The Wreck of the MONTICELLO – Winter 1968

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

By Loren Hopkins

Ten days passed away waiting for a vessel to take us to Sault Ste. Marie. During that time Celotes Searles of Charlotte, Eaton County, put in his appearance with another surveying party of eight men. In the afternoon of the 25th September, the side-wheel steamer Monticello, a first-class steamer and the only one on the Lake, came for freight and passengers. The most of the afternoon was occupied in loading up and getting ready for the voyage.

About 5 o’clock the passengers, now numbering about 150, were all on board and the cargo was completed, which consisted of fish and copper. They took on board at that place about one hundred barrels of fish, and 50 tons of copper, one-half of which was stamped copper in barrels, which was placed in the hold of the steamer. The other half was mass copper of two to three tons each, placed around on the main deck, so as to distribute the weight equally on the boat. Then she proudly steamed out into the Lake, slowly and carefully at first, so as to pass safely by the shifting sandbars, in the mouth of the river.

When they had got some distance out, and it was thought the dangers nearly all passed, they put on more steam and were gliding smoothly and swiftly along when all at once there was a terrible jar and a thump right underneath, and the steamer suddenly stopped still. The stern was gradually carried around by the current from the river, which was still quite strong, then the engine turned the wheels backward, and the steamer slipped off the obstacle, which might have been the large pine tree encountered in the rapids ten days before. Her bow was swung around, and she started again on her fatal journey. Three hours passed before anyone knew anything about the death blow she had received.

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About eight o’clock, when the passengers had nearly all retired for the night, it was discovered that there was three feet of water in the hold. All were roused from their beds, and screams were heard in every direction. After the first shock was over, all who could possibly work went to bailing out the water with pails and pumps and windlasses, three of which were drawing out the water with a barrel, each with one head fastened with ropes. A man had to stand in the water, at first three feet deep; four hours later fully five feet deep. A little before midnight the bailing was abandoned, and all ran on the upper deck to take their last breath. They were driven back to their work by the use of firearms in the hands of some of the officers of the steamer.

They then rolled all the mass of copper which was upon the main deck into the surging waters. When a mass went over, that side of the boat would rise up a foot or two. The work of casting overboard the copper on the main deck, and all other heavy articles that could be got at, was soon accomplished, then the wind that had been blowing very hard from land, thus driving us farther and farther from shore, was fast quieting down, and hope once more revived. The boat would careen over to one side on her beam and stay there. The water would come up on her main deck one-third of the way across, the passengers would all get to the higher side — then that side would go down, and the other side come up. Then they would go to that side, and so change over.

About this time the water broke through into the engine room, which was below, thus driving out the fireman and engineer and putting out the fire. The engine kept right on for a few minutes, then worked slower and slower, and the clicking of the valves became fainter and fainter and less frequent, and finally, like the dying struggles of some giant, it ceased altogether. Then work was again abandoned, and the last ray of hope extinguished.

The crew gathered in groups and calmly resolved to meet death like brave men. It was now deemed certain that the boat would go down in a very few minutes at most. The sailors said that she would go down stern first as most of the barrels of stamped copper placed there in her hold were near the stern. Many of the passengers shook hands, and got ready to fill a watery grave already opening to receive them.

A few, however, still kept on planning. one man cut the ropes that bound the fender post to her side and wound it around the railing so as to quickly and easily launch off by himself when she should begin to go down. Another attempted to empty a barrel, and then put the head in again and attach ropes to it, to hang onto, to save himself. Two or three were watching a small rowboat and getting ready to embark in it. One of the number took a heavy pocketknife from his pants pocket, and some specimens of agate and cornelians and placed them in his coat pocket, then unbuttoned his coat, so he could throw it off quickly. He pulled off coarse, heavy boots and threw them away — then put on a pair of thin slippers, so as to be well prepared to swim to the rowboat if he should be left by the friends who had been assisted to escape, and who might be obliged to hurry away to prevent too many getting in with them. Another man pulled off his heavy boots and threw them away, without thinking he had nothing else to put on his feet, or realizing that he could not swim a rod either with, or without, boots.

The distance to shore was now estimated to be about fifteen miles (probably overestimated), and no person on board at that time expected to ever set foot upon the shore or see home or friends again. There was but little noise or confusion now. The most were preparing, or prepared, to accept the situation evidently so near at hand. A few here and there were invoking Divine aid.

