The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Capt. S.A. Lyons
We loaded grain at Fort William and left there at 8:00 P.M. the night of November 6th. The captain of the James Carruthers and I were in the shipping office together and intended to come down together as we were going to get away at about the same time, but evidently he did not get out until some time after I did.
When I left the barometer was below normal but stationary, and the wind had been blowing for some time. After getting outside of Thunder Cape a heavy sea was running from the southwest, and a strong breeze. I went back under Pie Island, letting go anchor at 10:00 o’clock and laying there until 3:30 the morning of the 7th, when the wind went north and we proceeded on our voyage.
On arriving at White Fish Bay it shut in very thick and foggy, which held us there the balance of the night and until about 8:00 o’clock the following morning, November 8th.
There were a number of steamers laying at anchor further down the bay and they, of course, locked down ahead of the Sheadle. The James Carruthers locked down just ahead of us, then we followed at 8:30 P.M., with the Hydrus immediately after us, both of which vessels were lost. It had been snowing, having commenced along in the afternoon. It was snowing some while we were in the lock but had cleared up when we left the lock.
I had wired the office I would not leave, but as it cleared up we continued on down the river, passing out into Lake Huron at 1:53 A.M. the morning of November 9th, with the wind light north northeast. The only variation in our course from that time until practically within two miles of Thunder Bay was one-eighth of a point. As we approached the fuel dock of Messrs. Pickands, Mather & Co., we sighted the Carruthers taking fuel; she left the dock, rounded to, and entered Lake Huron shortly before we did.
Before we arrived at Presque Isle, Lake Huron, it commenced to snow some; sometimes it would clear up so that we could pick up the land; we saw Presque Isle, Middle Island, and Thunder Bay. From our soundings when we got to Thunder Bay at 8:35 A.M. we were about two miles outside of our regular course down Lake Huron, having steered southeast by south 1/8 south. The barometer at this time was below normal, but stationary.
In an hour and a half after passing Thunder Bay Island the wind had increased and there was a strong wind from north northeast with snow. The sea kept on increasing, and the wind changed to due north blowing a gale. At 11:30 A.M. the course was changed to south by east 1h east in order to bring the ship more before the sea, and we continued to shift from a half to a point as the sea increased so as to keep the ship running practically dead before it; also to keep the ship from rolling and the seas from breaking over the decks.
We got the regular soundings at Pointe Aux Barques that we had been getting on previous trips, and by the soundings and the time we could tell when we were abreast of the point. It was snowing a blinding blizzard and we could not see anything. According to the soundings we got by the deep sea sounding lead we were abreast of Harbor Beach at 4:50 P.M. and three miles outside of the regular course we take during the summer. At this time the wind was due north and at Harbor Beach we changed our course to due south, running dead before the sea and wind. The bell rang for supper at 5:45 P.M., which was prepared and tables set, when a gigantic sea mounted our stern, flooding the fantail, sending torrents of water through the passageways on each side of the cabin, concaving the cabin, breaking the windows in the after cabin, washing our provisions out of the refrigerator and practically destroying them all, leaving us with one ham and a few potatoes. We had no tea or coffee. Our flour was turned into dough. The supper was swept off the tables and all the dishes smashed.
Volumes of water came down on the engine through the upper skylights, and at times there were from four to six feet of water in the cabin. Considerable damage was done to the interior of the cabin and fixtures. The after steel bulkhead of the cabin was buckled. All the skylights and windows were broken in. A small working boat on the top of the after cabin and the mate’s Chadburn were washed away.
It was blowing about 70 miles an hour at this time, with high seas, one wave following another very closely. Owing to the sudden force of the wind the seas had not lengthened out as they usually do when the wind increases in the ordinary way. In about four hours the wind had come up from 25 to 70 miles an hour, but I do not think exceeded 70 miles an hour.
Immediately after the first sea swept over our stern, I ordered the boatswain to take sufficient men and shutters to close all windows in the after cabin. The men forced their way aft, braving the wind, sleet and seas, one hand grasping the life rail and the other the shutters. Reaching the after cabin in safety they began securing the shutters, when another tremendous sea swept over the vessel carrying away the shutters. The men were forced to cling to whatever was nearest them to keep from being washed overboard; immediately a third sea, equally as severe, boarded the vessel, flooding the fantail and hurricane deck. The men attempted to reach the crew’s dining room but could not make it, and only saved themselves by gripping the nearest object they could reach. Indeed one of the wheelsmen was only saved from going over by accidentally falling as he endeavored to grope his way to the rail, his foot catching in one of the bulwark braces, preventing him from being swept off. Another monster sea boarded the boat, tearing the man loose from the brace, and landing him in the after tow line which had been washed from its rack and was fouled on deck.
