Collision Off the Pierhead – Spring 1964

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

By Julius F. Wolff, Jr. 

In its long existence of over a century the Duluth-Superior harbor has seen its share of shipping accidents. Storms, fog, obstructions, and fire have taken their toll along the waterfront. Yet, one of the most spectacular mishaps, in some respects the most tragic of all, in that it was preventable, occurred under the most ideal sailing conditions obtainable in western Lake Superior. This was the unfortunate collision of the wooden coal-carrier Geo. G. Hadley and the steel whaleback Thomas Wilson on that warm, sunlit Saturday in late Spring, June 7, 1902.


The Wilson-Hadley collision story reads like an account of a modern highway crash. Too frequently newspapers relate how, on a long, straight stretch of road, with the weather clear and visibility unlimited, two automobiles strike head-on, when one driver inadvertently attempts to turn across the on-coming traffic lane. The Wilson-Hadley tale is the same. Two substantial ships are about to pass, and the skipper of one orders a turn to port, cutting directly into the path of the approaching vessel. They smash together, and one sinks immediately with a loss of nine lives. These are the bare bones of this lake saga. A study of this accident, how- ever, discloses a great deal of fascinating detail on a Great Lakes sailing tragedy of 61 years ago.1


That first Saturday of June, 1902, was the type of weather heat starved Duluthians had been awaiting, a clear sky, warm sun, and sparkling Lake Superior in virtually a dead calm. Many Duluth citizens dallied along the lakeshore in rowboats, just outside the ship canal. For the benefit of those readers unfamiliar with Duluth, one might note that the Duluth harbor lies behind a nine-mile sandbar known as Minnesota-Wisconsin Point, stretching from one state to the other at the western extremity of Lake Superior.  Through this bar two ship canals have been punched, one at the north end, serving Duluth, and another about six miles to the south, affording entry to Superior. Our story concerns the north canal. At approximately 10:30 A.M. two lake ships sighted each other, the whaleback Wilson outbound through the piers of the Duluth canal and the inbound wooden bulk steamer Geo. G. Hadley, then approximately two miles outside. The courses of the two were set so that they would safely pass. The two vessels were moderate in size for that day, the Hadley of 2,073 gross tons, 288’ x 40’ x 22’, laden with 2,900 tons of coal, and the Wilson, 1,713 gross tons, 308’ x 38’ x 24’, loaded with 3,256 tons of iron ore.2

As the two ships bore down on each other, the tug Annie L. Smith, hovering outside the canal, was seen to pull up to the       Hadley, and Captain Jacques of the Smith was heard to megaphone a message to Captain Mike Fitzgerald of the Hadley, now standing at the starboard rail of the pilothouse deck. The tug captain instructed Captain Fitzgerald to take the Hadley to Superior for unloading, as the Duluth coal docks were full. Sending messages by tug was the conventional method of greeting incoming ships, long before the days of radio and radiotelephone. The Hadley was now a scant mile from the ship canal, and the Superior entry was a half-dozen miles to the south. Also, sand shoals extend off Minnesota-Wisconsin Point. The Hadley would have to turn fast. Apparently oblivious to the oncoming Wilson (the pilothouse may have screened the Wilson from his view), Captain Fitzgerald ordered a hard turn to port. Captain M.C. Cameron of the outbound Wilson, when he saw the Hadley alter course less than a quarter-mile ahead, realized a crash was imminent unless he did something. If he turned to port, he might avoid the Hadley, but, if the Hadley should change course again and he had turned to port, he would be a sitting duck. Therefore, Captain Cameron ordered a sharp starboard turn as an evasion maneuver. Yet, the turning arcs of the two vessels intersected, and at 10:40 A.M. the Hadley struck the Wilson a glancing, yet crushing blow on the port side forward of the aft hatch, cutting well through the hull of the whaleback.