A passenger suddenly stepped out of the crowd and said in a loud and firm tone of voice, “The wind is freshening up and blowing us right toward shore, if we can only keep her afloat just a little while, we can save our lives!”

The passengers didn’t need to be driven to their work this time. They resumed their work silently and with but little hope, but the wind soon increased to a gale, and hurried them on toward shore. In two hours, or a little past 2 o’clock, the dark line that had been seen so far in the distance, had become a great broad black belt, frowning down upon them like some formidable fort. A hurried consultation was held and it was decided that to attempt to land in the night would most likely prove disastrous. Here, then, was another and unexpected danger. They were now quite sure that the shore was no more than half a mile distant and yet they couldn’t land,  To attempt it in the night was thought to be sure death; to stay where they were was almost equally certain of the same result. They resolved to try the latter, and cast out an anchor and wished for the day.

The poet said, “There was no sleep till morn when youth and pleasure meet,” but they found out there was no sleep till morn when age and anguish met!  The three hours that followed — that is, from a little past 2 to a little after 5 — were probably the longest that they ever knew anything about. It did seem as if it never would get light. But morning came at last.

Then it could be seen that to wait till morning was the very best thing to do. The rocks along the shore as far as could be seen both ways were perpendicular and from 40 to 60 feet in height, and the water was deep right up to them, except one small place. About half a mile farther down, there was a depression, almost a ravine, where the perpendicular part of the rocks was not more than 20 feet high with a short curvature. A hemlock tree had fallen across from one side of the curve to the other, and a ridge of rocks, starting from the curve just above high water mark, extended into the Lake 40 rods or more, at right angles with the shore. Still water in the Lake would stand within 20 feet of the perpendicular rock. The lake end of the ridge was depressed so that the water was deeper and deeper over it, the farther you went from shore.

It was now deemed advisable to run the wreck upon the rocks, and use the two small rowboats that were still on the wreck to get the passengers to land. They cut loose from the anchor so as not to add any additional weight to the only thing that barely kept them from a watery grave, and started on their perilous journey, carrying just about the same amount of water that they had when they anchored. If they should keep too close to shore they might strike against the ridge of rocks and sink in deep water. If they should keep too far from shore they might miss the ridge or shallows and get into deep water beyond.

It was therefore a hazardous undertaking, but was accomplished successfully. The center of the wreck struck the rocks so hard, that no one could possibly keep on his feet unless he had a firm hold of something and was prepared for the shock, which was very severe. The smokestack came down with a terrible crash, falling within a few feet of a large number of passengers but without injuring any. Her timbers trembled, her bolts failed, and her decks began to spring off from their fastenings. It was evident that whatever was to be done, must be done quickly.

Another danger must now be encountered. The wind which was hailed with delight during the past night as the agent of salvation, was now regarded as the agent of destruction! It was now blowing a terrific gale toward land, the waves were estimated to be from 40 to 60 feet in height, and each wave as it struck the wreck filled the whole space between decks, but would flatten out before it got across, so that persons standing on the leeward side of the wreck on the main deck, could easily manage to keep their heads out of water.

They had only two small boats, one would hold 15 or 16 men, the other five or six, and it was not certain that eight could ride such a sea, but it must be tried, and at once the larger rowboat was accordingly lowered and four of the strongest and best seamen got into it with a rope, one end of which was fastened to the main mast. They started out for shore, as more than a hundred persons stood upon the upper deck watching with intensest interest the departing boat.

They noticed that every wave hid the boat and men from their view. They did so because they knew that their own fate was involved in the success or failure of the enterprise. They soon joyfully saw them land on dry rock, climb up the perpendicular part by means of the help afforded by the fallen hemlock, and tie the other end of the rope to a tree, which stood ten or fifteen rods back from the shore. An attempt was then made to launch the small boat, which filled before a single man got into it.

Then three men started back with the boat to get passengers. They pulled the boat back by the rope, and when they approached the wreck it was with extreme difficulty that they could load up without over-loading, because all were so anxious to get to shore. The rowboat kept bobbing up and down, and would dodge first to one side, then the other, making it quite difficult to jump into it. The seamen would draw the boat near to the wreck when several would jump into it, then they would let it fly away back so as to prevent too many getting in at a time. Then they would draw it up and try again, and so on, till they had a dozen to fifteen men — then off to shore again.