The men finally made the shelter of the dining room and galley. One of the oilers stood watch at the dining room door, closing it when the boat shipped a sea and opening it when the decks were clear to let the water out of the cabins.
The steward and his wife were standing knee deep in the icy water. The steward’s wife was assisted into the engine room, the steward remaining in the dining room, securing furniture and silverware. The firemen and seamen were comfortable in their rooms as they were not touched. Some of the outfit of the private dining room was washed into the mess room, the steward’s trunk was washed out of his room and stood on end in the Galley. The steward’s wife had to remain all night in the engine room wrapped in a blanket.
Water through the engine room skylight drenched the two engineers who were throttling the engines; I do not think it ever happened before when these two men had to stand by those two positions constantly. From 2:30 P.M. until 5:00 the engines raced, requiring the greatest care and judgment. At times the ship was so heavily burdened with seas coming over her decks that her revolutions were decreased from 75 to 35 turns per minute. The engineers made their positions more comfortable by rigging up a piece of canvas over the engines.
We continued on our course, following our deep sea soundings, and at 9:00 o’clock had soundings of eighteen fathoms. This carried us well off to the west shore. I called the engineer up at this time and told him that at 10:00 o’clock (the night of November 9th) I was going to turn around head to the sea unless I could locate the land or Fort Gratiot light, and wanted to increase the speed of the ship up to that time so as to enable me to bring the boat around head to on account of the sea running behind us. At 10:00 o’clock we turned, heading north half east; the vessel rolled very heavily but came around all right head to. I should judge that we were ten minutes in turning. At that time we were about ten miles north of Fort Gratiot by the soundings we got – ten fathoms. I had everything lashed before we turned. No one thought of a life preserver. The way the ship was behaving we had every confidence in her. The heavy rolling tore adrift the binnacle on top of the pilot house. After that it was extremely dangerous to be in the house as this heavy object was hurled back and forth across the deck as the ship labored and rolled in the heavy sea.
During this time from Pointe Aux Barques to the foot of the lake our log line iced heavily, and the seas at times washed brace and dial inboard over the rail, rendering it useless. We were obliged to depend entirely on the deep sea lead, which was in constant use for 17 hours, at half hour and 15 minute intervals. By the use of the deep sea lead we knew where the ship was at all times. Having the familiar soundings right along through it all was the only thing that kept us from being wrecked, as it gave us confidence as to our location. The men were familiar with the use of the lead, as we had used the machine constantly, but it was a great punishment on them to keep it going at this time.
Just after turning I sent the first mate aft to inspect the wheel chains and quadrant. He telephoned me that they were all right but that he could not get forward again at that time, the seas covering the decks with a solid mass of blue water. The men of the second watch had remained on deck with us, and while we would not let one man go aft alone we did not hesitate to let two go together.
The mate made quite a fight to get forward but was unable to make it then, and crawled back to the engine room half unconscious.
I started back on a vice versa course, which would be north half east for six and one-quarter hours, following my soundings back from ten to twenty-two fathoms. During this time one of the wheelsmen got aft, securing a few pieces of bread, and came forward again with the mate and boatswain. One watchman remained on watch in the galley.
At 4:15 A.M., November 10th, I turned again, heading south one quarter west. This time we experienced much difficulty in turning, the ship remaining longer in the trough of the sea on account of not getting so much way and running head into it, but she behaved well, handled well in every way and steered well. The rolling was very bad – I was lifted right off my feet. Only by the greatest effort were the second mate and myself able to hold onto the stanchions on the top house, our legs being parallel with the deck most of the time.
Again and again she plunged forward, only to be baffled in her attempts to run before it, sometimes fetching up standing and trembling from stem to stern. She was buffeted about by the tremendous seas, almost helpless, dipping her hatches in the water on either side, barrels of oil and paint getting adrift and smashing out the sides of the paint locker. The men were tossed around the wheel house at will.
I feared her steering gear had given way, but fortunately on examination it proved to be all right. She would gain a half point, only to lose it, but finally after a mighty effort she swung around. I never had seen seas form as they did at this time; they were large and seemed to run in series, one mounting the other like a mighty barrier.
Running back we decreased our speed from “Full” to 55 turns as we got down closer to the river, following back on somewhat different soundings than we got going up. We came back in two hours where it took us six and one-quarter to face the sea.
At 6:30 A.M., November 10th, I called the engineer and told him I was not satisfied with the soundings we were getting, and to be prepared at any moment to give me full power to turn the ship again. We could see nothing on account of the heavy fall of snow.