The Wilson rolled sharply over to starboard, then reeled wildly back to port, levelled off and began settling at the head. Captain Cameron called his crew to the deck, and apparently all got topside. Meanwhile, the Hadley recoiled from the impact, dead in the water, slightly to the stern of the Wilson. Cameron hailed the Hadley for help, then directed those aboard the Wilson who were desperately trying to launch the boats and liferaft, to grab on to anything that might save them. But there was no time. Within three minutes from the time of the crash, the Wilson threw her stern high into the air and dove for the bottom in ten fathoms of water, with her propeller still spinning, her boilers exploding as she went, throwing up a great column of steam and foam. A number of Wilson crewmen leaped from the plunging ship, the boiler explosion blew several others off the stern, but some were sucked down as the vessel sank, at least one being drawn into the spinning propeller.  Wilson crewmen swam or hung on to anything that would float. Mate Dave Beggs of the Hadley led her crew in tossing life preservers to the men in the water and assisting them aboard. Meanwhile, the tug Annie L. Smith raced to the scene and began picking up survivors. In a few minutes eleven benumbed, exhausted men had been dragged from frigid Lake Superior aboard the tug and the Hadley.

GEO. G. HADLEY, on the bottom of Lake Superior

Satisfied that no more survivors were in the vicinity, Captain Fitzgerald himself took the wheel and tried to nurse the badly damaged Hadley toward Superior. But almost immediately he realized she was mortally wounded, down at the head, and was in danger of sinking momentarily. Accordingly, he ran for the beach of Minnesota Point, just south of the Duluth ship canal. Chief Engineer Hogan behaved valiantly. He stuck to his controls in the Hadley engine-room until the water was up to his waist. Then he climbed to the deck controls and kept the engines running until the foundering Hadley scraped a smooth, sand bottom in 25 feet of water, her forward deckhouses just above the level of the Lake. The survivors of both vessels were then quickly transferred to the tug Smith.

The lookout at the Duluth Life-Saving Station on Minnesota Point, Surfman Emerson, had witnessed the mishap from his tower and sounded the alarm. The Duluth surfmen responded with amazing speed, reaching the scene of the sinking in only 12 minutes, after launching their surfboat and rowing over a mile and a half. Seeing no survivors nor bodies, the lifesavers proceeded to row after the sinking Hadley, pulling alongside just as she touched bottom. They then aided in the removal of survivors. Whereafter, they immediately undertook an extensive but unsuccessful search for bodies.

Nine men of the Wilson were known to have drowned: two cooks, Aaron Tripp and Guy Fink; two oilers, James McDougall and James M. Fraser; two deckhands, John Carey and Thomas Jones; a fireman, William Roebuck; Wheelsman Joseph McGraw and Lookout John Campbell. Despite a persistent search, with divers ultimately examining the sunken hull, no bodies were ever recovered. Strangely enough, all the licensed officers managed to save themselves. Captain M. C. Cameron suffered the grotesque experience of being dragged under by the doomed Wilson, then colliding with another submerged crewman, and fighting his way to the surface where he clung to a piece of wreckage. Captain Cameron credited the boiler explosion with saving his life. He was on the stern, trying to free a liferaft, when the

Canoe by the flag pole and light above water of the THOMAS WILSON

boilers let go and blew him some distance from the hull. He was still sucked under but managed to escape the worst of the vortex and swim to the top.3

Naturally, the property loss was substantial. The Wilson, owned by the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, was a relatively new ship, built in Superior, Wisconsin, in 1892, worth about $200,000,00, with her cargo valued in excess of $7,000.00. The Hadley damages totaled $34,000.00, heavy for a wooden ship refloated, with wrecking costs alone of $14,000.00. Needless to say, a legal battle was begun at once. The Hadley owner, W. P. Rend of Chicago, immediately appeared with his lawyer, as did lawyers for the Pittsburgh Steamship Company from Cleveland. After lengthy litigation, the Hadley was adjudged at fault, a judgment in November, 1903, assessing damages of $23,998.00 (apparently her whole undamaged value after the accident) against her owners.4 In fact, any salvage of the Hadley was indeed fortunate, since a few days after the accident, Lake Superior kicked up its heels and stayed rough for the next two weeks. A snowstorm actually blew on the open Lake. It was not until June 22, over two weeks after the crash, that the Hadley was floated and brought to a shipyard in Superior, being finally repaired at Milwaukee. She did not return to service until August 17, 1902.

