The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By David Balfour
The 1909 navigation season on the Great Lakes should have ended on December 5 with the expiration of vessel insurance, but a large number of boats remained on the Lakes because the owners had obtained extensions on their policies. If boat owners could extend the sailing season by one more trip, even though November and December were dangerous months to be on the Lakes, additional money poured into their coffers. Sailors were aware of the dangers and often preferred to be in port, but despite the perils, the owners were the only ones to determine when their boats laid up for the winter.1 Among those on the Lakes after December 5 were the Clarion, the Leonard C. Hanna, the Josiah G. Munro, and the H. P. Bope.
The Clarion, with a length of 240 feet, a beam of 36 feet, and 1,711 gross tons, was built by the Detroit Dry Dock Company in Wynadotte, Michigan, in 1881. Important to the events on December 8, 1909 — she was not equipped with wireless. Her master was Captain Thomas J. Bell of Ogdensburg, New York.
Born in Canada on December 25, 1870, Bell settled in Ogdensburg in 1889. The year he became a captain on the Great Lakes is not known, but his name was listed for the first time in the 1903 Red Book.2
The Leonard C. Hanna was built in 1905 in Cleveland, Ohio, and was one of the few vessels on the Lakes equipped with wireless. She had a length of 504 feet, a beam of 54 feet, and a gross tonnage of 6,356 tons. Her captain was Matthew Anderson of Euclid, Ohio. He was born September 17, 1864, and had been an experienced seaman since the age of 15. He first appeared in the ISMA Directory3 in 1901, but no vessel was listed under his command until 1906.
The Josiah G. Munro, somewhat larger than the Hanna and equipped with wireless, was 530 feet in length with a beam of 56 feet and a gross tonnage of 6,971 tons. Captain Corydon E. Sayre, master of the Munro, was born October 11, 1864, and lived in Mason, Michigan. He first appeared in the ISMA Directory in 1900.
The largest of the four vessels, and the first on the Lakes with wireless, was the H. P. Bope.4 With a length of 540 feet, a beam of 56 feet, and a gross tonnage of 5,750 tons, the Bope was commanded by Colin (Doc) C. Balfour. Born March 9, 1858, near St. Clair, Michigan, Doc began his sailing career at age 19, and mastered his first vessel at age 30 in 1888.5 In 1909, he resided in Detroit.
In the early hours of December 7, the Clarion left Chicago bound for Erie, Pennsylvania, with a cargo of flour and livestock feed. The voyage would be the last for Captain Bell and 14 of the Clarion’s crew. Of the other three boats, the J. G. Munro and the L. C. Hanna would be instrumental in the efforts and success of rescuing the survivors, but the H. P. Bope, and her master, Captain Balfour, would be accused of abandoning the Clarion in her hour of distress.
The Bope had left Port Arthur, Ontario, with a cargo of grain, and upon reaching the Detroit River, she was not far behind the Clarion. Each entered the river on the afternoon of the eighth with the Clarion passing Lime Kiln Crossing near Amherstburg, Ontario, at 2:10 p.m. and the Bope passing 25 minutes later.6 Although storm warnings had been posted for Lake Erie with winds approaching 50 and 60 miles per hour at Buffalo, neither boat hesitated to continue toward its destination, and as the Clarion entered Lake Erie she met a blinding snow and heavy seas.7 With the fall of darkness, she was in the Pelee Passage between Pelee Island and Point Pelee, Ontario, near the Southeast Shoal. Because of the shoal’s shallow waters and sandbars, it was known as one of the most dangerous points in Lake Erie. Any freighter caught in a storm in the area had little room to maneuver and could be easily driven aground by high seas and winds. To warn boats of the dangers, the lightship8 Kewaunee was at anchor off the shoal, but this night, the shoal was the least of the Clarion’s worries.
About 7:00 p.m., when the Clarion was one-and-a-half to two miles west of the Kewaunee, fire was discovered in the Clarion’s hold.9 Once the fire was known, deadly events quickly unfolded, but the sequence and time frame are difficult to determine. Newspaper accounts often disagreed or lacked complete information, and books telling the story were lacking footnotes and/or bibliographies.
