The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Capt. Adrian L. Lonsdale
The expression “Great Lakes sailor” I soften used by “salties” in disdain for men who they feel are not competent to sail the rough seas of the ocean. Little do these old salts realize that some of the fiercest storms in America’s history have occurred over the Great Lakes. One such storm began howling out of the northeast over Lake Superior on November 16, 1886. Before it was over, there were thirty shipwrecks reported with damage amounting to millions. More than forty lives were lost.
By the 18th, at Marquette, Michigan, Captain John Frink, of the tug Gillette, had already braved the storm’s fury to save one schooner from destruction and rescue the crew of another which was smashed to pieces against the docks. Through the heavy veil of snow, the Lake looked like a blanket of white waste. The breakwater lay stripped of her planking under a storm of spray forty feet high. Water submerged the rolling mill dock, filling the harbor with lumber, shingles, and lathing. Two spectral shapes appeared intermittently six miles to the east. Townspeople began filling the piers as news spread that two ships were aground.
At 11:00 A.M. a group of hardier souls put a yawl boat on a wagon and hauled it toward the wrecks. They found the steamship Robert Wallace, and her consort, the four-masted schooner David Wallace, aground 400 yards offshore near the Chocolay River.
The two vessels from Lorain, Ohio, were bound for Buffalo, New York, from Duluth, Minnesota, with cargoes of wheat. They had lost their bearings in near zero visibility the night before and were driven aground by the wind at 1:00 A. M.. The Robert Wallace had a crew of fifteen, the David Wallace, nine.
The Robert Wallace hit first. Shocks of immense seas broke over the aftercabin. Water poured down the companionways into the engineroom. Huge clouds of steam poured out as the boilers were deluged by icy cold water. The schooner, which was being towed, careened crazily toward the steam vessel’s stern. At the last minute the schooner veered to the side, just missing the vessel ahead. She grounded. A wave lifted her bow: she swung off and headed for shore.
“Cut the tow line—cut the tow line!” the captain of the Robert Wallace screamed.
The crew chopped the line just in time to prevent dragging the steam vessel around into the troughs. The crew of the Robert Wallace fled forward to the captain’s cabin. The seas began to demolish the ship’s stern, and surges swept the deck from stern to stem. The aftercabin crumbled into pieces and washed over the side!
In an effort to wake someone on shore, the sailors blew the steam whistle continuously for as long as the steam lasted. Although loud, the sound couldn’t be heard above the deafening wind on the neighboring schooner. By morning the hulls of the two ships sagged so badly that they looked as if they would break in two.
To the men with the yawl, the steamer looked like a complete ruin. Her deck was nearly level with the water: white streaks of water flew completely over it. Her crew peered out of ports in the wheelhouse and the captain’s cabin. The schooner looked better. She lay well imbedded in the sand nearer the beach. Less water poured over her and she was only damaged a little forward.
Five men manned the yawl and headed out into the plunging breakers. They towed a line held by comrades on the beach. The wind and waves spun them about and hurled the small craft back onto the beach. Undaunted, they bailed out the boat and launched again into the fury of the storm.
This time they passed through the furrows of water breaking along the shore, half the distance to the ships. A huge sea crashed down upon them filling the boat to the gunnels. It was impossible to continue—they signalled their mates on shore to haul them back. They concluded that a boat rescue was impossible. The Gillette attempted to steam to the wrecks but couldn’t get near enough.
The throng on the beach continued to swell. By 1:00 P.M. most of the townspeople were there. Some walked, others arrived in a stream of horses and buggies. The old hands milled around discussing how the sailors off-shore could be rescued. The conversation ran something like this:
“I remember when I was a kid in Frankfort in ‘78’. A ship was wrecked in a storm there. The men from the Pointe aux Barques Lifeboat Station came down to the beach with a small cannon. They fired a line out to the ship and brought the men ashore that way. ” “Yea, but we haven’t got a gun.”
“How about the old mortar stowed down at the powder mill. Why can’t we use it?” “Why not? let’s get it!”
A team of men left to bring back the old gun which had not been fired for years. Others set out again in a small skiff for the ships. Their efforts were thwarted by a powerful wind-driven current running along the shore. It pushed them down the beach faster than they could row.
Darkness approached. The crowd shuffled about restlessly waiting for the arrival of the old mortar—their only hope to establish communications with the stricken ships.
When the men arrived at the powder mill they found that the old gun had been spiked. It was extremely heavy-designed to fire a 24-pound ball. They tugged and hauled it up on a cart and pulled it off to a distant iron shop. There the bore was drilled out.
On the beach the crowds busied themselves coiling lines to get them just right to pay out to the ships after the missile from the mortar was fired. They built huge bonfires to keep warm and to show the sailors on the ships that they had not been abandoned. Through the swirl of snow the sailors could see human outlines of all shapes and sizes shuffling past the flare of the flames.
At 6:00 P. M., what they had all been waiting for arrived. The old piece of ordnance was received with a resounding cheer! Now the action would begin. The antiquated gun was quickly hauled into position. A line was attached to the 24-pound shot. Everyone stood back except one man who lit the fuze. Then there was a sickly “bloop.” The ball rolled out of the muzzle and landed in the water fifty feet away!
“Here, let an artillery man show you how to do that,” one account states, as a grisly-looking veteran of the civil war stepped up to the gun. “Haul that ball back here,” he barked. His orders were dutifully obeyed.
He threw several handfuls of black powder in the barrel of the gun: he tamped the powder down. He threw in some more. He tamped again. He repeated the process several times. The ball was shoved in and the fuze set.
