Thanksgiving Day on Lake Michigan 1889: The Wreck of the Steamer Calumet- Winter 1974

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

By Fred Hollister

Mr. Fred Hollister of Park Forest, Illinois, found the following little-known account while researching shipwrecks in the Manitou Passage for a book on the maritime history of the area.

A senior at San Francisco State University, Mr. Hollister is especially interested in journalism, particularly in the writing of articles concerning ships, shipwrecks, and the Great Lakes in general. With a few slight editorial changes, including the paragraphing of the text, the record he presents here is from the U.S. Life-Saving Service Annual Report for 1890. Coincidentally, Thanksgiving Day also fell on November 28 in 1974!


United States Life-Saving Service Evanston Station, (Eleventh District), Lake Michigan. Image from the United States Coast Guard.

November 28, 1889—The crew of the United States Life-Saving Service Evanston Station, (Eleventh District), Lake Michigan, rendered memorable service on the morning of this date (Thanksgiving Day) in rescuing the crew of the steamer Calumet, of Buffalo, New York, wrecked off Fort Sheridan, Illinois, during the prevalence of one of the fiercest blizzards known in that region in years. The achievement reflected great credit upon the boat’s crew who so nobly upheld the reputation of the Service. The highest praise is also due to the soldiers of the garrison at Fort Sheridan and a party of civilians, who aided in getting the surfboat down a steep bluff, opposite which the vessel lay sunk. These brave men suffered great hardship, and also encountered imminent peril in helping to launch the boat after it was lowered from the bluff, and it may justly be said that without the aid thus afforded to them the station crew would have found it, under the peculiar circumstances of the situation, almost impossible to have reached the wreck in season to save perhaps a single life. This is in nowise a disparagement of the splendid work of the surfmen, who, taking their lives in their hands, went out into the midst of that terrible storm and saved every man from the steamer.

The Calumet, a large propeller of over fifteen hundred tons register, and comparatively new, was from Buffalo, bound to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a cargo of coal. While on the trip, and a few days previous, as she was passing through a shallow part of the Detroit River, between Lakes Erie and St. Clair, she had run afoul of an anchor on the bottom and sprung a leak, the damage being of so serious a nature that Captain Green, her commander, deemed it prudent to bear up for Detroit en route to repair as much as practicable, and take on board a steam pump to keep the ship afloat and enable him to reach his destination.

This, doubtless, would have saved her had not a furious gale come on after she had passed through the Strait of Mackinac and was proceeding down Lake Michigan. It was a terrible storm, the air being laden with blinding sleet and storm, while the thermometer had dropped to within ten degrees of the zero point. The high sea pushed up by the gale handled the steamer so roughly as she pursued her southerly course that the leak broke out afresh and increased with such rapidity that it got well-nigh beyond control even with the pumps working to their full capacity.

The wood schooner CALUMET in 1884. Image from Alpena Public Library.

Another element of danger and discouragement was that they were unable to find the lights of Milwaukee Harbor, and in this dilemma the captain resolved to keep on and endeavor to reach Chicago. The course was then changed, but, before long, at the very time it was most needed, the wrecking pump, through some unforseen accident, gave out. In this extremity, with the water gaining on them and the vessel liable to go down at any moment, Captain Green decided to run her ashore to save the lives of his crew. Her draft being increased with so much water in the hold in addition to the heavy lading of coal, the vessel had not far to run before she grounded heavily on a shoal a distance of a thousand yards or more from shore.

This was at half-past 10 o’clock, the night of the 27th, and to save her from pounding herself to pieces before morning, as she certainly would have done, the captain ordered the valves in the bottom opened to permit her to completely fill and thus keep her steady.

With the howling of the tempest and the mad rush of the waves against and over the doomed craft, which left a coating of ice wherever it struck, it was a terrible situation in which the eighteen poor creatures composing the crew were fated to pass the long hours of that awful night. An attempt to save themselves by the boat was out of the question, and no help could reach them from shore before the dawn of another day.

The ship had sunk off Fort Sheridan, the military post recently established some ten or twelve miles north of Evanston, where was the nearest life-saving station. Mr. A. W. Fletcher, a resident of Highland Park, was the first to discover her, and he quickly sent a dispatch, which was delivered to Keeper Lawson by an officer of the Evanston police force on the morning of the 28th, half an hour after midnight. The message read as follows: “There is a large vessel ashore off Fort Sheridan. Come!”