At 6:45 A.M. we turned for the third time, heading north by west. This time the sea had decreased, and the wind had gone to the northwest in the meantime, so that there was practically no sea to bother us any.
The 70 mile gale lasted from about 10:00 o’clock Sunday morning until about 2:00 o’clock Monday morning, 16 hours of it, with continuous snow all the time. We kept our whistle blowing all the time, but at times we up forward could not hear it ourselves.
At 8:30 A.M. it had cleared up so we could see quite a distance, so we turned around again heading south one-half west, the wind and sea going down. In fifteen minutes we could see the west shore, and sighted what I suppose was the wreck of the Price, passing this hull at about a distance of 1,000 feet. We noted what we thought were oil barrels and wreckage floating not over a quarter of a mile to the leeward of her. Just before we arrived abreast of the wreck we cast our deep sea lead to determine what water there was in that locality, and found ten fathoms.
We proceeded on our way over to the location where the Fort Gratiot lightship should have been stationed. We had slowed down to slow speed some time before we got in this locality. I picked up the stack of the lightship, which had drifted two or three miles out of position. Just at this time it shut in to snow again, and I backed away from the stack three-quarters of a mile or more, letting go my anchor, and waiting there until it cleared up at 12:00 o’clock noon.
When it cleared up we proceeded on our voyage down, passing Detroit at 7:00 o’clock the evening of the 10th. After entering the river the steward served dinner in the galley, which was the first regular meal since Sunday noon, and which consisted of beef and potatoes. Supper was also served in the galley, consisting of ham and potatoes.
The water being low, and we having no provisions, I tied up at Smith’s coal dock to take provisions on board the next morning, the 11th, leaving there at 9:00 o’clock when the water came up.
When we arrived at Bar Point the water was unusually low and we grounded there in the west channel. We released ourselves with our own power after some five and a half hours delay, getting on our way and proceeding on our voyage to Erie, that being our port of destination, where we arrived at 11:10 A. M., November 12th.
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STEAMER J. H. SHEADLE
Ann Arbor, December 24, 1913
Mr. J. H. Sheadle, Secretary The Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. Cleveland, Ohio
Your letter received referring to my statement of the last trip, asking for my reasons for turning around three times during the storm of November 7th, 8th and 9th.
The first time, I turned around at the lower end of Lake Huron owing to the circumstances. I did not consider it safe to proceed any further on our course toward the river, or get in the locality where downbound steamers would likely be at anchor. From the soundings I felt perfectly safe in turning as I did. I had figured for some time previous on doing so, and had given the engineer ample time to be in readiness at such a time to turn around, which we did at the exact time and I have every reason to believe in the locality I had figured on.
You may ask the question why I did not let go my anchors after turning around under such conditions. I did not consider it a safe policy to do so, for had I attempted it there was a long chance of losing them, and at the same time putting the steamer in a position where it would be impossible to handle her. In fact, it has always been my policy to not try to find a harbor or anchorage under such conditions as long as my boat is seaworthy and is acting satisfactorily in every way.
The second time I turned, I figured I was far enough from the river to get back shortly after daylight, and besides I was not going that way with my cargo. I had also given the engineer due notice in regard to time, etc. Of course we would naturally expect a little more difficulty in turning this time, but by the proper handling of the engines and the helm we turned around and headed back for the river.
The third time we turned there was no sea to speak of and we had no difficulty whatever in turning. The soundings were not satisfactory, and it was still snowing so that we could see no distance, and I did not consider it safe to proceed any further, especially as the soundings I had been getting were not satisfactory. I considered it policy to keep in good water until it cleared up.
About ten minutes after turning the last time it began to clear up so we could make out the shore line on both sides of the lake.
As to the question of the safety of the steamer other than stranding or collision, I considered her perfectly safe, as we had only run our ballast pump five hours in the 24, and one-half of this time was taken up pumping out the weather side. After covering up the vent pipes on deck leading to the ballast tanks we had very little pumping to do.
At 11:00 A.M. on the 9th I called up the engineer and told him to start the ballast pumps on the weather side, and at 1:30 P.M. he called me and said they had a suck on all tanks on that side, and from that time on we only pumped two and a half hours during the bad weather.
I can truthfully say to you that at no time during this storm did I have any fear whatever for the safety of the steamer, and if any of my crew thought different their actions did not show it.
Trust this explanation as to why I turned will be satisfactory to you.
Yours very truly,
About the Author: The previous is the report of Captain S. A. Lyons to the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company on his handling of his ship, the Str. J. H. SHEADLE during the famous storm of November 11, 1913.