Stranding of the Steamer FRONTENAC – Spring 1980

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

By Dr. Julius F. Wolff, JR.

The FRONTENAC downbound at the Soo Canal in 1979. Image taken by Jim Hoffman.

On Thanksgiving night, November 22, 1979, the 604-foot taconite carrier Frontenac of the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company fleet crashed into the Pellet Island reef as she was entering Silver Bay harbor on the Minnesota North Shore of Lake Superior to take on a load of pellets. Under Capt. Clyde P. Trueax the Frontenac was nosing her way into the harbor entrance when she was hit by a blinding snow squall, winds gusting over thirty miles an hour, and a strong cross sea. The beacon maintained by the Reserve Mining Company on Pellet Island had gone out. Before the Captain realized it, the ship was driven south of the channel and was impaled on the reef adjacent to the island. The seas then continued to drive the beleaguered vessel over the rocks for another 150 yards before leaving her hard aground near the south breakwater.

Immediately after the stranding Captain Trueax ordered his crew to put on survival suits and life jackets, while the lifeboats were prepared for launching. Preliminary examinations indicated substantial hull damage with water entering the No. 3 cargo hold. However, the ship was solidly held by the jagged rocks, and an abandon ship was unnecessary, though a Reserve Mining Company harbor boat was sent out to stand by. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mesquite was rushed from Duluth. Daylight inspection indicated hull punctures and serious cracking in the stern. Also, as the ship carried 47,000 gallons of bunker fuel and a quantity of diesel oil, there was concern for an oil spill, and the Coast Guard placed an oil containment boom around the ship. No oil spill occurred. As a precaution, nevertheless, the Frontenac’s fuel was pumped into another ship by a special Coast Guard crew flown in from North Carolina; her water ballast then was removed, 14 of her 27-man crew evacuated, and thus lightened the ship managed to back off under her own power and proceed to dock in Silver Bay. There damage evaluation indicated the need for temporary hull repairs which were made over the next several days.

Finally, on November 28 the Frontenac, with only a skeleton crew aboard and under escort by the steamer Pontiac and the Canadian tug Peninsula, was able to proceed to the Fraser shipyard in Superior, Wisconsin, where a full drydock inspection was made. Her injuries were far worse than anticipated, over 300 feet of hull torn and buckled. Capt. John Townley, operations manager of Cleveland- Cliffs, reported that the 56-year old vessel was damaged beyond economical repair. Hence, the company decided to retire the Frontenac and sell her for scrap. She had been insured for $1,500,000 and was considered a total loss.

The Coast Guard Marine Safety Office at Duluth held hearings on the incident, as a result of which Captain Trueax was charged with negligence. Final outcome of the case has not been announced.

The Frontenac was built in 1923 at River Rouge, Michigan, by the Great Lakes Engineering Works, Hull No. 244, beginning her maiden trip from Detroit to Marquette, Michigan, on July 9, 1923. For her entire career she served the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company. In 1955 her engine was repowered to 5,500 horsepower. Following CCIC policy of honoring historic persons she had been named for the illustrious Frontenac, one of the outstanding leaders of New France during the late seventeenth century. By no means one of the oldest carriers on the Great Lakes, the Frontenac saw her 56-year record of seaworthiness and dependability ended by the unexpected mishap. Hers was the first major accident in the 25-year history of Silver Bay harbor.

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About the Author: Dr. Julius Wolff needs no introduction to our Society’s members nor the readers of INLAND SEAS®, as he is an Assistant Editor of our Journal and a frequent contributor of articles concerning Great Lakes disasters. In the realm of Lake Superior shipwrecks, which has become a field of special interest, he is now a recognized authority and has written a volume which we will announce when its publication is completed. Professionally, Dr. Wolff, a resident of Duluth, is Professor of Political History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, at Duluth, Minnesota.

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