Within moments Captain Bell was told of the fire, and knowing the explosive nature of flour dust, he sounded his whistle. Without wireless, the Clarion’s whistle and lights were the only hope of nearby vessels discovering her distress, but her chief engineer, following his rescue and referring to the time before the fire broke through the deck, said, “any boat that may have heard our distress could not locate us in the murk. Besides the driving snow, there was a steamer fog rising above the water that would have dimmed our lights … at least seven boats passed us … two went so close we could have called to them. They could not see us though, and if they had heeded our signals they could not locate us. I understand … the Bope … sent a wireless that some boat was in distress, but she did not stop to help.”10
Shortly after the fire was discovered, the first loss of life among the Clarion’s crew occurred. The first mate went into the hold with a fire extinguisher and was not seen again. “He must have been overcome by smoke. The fire spread so quickly there was no time to effect a rescue … in a short time the hold was a mass of flames and the boat could not be handled (due to the) loss of (our) steering gear.”11
With the loss of her steering gear, the Clarion began drifting helplessly, and once the fire broke through the deck about 8:00 p.m.,12 the smoke and heat made it impossible to fight the blaze. Captain Bell, realizing his vessel was doomed, ordered the crew to abandon ship. With the fire centered midship, however, the crew had become divided into two groups and were not able to coordinate their escape. Captain Bell, with 12 men on the bow, launched a lifeboat and rowed away from the burning vessel, but the boat was overcome by the heavy seas and all were lost. On the Clarion’s stern remained seven men under the direction of the chief engineer. They attempted to launch a boat, but the boat was swamped as soon as it hit the water. In their effort, one of the seven was either swept overboard, or he went into the water to retrieve the boat and was gone. Six men were now trapped on the stern unable to fight the raging fire.
Approximately 7:30 p.m., half-an-hour before the flames broke through the Clarion’s deck, the Bope passed close enough to know the Clarion was in distress and immediately sent a wireless. The superintendent of the United Wireless Company in Cleveland, following receipt of the Bope’s wireless, stated, “At 7:30 p.m. the Bope first saw the Clarion. At 7:31 we had a message in our office. At 7:35 we (sent out calls) asking for help in assisting the Clarion.”13 Having wireless, the Munro and the Hanna picked up the Bope’s message and went to the Clarion’s aid.
In the area of the Southeast Shoal, the Munro was ready to aid the Clarion, but Captain Sayre said the heavy winds, the waves, and the dense vapor rising from the water made it difficult to see the lights of other boats. Plus, he was unsure of the Clarion’s location;14 the Bope’s wireless said an unnamed boat was in distress about two miles off Pelee Island in the area of the Southeast Shoal but did not give an exact location.15 Looking for the boat, the Munro soon saw lights on the starboard side of her bow, but unsure of their distance, Captain Sayre gave the order to stop engines. A moment later, the hull of the Clarion and men waving lanterns were seen about 200 feet away, but no flames were reported. To avoid a collision, Sayre ordered full speed astern and watched the Clarion disappear from sight. Shortly thereafter, with the Clarion now ablaze and drifting helplessly, she was seen about 300 feet off the Munro’s port bow. Captain Sayre, hoping to bring the Munro around to leeward so the Clarion would be drifting toward her, ordered the helm hard to starboard, but the wind and waves would not allow the Munro to complete the starboard turn. Full speed astern was then ordered hoping the Munro’s stern would swing toward the Clarion. As his boat was failing to make this maneuver, Sayre saw Captain Bell and his men launch a lifeboat, pull away from the Clarion, and attempt to row toward the Munro, but the waves tossed the lifeboat out of sight. The events taking place on the Clarion’s stern were seen at the same time, and the sounding of the Kewaunee’s danger signal was first heard. Realizing the Munro was near the shoal, Sayre was unable to avert the danger, and the Munro ran aground as the doomed Clarion drifted away into the night.16
The men on the lightship Kewaunee could also see the Clarion, but were unable to launch a lifeboat in the heavy seas. The Kewaunee’s captain reported seeing the Clarion afire after 8:00 p.m. Coming from the east, he and his crew saw a glow moving toward them17 and watched helplessly as the gale drove the Clarion with her sides a mass of flames beyond them about 9:00 p.m. They watched Captain Bell and his men launch a boat, saw them disappear from view, and saw the Munro run aground as she tried to get near the Clarion.18
The rescue of the Clarion’s six surviving crewmen was now left to the L.C. Hanna and her master, Captain Anderson. No solid evidence indicates when the Hanna began maneuvering to get close to the Clarion, but the captain of the Kewaunee did not mention the Hanna until after he spoke of the Munro’s efforts, and Captain Sayre said, “… from the bridge of the Munro, aground within one thousand feet of the lightship, I saw the Hanna shape a course toward the burning boat which had drifted over and to the east of the shoal.”19 Captain Anderson, coming upon the burning Clarion, circled her three times before getting close enough to allow her men to safely jump aboard his vessel. Once the fifth man was on board, the Hanna fell into a trough forcing her to maneuver another half an hour before the chief engineer, the last to leave the Clarion, was able to leap aboard.20
How much time passed between the discovery of the fire and the rescue? The Clarion survivors said they fought the flames for at least four hours before being rescued by the Hanna. No reports were discovered indicating the exact time of rescue, but if the fire was discovered at 7:00 p.m., the flames broke through the deck at 8:00 p.m., the men on the Kewaunee watched the Clarion drift by them at 9:00 p.m., and the Hanna circled several times before succeeding in the rescue, one estimates the survivors were right.
