The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Patrick Murphy
The autumn of 1913 had been a good year for Great Lakes shipping. Owing to the unusually high temperatures, ice in rivers and harbors was found only in inconsequent amounts in the extreme northern portions of the Lake Region and there was practically none reported at any port at the close of the period. Because of the favorable weather conditions the Great Lakes fleets were still in operation on November 10, 1913, when a monstrous storm struck the Lakes, first on Lake Superior and then gradually working eastward by the 13th. When the storm had passed, twelve ships had been lost along with their crews which totaled over two hundred men.
The ships, had the masters of them taken heed of the approaching storm and the storm warning flags that were flying, should not have been taken out into the waters of the Lakes with eighty-mile-an-hour, wind-whipped waves which at times reached the height of thirty-five feet. However, many vessels were caught in open waters and they simply did not have many alternatives open to them. About all that they could do was to ride out the storm as best they could and try to reach a protected bay or harbor. There was one ship without anywhere to go in the storm. This was the U.S. Government Lightship No. 82. The captain and crew were duty bound to remain on station during the storm to warn others of impending dangers off Abino Point, Ontario, in eastern Lake Erie, across from Point Sturgeon, New York, thirteen miles from Buffalo Harbor.
Lightship No. 82, was built in Muskegon, Michigan, by the Racine-Truscott Shell Lake Boat Company in 1912, a modern vessel in all respects and quite comfortable for its master and crew of five. Lighthouse Service records show that she was eighty feet in length, twenty-one feet in the beam, had a steam fired coal boiler, a thirty-foot tall beacon mast and was painted bright “English vermilion.” Creature comforts such as leather upholstered oak chairs, French plate glass mirrors, and a small book collection were also on board. The total cost of construction and outfitting the vessel was somewhere near forty-five thousand dollars.
Capt. Hugh H. Williams of Manistee, Michigan, was given command of the ship. Andrew Lehy of Elyria, Ohio, was the mate. Charles Butler of Buffalo, New York, was chief engineer and Cornelius Lehy of Elyria was his assistant. Peter Mackey of Buffalo, was the cook and the sixth member of the crew was seaman William Jensen of Muskegon, Michigan. Little did these men realize that when they went out on board Lightship No. 82, to take up their position guarding Waverly Shoal, that their sailing days would end forever, sometime during the day of November 10, 1913.
A lightship, since it is rather permanently moored to the bottom, poses some rather unique problems to marine architects. It is most difficult to keep a permanently moored ship stable in variable weather and water conditions. Secondly, there is the problem of locating hawespipes in the proper position on the vessel. Hawespipes are for the mooring cable and the anchor chain. If placed in the wrong position, a simple swell could easily swamp a light vessel. For example, Arthur D. Stevens, naval architect, states in his book Evolution of a Lightship, “I have had the privilege of visiting Lightship No. 4 (off Handkerchief Shoal, Nantucket Island, Mass.) last year, and one of the strong criticisms made was that when she would list very seriously, she would layover and be a long time recovering. I simply mention this as a criticism the men of the boat made. . . they criticised it as giving her a serious list when she sheered in the current.” If Lightship No. 4 did this action in a simple current, think what it must have been like for the forty-eight hour period aboard Lightship 82, with thundering “greybeards” breaking over her.
The lightship had two auxiliary boats aboard in which a possible escape attempt might have been made. However, the boats would no doubt have disintegrated as the great waves dashed them against the sides of the ship. In all probability, no attempt was ever made to leave the vessel since the captain and crew were dutybound to stay on station during all storms. This, after all, was part of their job. Like it or not, this is what it came down to. When the captain’s wife, Anna Marie Williams, of Manistee, Michigan, was asked if “the captain pulled up his anchors and sought shelter,” she replied, “Certainly not. Captain Williams and his crew were guardians and they would remain at their station until blown away or ordered to move. I know this because I know the caliber of my husband and the men who served him on the lightship.”
The first indication of trouble at Lightship 82’s station was received by Roscoe House, Lighthouse Inspector, 10th District, Buffalo, New York, at his home Tuesday morning, November 11, about 8:15 A. M., in a telephone message from the Buffalo Evening News to the effect that a life buoy bearing the lightvessel’s marks and other small bits of wreckage had been picked up on the beach inside the Buffalo breakwater. As soon as communication could be made with the lightship tender Crocus she was ordered to proceed at once to the lightvessels station to investigate and report back to Mr. House.
The finding of the life buoy and other articles, although very alarming, was not considered conclusive evidence that the ship herself was disabled, as these articles might have been washed off her deck. No whistles, distress bombs or rocket flares had been seen or heard in the vicinity of the vessel and all of these safety devices were on board. It was soon learned, however, by inquiries made of other captains of several incoming steamers, and from reports to the Buffalo Evening News from a resident on Point Abino, Ontario, that the lightvessel was not on her station.
Before the Crocus returned, the tug Yale was chartered and sent out under the assistant superintendent to make such a search “as practicable” and the Buffalo Life Saving Service was helping by patrolling the beach. Every effort humanly possible in that day was made in an attempt to locate and rescue the men and save the ship.
The Crocus returned at 1:45 P.M. and reported finding no trace of the ship or her crew and the tug Yale returned shortly after from an unsuccessful search. During the afternoon a drawer, evidently from the ship’s galley, was brought to Mr. House’s office, having been picked up in the vicinity of the South Buffalo, South Side Light. The launch of the Crocus with a patrolling party was sent to this locality. There in the water they found Lightship 82’s small wooden sailboat, upside down, without a mast. Darkness set in and the men returned to the lighthouse boat basin.