“Okay, stand back everybody! Come on, get way back,” he shouted. The spectators, with their fingers in their ears, looked on in admiration. They were rewarded with an ear-shattering, “V-A-R-O-O-M!” The gun flew asunder and scattered over the beach in a hundred pieces! Luckily no one was hurt. The hero of the moment before slinked off into the darkness.
Even the sailors on the ships heard the explosion, muffled by the roar of the wind. They did not know what was happening, but their spirits lifted. At least the people on the beach were doing something.
Luckily, Captain John Frink of the Gillette had the foresight earlier in the day to send a telegram to the Ship Canal Lifeboat Station near Houghton, 110 miles away. The message was taken by the tug James W. Croze from Houghton, six miles down the canal to Albert Ocha, captain of the station. He received it at 4:00 P.M. and ordered his men into action. They quickly got the lifeboat, the beach cart, the Lyle gun and a myriad of other equipment on board the tug which headed back to Houghton.
In Houghton, a fuming engine coupled to a passenger car and two flatcars awaited them. It had been especially made up by the managers of the railroad. Volunteers poured in from the town to help transfer the lifesavers’ equipment to the train. With so many willing hands, the job was completed in a few minutes. The lifeboat station crew were bundled into the passenger car. The engine puffed and clanked off into the darkness amidst cheers of onlookers. It was 7:45 P. M.. The firemen shovelled in coal furiously and the speed increased until the engine’s boiler was straining at the seams. They plunged pellmell into the gale over tracks clogged with snow.
Eventually, the engineer had his small train going nearly 60 miles an hour. The rattle and roar of the wheels was muffled by the snow burying the tracks. Huge rolls of smoke volleyed from the funnel and were torn to pieces by the wind. The lights of the train beamed out into a livid whirlwind of sleet and snow. In the dimly-lighted car, the surfmen lolled about, seeming oblivious to the ordeal that faced them.
With several stops, the train covered the 110 miles in record time. They arrived at Marquette at 11:30 P.M. The beach crowd was at the train station awaiting the next development. They watched the white snorting train pull into the station. The lifeboatmen in storm clothes poured out of the passenger car. They were excited and eager to go.
During a train stop at Michigamme, Ocha had telegraphed Frink to have teams of horses ready to haul the boat and beach cart from the train to the Lake. Frink had everything waiting. In addition, Frink had visited the town merchants and collected generous contributions of bread, meat, coffee, butter, and cheese in order to feed any survivors brought ashore.
The lifesaving apparatus was loaded onto wagons and sleighs. The entourage began working its way along the lakeshore toward the wrecks. The beach was a corduroy of driftwood and traveling was hard and slow. They arrived opposite the wrecks at 1:00 A. M., the morning of the 19th. Hardly any of the townsfolk had left and bonfires still lighted the wild scene. The gale blew furiously, but the snow had stopped.
When the boat was lifted off the carriage, it was discovered that the rudder had been seriously damaged. Ocha’s decision had been made for him. He would have to use the lines to make the rescue. The Lyle gun was put in place and a shot line fired with a loud, “B-O-O-M!” The slender shot line landed on the steamer amidships, but the men on board would not venture from the wheelhouse to look for the line swirling around on the wave-swept deck.
Captain Ocha concluded that the boat would have to be used. By 2:00 A.M. temporary repairs had been made to the rudder and the first launch was made. There were two reefs alive with boiling surf to cross. By the time the boat crossed the first reef, it had shipped three seas. Two of the crew bailed furiously to keep them afloat. The iron strapping on the rudder bent and the timber split. Ocha ordered the oarsmen to turn the boat about and head for shore.
Carpenters from the town went to work on the rudder. Ocha tried another shot with the Lyle gun. But still the shipwrecked crew would not venture out of the cabin to retrieve the line.
By daybreak the rudder had been fixed again and the boat was launched. After a long hard pull, with some of the crew bailing all the way, the lifeboat came alongside the steam vessel. She was a weird spectacle—the seas had encased her in a shell of ice. The lifeboat was also growing its own crust. Ocha decided that it would be prudent to take only nine of the fifteen sailors aboard. Regaining the shore was relatively easy compared to the trip out.
The second trip involved another constant battle with the tumbling walls of water. The tiny craft shipped a succession of seas, each filling it to the gunnels. But they managed to bring in the remaining six men from the Robert Wallace safely.
They next put out for the David Wallace to retrieve her crew of nine. It was now 7:00 A. M.. The wind had subsided somewhat, but the seas were tremendous; the lifesaving crew were worn out. Again and again the boat was flooded and driven astern. On the second reef they were nearly thrown end over end. The rudder split again and became useless. Ocha steered by giving appropriate orders to the crew. Water froze on their clothing and thickened into armor-like sheathing. But their indomitable efforts paid off. They arrived at the schooner at 8:00 A.M. and returned with the remaining nine sailors. The lifesavers were in worse condition than the men they rescued. They were rushed to the bonfires and fed hot coffee and food.
Although their cargoes were lost, both of the wrecked vessels were later salvaged. And so ended, for some “Great Lakes sailors,” a now-insignificant event in our history.
About the Author: Capt. Adrian L. Lonsdale, born in Port Angeles, Washington, is a third generation Coast Guardsman. A graduate of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, in 1950, he has commanded cutters General Greene and Vigilant, both of which patrolled fisheries and provided search and rescue services of the New England coast. He served as a task force commander with the U. S. Navy in Vietnam and has been commanding officer of the icebreaker Southwind based at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Captain Lonsdale is co-author of Guide to Sunken Ships in American Waters, and of Voyager Beware, and has written articles and stories for several national magazines. He is also a contributing author to Handbook of Ocean and Underwater Engineering.