Recovery of the Steamer Humphrey – January 1945

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

By Jewell R. Dean

Raising of the wrecked freighter George M. Humphrey, the first 600-footer to sink in Great Lakes history, was accomplished in the late summer of 1944 by Capt. John Roen of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, in a salvage job that undoubtedly will become one of the achievements for telling and retelling by lake people.

The raising, declared impossible by one leading lakes salvager testifying in Federal court, was made to appear easy by the ingenious Capt. Roen who partially filled the ship’s ballast tanks with air, then lifted the buoyant craft with a small surface vessel and towed the two by stages to shallow   water.


The Humphrey, owned by the Kinsman Transit Co., Cleveland, and operated by G. M. and H. G. Steinbrenner, sank in 77 feet of water in the Straits of Mackinac one and a half miles northeast of Mackinaw City, Michigan, twenty minutes after being in a collision with the 600- foot D. M Clemson. The sinking took place on June 15,1943, in heavy fog. Insurance companies, after the owners had abandoned the wreck to them, in turn passed the vessel to the United States Engineers for removal as a navigation menace. The tip of the Humphrey’s masts ex­tended slightly above the water directly in the path which ferries follow across the straits in runs between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.

The War Department cleared claims on the wreck by fall and Capt. Roen took over the channel-clearing job with the million dollar ship (wartime value at the time of her sinking) as his prize -if he succeeded. Failure to succeed within a year would mean that the immigrant from Norway would have to demolish the Humphrey to a depth safe for navigation and lose financially all money expended in salvaging efforts.

Capt. Roen and his salvage crew began work on October 20th after fall storms were starting and seasonal winds varied the water levels of Lakes Huron and Michigan intensifying and shifting quickly the currents that prevail incessantly in the straits connecting the two giant bodies of water.

As weather permitted, divers removed hatch covers which remained in place and Capt. Roen’s barges Maitland and Industry, using cranes and clam shells, brought to the surface 8,000 of the 13,992 gross tons of iron ore which the Humphrey carried. Divers kept at the job of removing parts and equipment from the Humphrey and reporting the information which made possible an exact “blueprinting” of the wreck for study during the winter after operations shut down in December.

Work was resumed on May 9th and the salvager then had his plans fully completed. Removal of ore continued and divers began attaching 50 Roen-designed and built sheaves (blocks) on each gunwale bar of the Humphrey. A Roen-rigged steam hammer operated by a diver, 45 feet below the surface, speedily removed rivets in the gunwale bars and provided holes for attaching the sheaves through which cables from sheaves on the Maitland, lying on the surface, were to be interlaced to each side of the Humphrey’s main deck for the lift. The pulleys were to permit the cables to adjust themselves evenly during the lift. In addition to this web of cables on each side of the barge were other lines extending from her stem and stern to the sunken former flagship of the Kinsman Transit fleet. These were to hold the Maitland firmly in place above the Humphrey.

It was when he learned the tanks were air-tight that he became certain he would succeed in his salvage method, Capt. Roen stated. He rigged a manifold to handle the injection of air into the tanks from pumps aboard his surface craft. The pumping pressure and time required to fill each tank were carefully recorded for future operations. This tank-blowing operation, which included meticulous work by divers in attaching lines to valves in the sunken engine room, was one of the major steps in salvaging the ship.

Meanwhile the Straits bottom was swept and a circuitous route charted for moving the Humphrey shoreward. The route was free of obstructions, such as rock, and the bottom was of clay, sand and gravel which would not damage the big ship as she grounded at the end of each lift and tow.

The barges raised 3,000 more tons of ore from the Humphrey and the divers, now four in number, really went to work. Quick-sealing cement, lowered to them in bags, was plastered over seams wherever split to make the Humphrey’s water ballast tanks air tight.  Three hundred one and one-half inch rivets were removed in the gunwale bars and the sheaves attached.

Then the 15,000 feet of 7/8-inch lifting cable were interlaced in four segments to provide quick adjustment through the sheaves.

During the winter Capt. Roen and men at his topside shipyard had studied blueprints of both the Humphrey and Maitland and determined the precise location at which the barge should take over the ship to obtain an even lift. A model was constructed of part of the Humphrey and used in tests.


The working out of the plan proceeded. The Maitland took her place, the divers attached air lines and into the big ship’s tanks was pumped enough air to reduce the tonnage to be lifted from nearly 6,000 to 1,015. The Maitland filled her own ballast tanks fully with water and the cables from her sides to the Humphrey were made tight. The Maitland then pumped out ballast and her own lift was sufficient to ease the Humphrey from her year-old bed without use of an 80-foot steel tower and blower pipes which the salvager had constructed to help break the ship’s bottom loose from her bed of clay.

This first lift was made on August 7th and it was then that Capt. Roen was doubly assured that his gamble was going to succeed. Six similar lifts, the last on August 29th, were made and by that time the Humphrey was so near the surface (14 feet) that the barge no longer could operate directly over her. The Maitland and the Hilda, another Roen-owned barge, took positions on each side of the still submerged hull and the lifting lines and sheaves were rearranged to permit them to continue the lifts and tows.

During the winter the ballast tanks of the two barges had been divided by a lengthwise bulkhead to fit them for this lifting task. The barges’ tanks next to the Humphrey were filled with air and the outer ones with water to give the barges lifting power under the conditions. The Hilda, smaller than the Maitland, did not have a lifting power sufficient for her half of the load. She was stationed more to the stern and the remainder of the lift on the Humphrey’s port side was accomplished by buoyancy – forcing of more air into the forward tank on the port side. Maintenance of balance for the big ship in this three-way lift called for much study by Capt. Roen, his chief diver and a trained engineer who was kept on the job for such precise work.

