen, huddled in the ship’s lifeboats or perched on bobbing wreckage, were too numb to catch lines thrown from the Adriatic, while the waters had become too shallow for the safety of the latter. Later, lifesavers saw another passing steel freighter, the H. P. McIntosh, attempt the same maneuver, but unsuccessfully. Fearing the worst, but hoping that some sailors from the wreck might have floated around Whitefish Point, the skipper of the Vermilion lifeboat skirted the mass of death-dealing debris and took the craft well down into Whitefish Bay in search of possible survivors, but none could be found. The next day the steamer W. C. Franz rescued half-dead Captain Walter R. Neale of the Myron, lying on top of the Myron’s pilothouse which had floated southeasterly 20 miles, near Parisienne Island. Captain Neale had remained with his ship, rather than take to the boats, as the vessel sank. The pilothouse blew off when the ship foundered, with Captain Neale in it. Climbing on top of the submerged cabin, he miraculously avoided death from freezing. All 16 sailors who abandoned ship died that frigid night in the tossing waters off Whitefish Point, their frozen bodies being recovered well down into Whitefish Bay some days later. The lifesavers’ strategy had been correct, but in the gale and darkness they could not locate the victims. The exhausted crewmen finally pulled their lifeboat into the lee of Whitefish Point and obtained shelter. They had done their best, but rescue was just not in the cards.

Rock Of Ages Lighthouse


In later years Mr. Soldenski unexpectedly figured in the greatest mass rescue ever accomplished on Lake Superior, He was keeper of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, on the reef approximately four miles off the southwest coast of Isle Royale. On May 27, 1933, when looking from the light southeastward over a low-hanging fog, he witnessed a most shaking sight. Out of the mists over a surface fog appeared the masts of a large steamship which came racing at high speed directly for dreaded Rock of Ages reef. Desperately, he sounded the lighthouse fog signal, but the ship kept right on coming. Then came the nerve-shattering crash of steel scraping over rocks! Distress whistles rent the fog, and the sound of the ship’s engines had ceased. Jumping into the lighthouse powerboat, he made for the spot. There, to his horror, he spied the badly listing steel steamer George M. Cox astride the reef with 110 feet of her bow out of water.6 Passengers and crew were rapidly abandoning ship via the port-side lifeboats. Mr. Soldenski guided the ship’s boats with 125 survivors to the safety of Rock of Ages Light. One hundred and twenty-five persons were crowded for a day into the eleven-story lighthouse where they were secure, yet uncomfortable. After a busy time with the radio, Soldenski brought the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Crawford to the rescue the following morning. Also, he induced a passing ship to take three badly injured survivors to a hospital in Port Arthur-Fort William. Lighthouse keeper Soldenski considered these his most anxious moments. The distraught passengers and crew of the Cox, on a pleasure cruise to the Canadian Lakehead, were a sorry, motley group. When he found several of them smoking cigarettes over the gas barrels down in the generator room, he was required to use forceful language! After an anguished day and night, the lighthouse keeper gratefully witnessed the arrival of the Crawford, which dexterously maneuvered right into the lighthouse dock and took off all the castaways. And the lighthouse was still intact!

Since our concern was with Lake Superior shipwrecks, time did not permit our discussing Mr. Soldenski’s experiences on Lake Huron. His hospitable wife (who makes delicious Christmas cookies and fruit cake) contributed several observations on vigils with her husband. She did not particularly enjoy Thunder Bay Island, Lake Huron, as that site was infested with hundreds of garter snakes. Also, the Huron Islands of Lake Superior, though fine for blueberries, had wood ticks by the tens of thousands. She, too, had many years of a courageous, isolated existence with her husband guarding the Great Lakes waterways.

Our visit with John F. Soldenski was entirely too short. With Scouts Bruce and Tom Schoenberg, I have hopes of another visit before we undertake our next beachcombing stint in the shipwreck country of Lake Superior.

  1. Marquette Daily Mining Journal, Nov. 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 1913; May 7, 20, 1914; June 4, 6, 1914.
  2. Marquette Daily Mining Journal, Nov. 21, 23, 24, 28, 30, 1914; Dec. 2, 3, 8, and 18, 1914.
  3. Marquette Daily Mining Journal, Nov. 18, 1919; Duluth News-Tribune, Nov. 15, 16, 1919; Dana T. Bowen, Shipwrecks of the Lakes, Daytona Beach, Fla. 1952, pp. 264-269.
  4. Duluth News-Tribune, Nov. 15, 1919; Annual Report of the U.S. Coast Guard, 1920, pp. 17-19, 65, 195; Bowen, op. cit., pp. 269-274.
  5. Marquette Daily Mining Journal, Nov. 24, 25, 1919; Dec. 2, 3, 4, 1919; Duluth News-Tribune, Nov. 24, 1919; Bowen, op. cit., pp. 274-284.
  6. Bowen, op. cit., pp. 308-312.

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About the Author: Dr. Julius F. Wolff, Jr., is Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Duluth. For the last ten years he has been occupied in a part- time research project for the Graduate School, University of Minnesota, on the history of Lake Superior shipping accidents. Over 1,300 shipping mishaps since 1822 have been verified, and Dr. Wolff now is compiling the story of each incident. He has written several articles for INLAND SEAS and other historical journals.

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