The Clarion survivors were taken to Cleveland, put on a train to Buffalo, and were in the offices of the Anchor Line, owners of the Clarion, on the night of December 9. Over the next several days, their statements were filled with disdain for the actions of the Bope and her master, Captain Balfour. As one of the Clarion’s rescued firemen said, “… like brutal cowards they kept right along on their course and left us to die like rats in a trap.”21 The survivors claimed the Bope could have saved the entire Clarion crew if she had heeded their calls for help, but they said she did not alter her course and they watched her lights disappear in the distance. Not only did the Bope abandon them, they said, but she struck the Clarion scraping her from bow to stern,22 and they were thrown to the deck by the force of the impact.23 Were the accusations justified, or were they the result of tired and overwrought sailors who had experienced a horrifying ordeal?
Captain Balfour, “a man (with) a splendid reputation for seamanship and courage in times of distress”24 refuted the accusations of the survivors saying no man in his situation could have done more for the Clarion. “The first I knew of the Clarion (he did not know it was the Clarion at the time) was when we heard four25 whistles right under our bow … We were going at the rate of eleven miles per hour and could not stop in an instant.… (The Bope could not turn because) we were near a dangerous rocky coast and two ships were coming behind us. There was danger if I turned my boat so I checked down and when we passed the lightship, here I could turn, I intended going back but when we got there the Hanna was rendering assistance.”26 Reinforcing the latter, Captain Balfour defended himself in a longer statement made to the Buffalo Morning Express on board the Bope :
I did pass the Clarion on Wednesday night and so close it was a miracle I did not sink both vessels. We were steaming full speed toward Buffalo early in the evening when I noticed very close to us on our starboard side a good sized steamer. I yelled to the wheelsman to put his helm hard to starboard and jumped for the door of the pilothouse. Before I had the door open we had passed the vessel by the narrowest margin. One minute more and both of us would have been sinking as the Bope was making top speed, about 11–12 miles per hour, at the time.
The vessel which we had passed so closely carried no lights that I could see, and as it was inky black around us it was impossible for me to see the boat until we were almost on top of her. We did clear the Clarion by no more than a foot at the most. It was the nearest I have ever come to sinking two boats since I have been on the Lakes.
No one answered my shouts as we pulled away from the vessel and I blew my distress signals for several minutes. The speed of the Bope was checked down, but it was impossible for me to turn around as there were three other boats following the same course as I. (The names of the boats were not given.) Two of them were on my port side, one slightly ahead, and the other a little behind, and another fellow following down almost even with me on the starboard side. I figured I would have to run as far as the Pelee lightship before I would have a chance to turn around.
There was no fire visible on the Clarion — I did not know what the ship was at the time — and the smoke referred in the news (Buffalo news) story was conspicuous by its absence. I did not know the boat was afire when I passed her.