Lawson hurried to the railroad station and asked the night operator when the next train would go north. “Not before 7:30 a.m.” was the reply. The operator then added, after a moment’s reflection, that a freight train from Chicago would pass, without stopping, at about 2 o’clock. A request was immediately wired to the train dispatcher at Chicago to direct this train to stop at Evanston and take the station crew to Highland Park.

As it was too late to couple on suitable cars for the transportation of the apparatus, and as the train would reach Evanston in thirty-five minutes, there was but little time for other arrangements to be made; so Lawson dashed off on a run through the snow to the nearest livery stable, engaged teams to haul the boat and beach apparatus to the fort, then back to the station and mustered his crew.

One man was directed to remain behind, with instructions to wait for the north patrol to come in and then to hasten forward with the boat and other appliances by the county road. These preliminaries settled, he, with the other four men, hurried to the railroad station, where they were joined by the police officer who had delivered the dispatch, and the party boarded the train, which just then came up.

A hot journal occasioned delay after starting, so that it was 4 o’clock before they reached Highland Park. There they were met by Mr. Fletcher, who furnished a guide to conduct them the remaining distance of two miles. The shore at that point is a bold, precipitous bluff some seventy or eighty feet high, with here and there a deep ravine or gully filled with a dense growth of trees and underbrush extending down to the water’s edge, and the guide becoming confused in the darkness and storm lost his way. This compelled the party to traverse, by climbing, several of these ravines before they finally, at 5 o’clock, reached the place from which they were to operate. A fire of brush was built by the surfmen to serve as a beacon to the people on the vessel and to warm themselves by while waiting for daylight and the coming of the life-saving appliances.

It was light enough at 7 o’clock, when the boat and gear arrived, to make out that the steamer was a large one, as Mr. Fletcher had reported. She was submerged almost to the main deck, and it needed but a glance to see that the people on board could hold out but a short time longer. What there was to be done must be done quickly or every man would perish.

Viewed from the bluff she did not appear to be more than three or four hundred yards away, and the keeper decided to attempt to reach her by line rather than risk the lives of the men and the destruction of the boat in an attempt to launch through the surf which lashed the foot of the bluff and practically left but scant foothold on the narrow strip of beach. Two shots were accordingly fired, but each fell a long distance inshore of the vessel, showing conclusively that she was much farther out than had been estimated, and altogether beyond working range of the lines. Boat service was therefore the only alternative; so, discarding the gun, the men made immediate preparations for a launch, regardless of the danger involved.

It was here that the splendid work of the soldiers, under the command of Capt. C. G. Penny, Sixth United States Infantry, and the civilians, headed by Mr. Fletcher, came in. The soldiers numbered about fifty. The place selected for sliding the boat down to the water was the ravine in which the fire had been built. Axes in willing and sturdy hands were soon at work right and left cutting a way through the brush and undergrowth down the gully wide enough for the boat, while picks and shovels were also brought into play in cutting steps in the stiff blue clay to assist the men in their descent with the boat.

The gully was about three hundred yards to the south, and to the leeward of a point directly abreast of the wreck. It therefore became necessary when the boat reached the lower end of the incline to drag it well to the windward along the narrow shelf of beach at the foot of the bluff. With the heavy surf that was rolling in, it was only by watching their chances between the breakers that any progress could be made, and even then the gallant fellows were half the time waist-deep and over in the cold, icy water, the boat being thrice completely filled and having to be as often emptied out. There was also danger in the liability of the boat to be stove, and still another, a very grave one, of the men on the inner gunwale being crushed or maimed when the sea would strike the craft fairly on its broadside and hurl it against the bank despite the efforts of those on the outer gunwale to prevent it, while on the other hand these latter had all they could do to avoid being swept off their feet and out into the lake by the reflux action of the waves.

But in spite of all these dangers and difficulties the boat was at last got to a point a little to the windward of the steamer, and as soon as its bow could be pointed lakeward the crew sprang to their places at the oars. When the next sea lifted the craft the soldiers pushed it out with a will, the oars were put in motion, and the rescuing party were off on their perilous errand.

Keeper Lawrence Oscar Lawson of the United States Life-Saving Service Evanston Station, (Eleventh District), Lake Michigan. Image from the United States Coast Guard.