A more pathetic note involved Captain Mike Fitzgerald of the Hadley. He had been a lake captain for 40 years without a serious accident, and now, at age seventy-three, this had to happen. The old skipper was grief stricken, almost in shock. On Sunday morning, the day after the wreck, he insisted on being rowed out to the pilothouse of the Hadley, which was well above water, and there he stayed, all alone, for several days before he could be induced to leave. The U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service struck another blow at the unfortunate captain. Inspectors John Monaghan and Michael F. Chalk of the Duluth office held hearings in the week after the collision and adjudged Captain Fitzgerald responsible for the collision, revoking his master’s license. The Inspectors also suspended Captain Cameron of the Wilson for 60 days, charging that he had not done all possible to prevent the crash — he had not reduced speed nor had he sounded warning signals. Two months later, after appeal, the sentence was modified, Captain Cameron was reinstated, and Captain Fitzgerald was permitted to reapply for his master’s papers.5

Speculation was rife as to the possibility of salvaging the Wilson. The U.S. Engineers located the wreck just 1,500 yards off the end of the Duluth ship canal, 340 yards south of the axis of the canal. Her mast, with flag flying, cleared the water for a few days before going over, indicating the ship was lying on even keel. Soundings over the Wilson showed ten feet of water over the stack, 27 feet over the pilothouse, 31 feet over the cabin deck and 48 feet over the hull deck. The Engineers buoyed her. Due to inclement weather it was two weeks before divers were able to work on the Wilson. They could find no bodies in her or around her. Ominously, they reported her broken in two, with hatch covers gone. Her owners, therefore, decided to abandon her, after having divers dynamite the pilothouse and the stack as menaces to navigation. There was still talk of salvage, however, and in August, 1902, the Wieland brothers of Duluth purchased the Wilson where she lay for $10,000.00. This was a bad investment. By November, 1903, after additional expenditures, the Wielands suspended their efforts. The Wilson was never raised. In 1939 plans for salvage were again undertaken, with the Captain Horace Thompson family of divers from Duluth, a father, son, granddaughter combination, making the examination. Nothing came of this move. The last extensive examination came in March, 1962, with a group of Port Arthur, Ontario, divers making a highly publicized investigation through the ice. By the end of 1962, nothing more had come of this.

The Thomas Wilson, accordingly, though lying less than a mile from the Duluth pierhead, still rests on the bottom of Lake Superior. There are good reasons why she was never raised. First, she is in a highly exposed position, and salvers would need a prolonged period of calm weather, a condition rather problematical on Lake Superior. Second, during the shipping season, silt churned up by the currents of passing vessels (the near vessel lane is less than four hundred yards away) beclouds a broad area off the pierhead, reducing underwater visibility to virtually zero. Third, and this is probably the major reason, the whaleback for practical purposes was obsolete by the time of the sinking, having been superseded by more capacious lake bulk carriers. She was no longer worth the substantial cost of salvage and repair — for she is both broken in two and mangled internally by the boiler explosion. So there she lies in only 70 feet of water. In recent years skindivers have had great sport playing with the hulk. Some have emerged with various trophies; the Wilson’s aft steering wheel, a brass affair, is now a mantlepiece decoration in a Duluth skindiver’s home. Perhaps some day she may be salvaged, when both the price of scrap steel and the price of iron ore are sufficiently high. Until then, the whaleback Thomas Wilson remains the major located steel hulk on the floor of western Lake Superior.


  1. Extensive accounts of the Hadley-Wilson collision and ensuing events appeared in the Duluth News-Tribune, June 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 1902. The Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service, 1902, 36-38, also carries a detailed account of the happenings
  2. Harvey C. Beeson, Beeson’s Marine Directory, 1902, 51, 78.
  3. Duluth News-Tribune, June 8, 1902. Some differences in spelling of the names of the dead are evident in the newspapers as well as in the Life-Saving Service report.
  4. Duluth News-Tribune, 24, 1903.
  5. The decision of the steamboat inspectors was announced on June 12. Duluth News-Tribune, June 13, 20, August 14, 1902.

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About the Author: Dr. Julius F. Wolf, Jr., is Associate Professor of Political Science in the University of Minnesota (Duluth Branch). He has written other articles for INLAND SEAS and is presently compiling a history of Lake Superior shipwrecks as a research project for the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota.

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