By the time I had reduced the speed of my boat, I was some distance from the vessel, so narrowly missed, and there was still no chance to turn around. While looking back, I noticed the L.C. Hanna, which had been following me closely, had stopped. It was obvious she was standing by the disabled boat, so I saw no further need of my stopping. As we steamed down the lake, I ordered the wireless operator to notify Cleveland of the event, and heard no more of the Clarion until we reached Buffalo.”27
In another statement, Balfour admitted the Bope “rubbed” the Clarion’s stern, but did not hit her as the Clarion survivors claimed,28 and in his defense, an examination of the Bope showed no marks indicating she struck the Clarion with any discernible force.29
Accepting Captain Balfour’s statement, the Bope did not leave the Clarion men to “die like rats” as one survivor said and did not abandon them as implied by a noted author unfairly using the word abandonment without citing references in recounting the tragedy and referring to the H.P. Bope as the ‘E. C. Pope’.30 The Bope saw no visible fire or lights and heard no calls for help;31 and, if the Bope came upon the Clarion as suddenly as stated by Balfour, the Bope was not able to stop due to her speed. Captain Sayre of the Munro provided a strong defense of the Bope’s actions: “… it was evident her master (Captain Balfour) was taking in the situation and could see the Hanna going to the burning boat.… anyone familiar with the handling of a ten thousand ton boat in such a storm knows they must have sea room. Had Captain Balfour crowded his own big steamer into the vicinity of the wreck, he would have blocked the maneuvers of the Hanna trying to save the remnant of the Clarion’s crew. We should commend his good judgment rather than criticize him and lament the fact that those who know so much yet do little at such times have been given a hearing.”32 Captain Sayre characterized the comments by sailors critical of Balfour’s actions as opinions of “idle chair warmers who sail the large steamers of the Great Lakes while toasting their inactive limbs by warm office stoves.”33 Although there were calls for an investigation into Captain Balfour’s actions, no evidence of an investigation was found. Even manager James C. Evans of the Anchor Line, owner of the Clarion, was not prepared to blame Captain Balfour, “You will find few men on the Great Lakes willing to believe any master would deliberately abandon men in distress.”34
Considering the statements of Captain Balfour, “one of the best known masters on the Lakes,”35 the support of Captain Sayre and no evidence of an investigation, the survivors’ accusations of negligence were the result of exhaustion and overwrought emotions. If any blame for the loss of the Clarion and her 15 crewmen36 needs to be assessed, perhaps it should be laid at the doorsteps of the vessel owners. As Hampton’s Magazine asked, “What right did (the vessels) have to be on the lake?”37 Answering the question a Toledo Blade editorial stated, “Whose dead are these? … Have we not reached that mile post … where responsibility can be placed for the loss of these lives? … In nearly every lake harbor steamers slipped out of port … At whose orders did these vessels sail? Let us have … talk about the men (vessel owners) who are responsible for the steamers taking chances with waters notoriously wild and perilous in a winter storm.”38 And quoting an unnamed captain in the Duluth Evening Herald, “We gamble with life, owners gamble with money.”39
The body of Captain Thomas Bell was recovered on October 10, 1910. Fishermen discovered the body washed ashore near Marlin, Ontario. The family in Ogdensburg was notified and Bell’s brother traveled to Ontario to identify the body. The body was wearing a captain’s uniform, and positive identification was made possible by a watch chain, a ring, and a letter from Bell’s wife in the pocket of the uniform. Captain Bell’s body was taken to Ogdensburg with burial taking place on October 13. The body of the man who went overboard in the effort to launch a lifeboat from the stern was found on April 6, 1910, in the Niagara River near Buffalo. No other bodies from the Clarion were recovered.
Captain Mathew Anderson of the L.C. Hanna was honored for his heroic actions in rescuing the six men on board the Clarion. In February 1910, he was presented with a bronze ship clock by the Weston Transportation Company. He continued to sail until his retirement at the end of the 1931 sailing season, and died on February 8, 1952.
Captain Corydon Sayre was captain of the Josiah G. Munro until end of the 1910 sailing season. He then became captain of the steamer Ontario. In late June 1912, he was on board his ship talking to friends, had a sudden violent attack of coughing and died. The Ontario was in port at Milwaukee at the time of death.
Captain Colin C. Balfour sailed until retirement in 1931. The Emory L. Ford was his last vessel. In May 1916, he was on Lake Superior as captain of the E. H. Utley. Seeing the S.R. Kirby go down in heavy seas near Eagle Harbor, and seeing the Kirby’s tow barge George E. Hartnell drifting helplessly, he maneuvered the Utley and rescued the Hartnell from imminent danger. The date was May 9, 1916. Early in 1917, he was honored by the International Ship Masters’ Association for his heroic actions. Captain Balfour died in retirement in Portland, Oregon, on May 14, 1933.
1 William MacHarg, “After Navigation Has Closed,” Hampton’s Magazine, March 1911.
2 Published yearly, the Red Book contained the names of vessels, owners, captains and engineers.
3 The annual directory of the International Ship Masters’ Association contained the names of association members with a list of vessels, owners and captains.
4 According to several newspapers, the Bope was the first Great Lakes vessel with wireless. An article in the Duluth News-Tribune on September 14, 1909, speaks of the wireless equipment being placed on the boat. An article in the Cleveland Press on December 13, 1909, said no more than 50 of the 2,500 boats on the Lakes had wireless. The Hanna and the Munro were among those with wireless, but the Clarion was not.
5 St. Clair Republican, March 1, 1888.
6 Detroit News Tribune, December 8, 1909.
7 Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1909.
8 A lightship is an anchored vessel acting as a lighthouse.
9 Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1909. The source of the fire was never identified.
10 Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1909.
11 Following his rescue, a statement of the Clarion’s chief engineer as printed in the Duluth Evening Herald, December 10, 1909.
12 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 12, 1909.
