The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Dana Thomas Bowen
Readers of Inland Seas will undoubtedly recall the series “The Schooner La Petite: Journal of Captain Oscar B. Smith,” which was published in the Summer, Fall and Winter 1970 issues, and later as a 60-page, illustrated brochure by our Great Lakes Historical Society. This was a day-by-day account of the captain of a Great Lakes schooner, whose grand- niece, Lois Snow, is my wife. The “Journal,” told in his own words, was entirely unedited, and apparently, had many interested readers.
The La Petite was a wooden sailing vessel, built in 1866, trading anywhere on the Lakes, and the tale began on May 26, 1876, as Captain Smith of Huron, Ohio, wrote in his log: “I am off Point Abino now with wind ahead, Southwest, on port tack. Have aboard 32 cords of paving stone for Cleveland.” Thus the log of this early lake schooner continued until the skipper noted on July 13, 1878: “Bought another copy book at Buffalo for the new journal, as this one is all filled up. ‘Tis a lovely day. Bought new carpet for Mother at Buffalo, also carpet for my state room on vessel.” And there this interesting account ended.
Many of our readers have since wanted to know more about this old windjammer of the Great Lakes – what became of the La Petite? But the years had erased her record, it seemed. It was later learned that the old ship had changed owners and went to a man in Milwaukee, and then the La Petite was practically forgotten.
But not entirely! On July 31, 1975, a new visitor to our Museum in Vermilion, Ohio, Mr. Earl E. Lohrke, made a personal inquiry regarding the old schooner La Petite. He had come from Bay City, Michigan, to look up the history of this particular ship, and had brought with him the story of the ending of the old schooner! His grandfather, William Glockner, was master of the La Petite at the time of her capsizing, and The Marine News, September 8, 1903, carried the account which follows. The report of the United States Life-Saving Service, with further detail, is also included. These articles were given to Mr. Lohrke by his cousin, Karen Borkenhagen of Nashotah, Wisconsin, who found them in the Milwaukee Public Library, through her research in their Local History and Marine Collections.
NEWS OF THE LAKES
OLD-TIME MILWAUKEE SCHOONER A TOTAL LOSS
SEPTEMBER 7, 1903
WATERLOGS IN MIDLAKE AND SUBSEQUENTLY CAPSIZES AND DRIFTS ASHORE AT CLAYBANKS-CREW RESCUED
The schooner La Petite has been added to the list of old-timers whose bones are rotting in the sands of Lake Michigan, having met her fate in the southeast on last night. The La Petite, in command of Capt. William Glockner, left Fox Lake at 10 o’clock Saturday night with a load of hardwood slabs for delivery to her owner, Theodore Plathner of Milwaukee. Everything went well until early Monday morning, when a big blow from the southeast kicked up a tremendous sea and the terrible wrenching to which the vessel was subjected caused her to spring a leak. The lives of those on board now depended on reaching a harbor and the prospects were anything but encouraging with a leaking schooner in midlake and the storm raging in all its fury. The men worked at the pumps with the energy of despair and the old vessel was crowded with canvas in a desperate effort to get within sight of land. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon the canal was sighted. When ten or fifteen miles off shore signals of distress were displayed. These were seen by the lifesavers. Capt. Carl Anderson called on the tug Sydney Smith, Capt. Batcheldor, to go to the rescue. Notwithstanding the seas and winds, the gallant skipper hastily responded, taking the lifesaving crew and apparatus with him.
After battling with the elements for four hours the water-logged craft was finally reached and a tow line got to her. Her lifesavers then transferred the crew to the tug, a piece of work that was accomplished under the most difficult and hazardous circumstances. Altogether nearly two hours were consumed and it was 8 o’clock when the tug started for the canal with the schooner. After towing for about an hour the craft filled with water and capsized. Being unable to hang onto so clumsy a tow, Capt. Batcheldor was obliged to let go and the craft drifted ashore seven miles south of the canal, at Claybanks, where she is rapidly being pounded to pieces.
Besides the skipper the crew consisted of Mate Anton Anderson, Seaman William Anderson, John Arntsn and Cook Ole S. Dohl, all of Milwaukee.
The craft is the property of Theodore Plathner of Milwaukee and is of 172 tons burden, 119 feet long, 24 feet beam. She was built at Huron, Ohio, in 1866.
– The Marine News,
September 8, 1903
UNITED STATES LIFE-SAVING SERVICE
Name and Nationality
Date: 1903, Sept. 7
Station and locality of vessel: Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin, Lake Michigan
American schooner La Petite Nature of casualty and service rendered
At 2 p.m. this schooner, 12 miles S. of the station, and flying a signal for a tug, was seen by the lookout. A tug was telephoned for, and, arriving at the station at 4:45 p.m., took the lifeboat, with keeper and crew, in tow and proceeded to the vessel. She was found to be at anchor and on approaching her the captain hailed and requested assistance at the pumps, as the vessel was leaking very badly. At great risk to the lifeboat, because of the heavy sea running, three men were put on board the schooner, a line was made fast to her, and the boat dropped astern. The tug, after several attempts, got a line to the vessel, the anchor was slipped, and she was taken in tow. After proceeding for a distance of 5 miles, she filled with the heavy seas and capsized. The lifeboat was immediately hauled up to the vessel, and with much difficulty, the crew of eight men, who were clinging to the rail, with every sea sweeping over them, were taken into her, the towline cut, and the boat dropped clear of the wreckage with which she was surrounded, and by which she was greatly endangered. The tug then towed the lifeboat to the station, where the shipwrecked men were provided with dry clothing from the supply of the Women’s National Relief Association and succored until the morning of the 9th instant. The vessel was lost.
And this is the final chapter in the life of the good old Great Lakes schooner La Petite – 172 tons burden, 119 feet long, 24 feet beam, and built at Huron, Ohio in 1866. Subsequent research has proven beyond doubt that this ship was actually Captain Oscar B. Smith’s vessel, the La Petite.
About the Author: Mr. Dana Thomas Bowen, Charter Member Number 15 of the Great Lakes Historical Society, has become one of the best known Great Lakes historians since his first book was published in 1946. A chapter of this volume, Memories of the Lakes, appeared in the first issue of INLAND SEAS, January 1945. Mr. Bowen has served as an Assistant Editor of our journal since 1969. One of the significant honors he has received over the years was the naming for him of the diesel tug, the Dana T. Bowen, by the Hindman Company in 1966. In 1974 he was awarded the title “Great Lakes Man of the Year,” by the Marine Historical Society of Detroit. Mr. and Mrs. Bowen are residents of Rocky River, Ohio, and during the winter months, of Daytona Beach, Florida, where they always plan to attend the Annual Great Lakes Marine Club of Florida Brunch, held at Pompano Beach. No doubt a report of this Brunch will be received as usual from Mr. Bowen.