In crossing the inner bar they met an immense breaker which nearly threw the boat end over end, the shock of its impact being so great as to almost throw Keeper Lawson overboard from his post at the steering oar, and before he could recover himself a second wave dashed over the boat and filled it to the thwarts. This made the boat almost unmanageable, and the men for a time had as much as they could do to hold their own and keep steerage way, but by the strong and steady pulling of five of the oars, while the stroke oarsman plied the bailing bucket until the craft was freed of water, they managed to keep going, and soon were beyond the heaviest line of surf. In the meantime, however, the current had cut them far to the leeward, and this gave them a long and hard pull directly in the teeth of the gale.

The hardship of the situation can be better imagined than told when it is remembered that the flying spray from every wave-crest left a glaze of ice on every object it struck, the men’s clothing being covered, while the oars were constantly slipping from the rowlocks, the latter as well as the oars being so encased with it. Nor it is a wonder that this was so, with the temperature twenty-two degrees below the freezing point.

In the annals of life-saving effort there can be found few instances so fraught with such hardship and peril as it was the lot of these brave men to encounter, and yet not a murmur was heard, not a man quailed. It is a noteworthy fact that the members of this crew were not regular surfmen in the sense that they follow boating for a livelihood, they being, with the exception of the keeper, students of the Northwestern Academy, upon the grounds of which institution the Evanston Station is situated. And yet how nobly, skillfully, and courageously they stuck to their work.

Recovering the ground lost in passing through the breakers was a rough and arduous task, and it seemed well-nigh impossible of accomplishment, an eyewitness from the bluff declaring that at times he thought they never would succeed and that it would be equally impossible to regain the shore. The crew of the ill-fated steamer were clustered forward in and about the pilot house, stiff and half perished with the cold after so many hours of exposure, and certain death awaited any man who dared to go aft as the boat laboriously approached to throw it a line, the vessel being literally encased in an icy shroud which grew thicker from the constant deluging she received from the mighty waves. At last, after one of the most perilous trips it has ever been the province of a life-saving crew to undertake, they got near enough to the bow of the steamer for Captain Green to throw them a line.

Every watcher on the shore as well as on board the steamer breathed freer when the boat got alongside, Captain Green illustrating this feeling by his hail to the boat’s crew as the line he threw them was hastily secured to a thwart to hold the boat in position, “I never thought you would make it, boys.” Six of the castaways were with some difficulty taken into the boat, and after putting a life preserver, carried for the purpose, on each man, a start was made for shore.

Owing to the strong current, which again set the boat far to the leeward, the landing was made fully a quarter of a mile south of the point of starting. As soon, therefore, as the sailors were helped out, they, with their brave rescuers, were conducted to the fire on the bluff, where the ice was beaten from their frozen garments and they were supplied with hot coffee.

While this was being done the boat was emptied of the water it had shipped in coming through the surf, and then dragged by the soldiers and civilians back to a point well to the windward of the sunken steamer ready for another trip. Much refreshed by the steaming beverage so thoughtfully provided for them by the soldiers and others on the ground, the surfmen, after a brief rest, again wended their way down to the boat and another launch was made in much the same manner as the first, although in this instance, with the knowledge gained by their previous experience, the boat was from the start headed more to the current, and they were not swept so far to the leeward by it.

Consequently the wreck was more quickly reached and the trip was made in much less time. Three trips in all were made, six men being landed each trip, and thus the entire crew of eighteen men were saved, and fortunately without any of them being seriously frostbitten. By the time this work was accomplished the station men were in almost as bad a plight as the men they had saved, being so benumbed they could scarcely walk; in fact, but for the soldiers of the garrison, the boat must have been left at the foot of the bluff where it landed the last load, and where it would in all likelihood have been dashed into fragments. But the assisting party took charge of it, and, after hauling it back onto the bluff, saw it safely on its carriage in the charge of the teamster en route to the station, the surfmen, while this was being done, and as soon as they had again refreshed themselves with coffee, taking the first train for Evanston, where they arrived early in the afternoon.

It should be added that under the humane directions of Captain Penny, the people from the wreck, as fast as they were able to travel, were dispatched to the barracks and there comfortably provided for until accommodations could be obtained for them elsewhere. A few hours after the rescue of her crew the steamer broke up completely, and on the following morning nothing was left of her but the stem and sternpost standing up out of the water like grim specters of the storm.

It is the concurrent opinion of all who were present that but for the heroic conduct of this student-crew, every man belonging to the Calumet must have perished; and in recognition of their noble devotion to duty each man was presented with the gold medal of the Service, the highest token of its appreciation that the Department can bestow.

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