13 Cleveland News, December 11, 1909.
14 Ogdensburg Journal, December 20, 1909.
15 Ogdensburg Journal, December 11, 1909.
16 Ogdensburg Journal, December 20, 1909.
17 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 12, 1909.
18 Detroit New Tribune, December 12, 1909.
19 Detroit Free Press, December 24, 1909.
20 William MacHarg. “After Navigation Has Closed,” Hampton’s Magazine, March 1911.
21 Cleveland Leader, December 10, 1909.
22 Ogdensburg Journal, December 17, 1909.
23 Buffalo Morning Express, December 14, 1909.
24 Buffalo Morning Express, December 14, 1909.
25 Cleveland Press, December 13, 1909.
26 Buffalo Courier, December 14, 1909.
27 Buffalo Morning Express, December 18, 1909.
28 Buffalo Courier, December 14, 1909.
29 Buffalo Morning Express, December 14, 1909.
30 Chad Fraser. Lake Erie Stories; Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008) p. 141.
31 Recalling the statement of the chief engineer quoted earlier, the Bope, assuming she was one of the two boats that “passed . . . so close we could have called to them,” may not have heard any calls for help because none were made as she was passing the Clarion. This seems unlikely, but supports Captain Balfour’s statement saying no calls for help were heard.
32 Detroit Free Press, December 24, 1909.
33 Ogdensburg News, December 28, 1909.
34 Buffalo Morning Express, December 14, 1909.
35 Buffalo Evening Times, December 14, 1909.
36 In addition to the lives lost on the Clarion in the Lake Erie storm of December 8, 1909, lives were lost in the sinking of the W.C. Richardson and 38 were lost in the sinking of the car ferry Marquette and Bessemer No.2.
37 William MacHarg. “After Navigation Has Closed,” Hampton’s Magazine, March, 1911.
38 Toledo Blade, December14, 1909.
39 Duluth Evening Herald, December 13, 1909.
Bourie, Mark. Many a Midnight Ship: True Stories of Great Lake Shipwrecks. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Bowen, Dana Thomas. Shipwrecks of the Lakes. Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1984.
Fraser, Chad. Lake Erie Stories: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean. Toronto:Dundurn Press, 2008.
Kohl, Cris. 100 Best Great Lake Shipwrecks, Vol. 1. West Chicago, Illinois: Seawolf Communications, Inc., 1998.
Wachter, Georgann and Michael. Erie Wrecks and Lights. Avon Lake, Ohio. March, 2007.
Collections and Libraries
Bowling Green State University Historical Collection of the Great Lakes. Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio.
Burton Historical Library Collection. Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Michigan. Buffalo Public Library. Buffalo, New York.
Cleveland Public Library. Cleveland, Ohio.
State Library of Michigan. Lansing, Michigan. Toledo Public Library. Toledo, Ohio.
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, New York) December 1909–January 1910.
Buffalo Morning Express (Buffalo, New York) December 1909–January 1910.
Buffalo Enquirer (Buffalo, New York) December 1909–January 1910.
Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) December 1909–January 1910.
Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio) December 9, 17, 26, 1909.
Cleveland News (Cleveland, Ohio) December 9, 1909.
Cleveland Press (Cleveland, Ohio) December 10, 1909.
Detroit New Tribune (Detroit, Michigan) December 1909–January 1910.
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) December 1909–January 1910.
Duluth Evening Herald (Duluth, Minnesota) December 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 1909.
Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota) September 14, 1909, December 9–11, 18, 1909.
Ogdensburg Advance (Duluth, Minnesota) October 13, 1910.
Ogdensburg Journal (Ogdensburg, New York) December 9, 10, 11, 13, 16, 17, 20, 28, 1909, April 7, 1910, and October 8, 1910.
Post Standard (Syracuse, New York) December 13, 17, 18, 1909.
Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) December 1909–January 1910
Utica News Dispatch (Utica, New York) December 9, 1909.
Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York) December 16, 1909.
MacHarg, Michael. “After Navigation Has Closed.” Hampton’s Magazine, March 1911, pp. 271–78.
Thomas, Thomas J. “On the Shoals.” Worldwide Magazine, April 1911.
About the Author: David Balfour is a native of the St. Clair River area in Michigan. After receiving his undergraduate (’64) and graduate (’66) degrees in history from Central Michigan University, he taught history and government for 37 years in the Dearborn Public Schools, Dearborn, Michigan. Retiring in 2002, he now pursues his interest in the Balfour connection with the Great Lakes; five brothers and his great-grandfather were captains and one brother was a chief engineer. David and his wife have resided in the Northville/Plymouth, Michigan, area for the past 40 years. He is a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society and the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History.