On Wednesday, November 12th, the work of patrolling the beach, breakwater and the vicinity around the South Entrance was resumed. The waves were too high to attempt any work at the station of Light Vessel 82. The most important development this day was the discovery of a board from the ship’s power boat containing the brass cover to the gasoline tank. Thus, both small boats on board the vessel were shown to have been destroyed in the storm.
A fisherman walking on the beach found perhaps the most bizarre artifact of the stricken ship. This was a wooden hatch cover bearing the message: “Good bye Nellie – Ship is breaking up fast – Williams”
During the summer of 1912, the Williams’ family had stayed at the home of Thomas Joseph, keeper of the Government lighthouse at Horseshoe Reef near Buffalo. Mrs. Joseph stated emphatically that during their stay at her house, Captain Williams had addressed his wife as “Nellie.” When Mrs. Williams, herself, arrived in Buffalo with her brother, to personally aid in the search for her husband she, too, said that it was a message indeed from her husband but not in his handwriting. Further investigation in the comparison of Captain Williams’ signature on the board and on a receipt for lumber he had purchased just five days before he disappeared proved beyond a doubt (as stated by a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News) that the sad message which washed up on the beach was from the captain. It was decided that in so serious a matter no one would have lowered himself to have attempted a hoax as the message on the board was first believed to be. Mrs. Williams believed that while the message was from her husband, it probably had been written by Mate Jensen. Mate Jensen had misunderstood in the storm what the captain had said. Mrs. Williams said, “the Captain never called me Nellie, Mr. Jensen simply made a mistake under those cruel circumstances.” Maybe so. If not, who was “Nellie?” This is one of the many mysteries surrounding the 82 that have never been solved and probably never will be.
Mrs. Williams herself was a very good sailor and believed in the many tales of the sea. She felt that if she went out onto the angry Lake Erie that perhaps she might be able to find her husband. Standing upon the pitching deck of the tender Crocus for two days must have presented the classic image of the sailor’s wife, with skirts billowing in the breeze, her hand shielding her eyes as she searched the cold raging waters for a sign of her husband. Unfortunately, Captain Williams and his crew were never found.
On Thursday, November 13th, Capt. E. M. Trott, General Inspector of the Light House Service, arrived from Washington, D. C., to take over the search. After putting aboard the Crocus the largest acetylene gas light buoy and hooks for grappling the bottom in hope of snagging the ship, Trott and Inspector House proceeded to the lightship station. When they arrived the seas were too high and they were prevented from doing any kind of work. Still there was no sign of the lightship or her crew.
By Friday, November 14th, the seas had calmed so that the gas buoy could be placed to mark the light vessel station, but a careful search operation by the crew of the Crocus failed again to locate any trace of the missing vessel or her moorings at the site.
Further investigation pointed out that the light vessel’s beacon was observed burning brightly at 7:00 P.M. Sunday evening, November 9th; that it was also seen at about 4:45 A.M. Monday morning, November 10th. The fact that the vessel disappeared between 4:45 A.M. Monday, and 4:50 A.M. Tuesday, the 11th, seems to be clearly established. And so, as near can be judged, it must have been during Monday, when the storm was at its height, that Lightship No. 82, with her steadfast crew, disappeared into the snow-shrouded waters of Lake Erie.
On November 21, 1913, Inspector House, in accordance with Light House Service regulations, recommended that the positions comprising the crew of six of Light Vessel No. 82 be discon
tinued effective at the close of November 10, 1913, due to the loss of the ship. Oddly enough, in his letter to the Secretary of Commerce, House listed the salaries which Williams and his men were paid:
Captain Williams $900 per year; Mate Lehy $660 per year; Engineer Butler $840 per year; Asst. Engineer Lehy $660 per year; Cook Mackey $40 per month; Seaman Jensen $37.50 per month
By today’s standards these wages were not very high when one considers the risk involved in protecting fellow sailors on the Great Lakes.
The saga of Lightship No. 82 does not end here. For in September 1915, she was brought up from the depths of Lake Erie. This was accomplished only after two salvage companies had quit the task of bringing her up, the fact that she was filled with sand and very heavy and finally the war in Europe tended to slow down efforts to salvage because the money was needed for war materials. The 32 ship was finally beached at Buffalo and then towed to Detroit, Michigan, where she was refitted. Now as a lightship tender, she spent her final days as an auxiliary lightship at duty stations in Lake Michigan, at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and North Manitou Island, and in Lake Huron at Port Huron, Michigan.
About the Author: Mr. Patrick Murphy, is a resident of Howell, Michigan, where he teaches in the Public Schools system. He is currently engaged in teaching a course termed “American Heritage” which he designed as an alternative to regular high school history classes. Twenty-five students spend their days on a 265-acre farm for a ten-week period, participating in various activities such as survival camping native crafts, archaeological surveys, oral history, marshland biology, and design and construction of traveling mini-museums for elementary schools.
Mr. Murphy’s interest in historical artifacts and museum projects was aroused by a course at University of Michigan in Museum Methods, and his master’s program at Goddard College included an innovative project “Museum Without Walls,” in which he and his students travelled over 16,000 miles using North America as a “teaching tool. ” Last July they took part in an archeological dig at Castle Hill, Charlottesville, Virginia, in connection with the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.