Captain A. B. Wood counseled the surveyor boys not to be in a hurry, but “wait for a more convenient season” just as many others have done in all ages of the world. But my father thought differently, and proceeded to secure a passage by return, and went with the fifth boatload to the shore, and didn’t wait for an introduction either! But as they approached the shore a heavy wave struck her just right and filed her full of water and sent her against the rocks with such force that a great hole, almost as large as a man’s hat, was made in the bottom. They had no way to repair it, so they thought those yet on the wreck would have to die. They drew her up out of the reach of the waves and then they climbed up the rugged rocks, and went into the edge of the woods and built a fire to warm themselves.

Between seventy-five and a hundred persons were still on board the wreck, but they couldn’t hear a word from shore, while those on shore could distinctly hear what was said on the wreck — and their entreaties were truly heart-rending. Once more a passenger was equal to the occasion. He said, “Come on boys, we must contrive to get them ashore.”

Several went down to the water’s edge with him. He took hold of a pail that was floating on the water and gave it to a man, and asked him to go in the boat and bail water constantly, then he got a bedquilt that had just come ashore in a box of bedding that had been preserved because it had but little weight, at the time they were disposing of the heavy part of her cargo. They folded it until it was only two or three feet square, laid it over the hole in the boat and sat down on it. Then two men got in to pull the boat back and forth by the rope and the four men stuck to their work until they rescued every human being on board.

The shore end of the rope was fastened to a tree upon the bluff and when the seamen approached the shore, it drew up so high on their arms, it was difficult to hang onto it when they were in the troughs of the sea, so I thought I would make it a little easier for them. Next time when they were coming toward shore with a load of passengers, I took hold of the rope where I could reach it, and followed it down to the perpendicular part of the rocks, then swung off and slipped down the rope till I could touch my toes to the rocks below, but it took me out into the water above my knees. There the seaman would stand and hold to the rope till the boat arrived, then the man in the bow would let go of the rope and swing the bow around till the sides were parallel with the shore, then unload as quickly as possible, then shove the bow around toward the wreck and start back for another load.

All this time my father stood in water above his knees, and every one of the great waves would submerge his entire person so that for a moment, he was out of sight in the wave. Not more than six or eight waves would reach the shore during the approach of the boat and unloading it, if no accident happened. But the boat filled five times full of water, and had every time to be drawn to the edge of the water, and as many men as could work got on the lake side of the boat and raised the side as high as they could, then waited for a wave to help them tip it over, then turn it back quickly and turn the bow toward the wreck, so that the waves might strike it on the end instead of the side, or it would fill and sink again.

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No person had bestowed one thought upon what was to be done on reaching land, but now that hope had ended in fruition and the great desideratum realized, something must be decided on to relieve the pressing wants of a crowd of wet, shivering, exhausted, and half-starved men, women and children. It was known that the seven men who landed first started right off for the nearest settlement for food and help. It was also thought perhaps some food might be obtained from the wreck, as soon as the wind ceased blowing such a gale. It was therefore determined to remain where we were until next morning.

Toward night the wind ceased blowing, and then an effort was made to visit the wreck to try to secure something to eat. Nothing could be obtained except a barrel that had once contained flour, and a small piece of fresh beef, which was divided among the sick men, women and children. The flour in the barrel was now mostly batter, but some of it was not so thin but that it could be kneaded like bread.

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The men in the first boat, sent out from the settlement by the seven who went for relief two days before, a beacon light having been kept all night to direct them to the spot, ate breakfast that Sabbath morning by the firelight, the first they had had since the Thursday before. They were all allowed to take one day’s provision with them, and as soon as it was light resumed their journey. As they were approaching the town in regular Indian style, they met quite a number of people who were anxious to give us a cordial reception. One man, on seeing my barefooted friend, sat down on a log and pulled off his boots, and gave them to him. He refused to take them at first, but he insisted upon his having them. He told him they were too small. He replied, “You can cut slits in the uppers. I’ll never consent to allow a man to enter our town under such circumstances, barefoot.” At the same time tears could be seen starting from his eyes as though he meant what he said.

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About the Author: This fragmentary account of the wreck of the propeller Monticello near Copper Harbor, Michigan, September 25-26, 1851, was written by Loren Hopkins, formerly of Owosso, Michigan, member of a surveying party that was returning from a summer’s work in the vicinity of Ontonagon, Michigan. The original unedited manuscript was sent to us by Mr. Harvey C. Hopkins of Chappaqua, New York, grandson of Loren Hopkins, at the suggestion of Mr. Carl Hogberg, president of the Orinoco Mining Company, and member of the Great Lakes Historical Society.

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