The barges brought the Humphrey’s battered forward structure above water, then the after structure and soon the gunwales and hatch combings. The lifting was completed. Divers Joseph C. Beattie and John R. Perkins went at the task of placing a temporary patch of heavy timbers over the 18 x 22-foot hole in the Humphrey’s hull on the starboard side opposite No. 3 hatch.

HUMPHREY with two barges

HUMPHREY under tow.

During one of the lifts by the two barges the trim of the Humphrey went awry. The long ship took a bad port roll and almost got out of hand. A crane operator on the Maitland, Ben Froland, who happened to have a shotgun at his side, fired and cut the air line which was injecting too much air. The escaping air permitted the Humphrey to halt her roll and the day was saved with Capt. Roen scrambling about on the Humphrey deck to shut off valves.

After  the  patch  on the  Humphrey  was  in  place,  her  tanks  were pumped, she floated on her own, and the powerful tug John Roen III towed the wreck in triumph across Lake Michigan to Sturgeon Bay. Capt. Roen’s home town had a holiday. Several thousand persons lined docks and horns and whistles shrieked in greeting to the captain and his prize.

The big ship was found to have suffered considerable damage. Much of this was because she sank so quickly, before she filled with water, and the pressure thus caved in air-filled spaces, such as the crew’s quarters and hatches on the cargo hold. The smokestack had been toppled over and flattened by windrowed ice of the straits during the winter, pretty much as a tin can collapses under the foot of a patriotic wartime housewife.

Raising of the Humphrey. which was built in 1927 and certainly worth well over $1,000,000 at the wartime prices at the time of her sinking, won plaudits for resourceful Capt. Roen from all quarters.

His adventure in the Straits of Mackinac cost him around $250,000, according to his own figures, and repairs and reconditioning at going shipyard prices were expected to require around $500,000. This would make a $750,000 investment in a carrier whose return to duty is slated for April 15, 1945. She will have to find a place in a shipping industry which some believe is overbuilt due to the construction of over a score of large, highly efficient ships to aid the war effort.

Another important wartime salvage job on the lakes which worked out with great benefit was the recovery of the steamer E. J. Bufflngton, 600-footer of the Pittsburgh Steamship Co. fleet, which ran atop a flat-topped shoal in northern Lake Michigan in 1942. Her hull broke at two places as the ship settled under her heavy cargo of iron ore.

The company, handling the salvage with chartered equipment, which included that of Capt. Roen, scuttled the ore, floated the ship by pumping her tanks and with the breaks in her hull temporarily patched, gently towed the limber wreck to a shipyard and had her back in service in a few months to contribute to the war effort.

Illustrative of the economic and financial problem involved in salvaging ships is the case of the lakes’ steamer James H. Reed, sunk in a collision in fog April 27, 1944, in Lake Erie, 25 miles off Ashtabula. She was older and smaller than the Humphrey and when no interest was shown in recovery of the ship or her cargo of ore, the government had the wreck demolished to a depth of 35 feet by dynamiting. The giant ocean passenger ship Lafayette, nee Normandie, was not restored to service although her wartime raising in New York harbor cost millions.

John Roen and daughter

Capt. Roen had several important salvage successes and no failures to his credit before tackling the Humphrey gamble. After becoming a sailor at 14 in his native Europe, he came to this country in 1906, farmed near Morris, Illinois, for two years while learning our language, then took to Great Lakes sailing as so many Norwegians have – and with great success. From deckhand he quickly became a tug owner, then ship and barge owner, operating in the lumber trade.

His earliest salvage work of importance was done in 1935 when he recovered his own barge, the Transport, in Lake Superior after she drifted around while loading pulpwood and was battered by a storm. After Lake Michigan’s costly Armistice Day storm of 1940, he salvaged the steamer Sinaloa after she was abandoned and sold her for conversion into the self-unloader which she is today. He recovered for the owners the Frank J. Peterson, which was considered an almost hopeless wreck after the same storm. She is now in ocean wartime service.

In 1941 he salvaged the Sparta in Lake Superior. He has worked with others on several salvage jobs and has his own shipyard at Sturgeon Bay which has built a number of army craft and operates his fleet tugs and barges.

Capt. Roen salvaged from the Humphrey approximately 11,000 tons of ore which he sold to aid in paying for the salvage expense. The remainder, caked to cement-like hardness, was blown to bits 60 feet under the water’s surface and raised by an air lift which had been used successfully on the oceans but was undergoing its first Great Lakes test. Much of this ore was lost.

The captain stated the Humphrey. when being moved shoreward, passed through water deeper than at the spot of the sinking. When the first lift and tow was being made, she struck a sand bar on the Straits bottom, the bar held the ship at one “corner” of her bottom, the captain reported, and it held her firmly. Soundings showed water at the opposite end of the 600-footer was 90 feet deep. Since it was late in the day, the Maitland had to maintain her pickaback lift on the Humphrey all night to hold her in safety. The next morning the lift was increased sufficiently to swing the big grounded ship free. In making the first lift, the captain stated the Humphrey’s suction in her year-old bed was 600 tons instead of the 2,000 tons which he had expected.

Salvage of the Humphrey. while it occupied most of his time, was a sideline with the ingenious Capt. Roen. His tugs were on the Humphrey job only when not required for towing pulpwood barges. While the tugs were away the barges towed themselves while lifting the big ship by use of their anchors and chains. This is not all of this little side story. Capt. Roen, the man who refuses to be stopped, had raised from the sunken ship the very deck engines on the barges which were winding in the anchor lines and pulling themselves forward.

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This article first appeared in Volume 1, Issue 1 of Inland Seas, January 1945.

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