The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Lost at Sea
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 19 Oct 1871, p. 1

Full Text
The Propeller R. G. Coburn Foundered in Lake Huron
Probable Loss of Thirty or Forty Lives
A Boat Containing Ten Persons Picked Up.
Arrival of the Survivors at Detroit
Particulars of the Melancholy Disaster.
Some Account of the Lost and Saved.
Two Other Boats Started from the Wreck.
A Number of People Afloat on the Hurricane Deck.

Tuesday night the painful rumors along the docks that an unknown propeller had foundered in Lake Huron were all merged into the one report that the unfortunate one was the R. G. Coburn, of the Lake Superior Line. Her owner, Captain Eber Ward, of this city, as well as others, knew that the Coburn was overdue, and that she must have been in that locality during the gale on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and while there was no reliable information to prove the truth of the report, there was still no information which could deny it. Yesterday was a gloomy day in many of the shipping offices, and at the headquarters of the Lake Superior Line there was a constant tide of callers, some having relatives among the Coburn's crew, others having friends who were expected down on her. Nothing definite was known until noon, when Captain Ward received a telegram from the Keweenaw, at Marine City, saying that the Coburn had gone to the bottom of Lake Huron, and that the Keweenaw had on board ten persons who had been saved in a small boat. While this news rendered certain the loss of the noble craft, it was meager in regard to the saved and lost, and at six o'clock last evening, when the Keweenaw came down, there was a crowd of two or three hundred people on the dock to gather particulars from lips of those recued.


All who experienced it agree that the gale of Saturday night was the heaviest one of the season, and some of the never saw it blow so hard. The sea was tremendous, even before it reached its height, which was about daylight Sunday morning. The wind was from the southwest.

The Coburn was bound down from Lake Superior, having a fair cargo of wheat and flour, about thirty barrels of silver ore, and some miscellaneous freight. The Coburn first encountered the storm at Presque Isle. While other vessels were making for shelter with all speed, the staunch propeller put her head into the white waves and kept straight on her course, no one on board having a fear but that she could weather any gale and ride any sea.


as she came out into the long stretch of open sea, keeping well out from the shore, she felt the gale more and more severely, and the waves began to roll up higher and higher. It was getting to be a terrible hard storm, and those who were rescued state that they saw the captain and his officers in earnest consultation, and heard them remark that the worst was yet to come, although they did not seem to be apprehensive but that the Coburn would pull through it was she had many storms before.


John Gray, of Marquette, one of the passengers, states that there was no excitement during the night.

Hour after hour went by; the waves rose higher, the gale shrieked louder, still the staunch propeller held her course, the engines worked splendidly, and every officer was doing his whole duty. No one feared for the result. From all accounts, it is pretty certain that there were from twenty to thirty passengers on board, and the propeller carried a crew numbering nearly thirty more. Not a passenger was called up, and there was no extra excitement among the crew.


Contrary to all hopes, the gale did not slack up, but rather increased in strength, if it were possible. By two or there o'clock every one on board the ship was up and dressed, and it began to be whispered about that the Coburn was laboring heavily, and that a few hours more of the storm would overtask her strength. Still, no one was excited. The captain gave his orders coolly, the mates saw them obeyed promptly, and the crew, to a man, kept their posts. There were eight women on board, four or five being passengers, but Gray states that he did not hear a scream from one of them, even when the craft settled down to her grave.


About four o'clock in the morning, when the Coburn was a little below Thunder Bay, she unshipped her rudder, swung round into the trough of the raging sea, and then a short, sharp cry of dispair arose from the sailors. It was not repeated. With a spirit that rosse above the danger, the captain ordered the men to their work, and they labored on in silence. The captain saw that she must be lightened, as her cargo had begun to shift, and so he ordered holes to be cut in her bulwarks, through wich her deck load of flour could be rolled overboard. All went to work with a will, passengers assisting the crew, as this was a work of life or death. But through the holes thus cut, and by the gangways, the water poured in rapidly, and she labored even more than before the cargo was thrown overboard.


Soon after loosing her rudder, the Coburn rolled her smoke-stack overboard, and another shout of dispair went up from the crew, only to be silenced again by the stern words of Captain Dumont: "Every man to his work!"


The scene in the cabins at this time was a strange one. The ladies were trying to be brave, the men were even holding conversations of an ordinary character, while one of them was smoking a pipe. They were pitched this way and that, but hung to the doors and the furniture, and there was not even a word of complaint. If the poor women trembled, and the men looked pale, no one spoke of the awful fate which overtook them at a later hour. It seemed that each one had made up his mind to face death without a word of alarm or a shriek of terror.


About half past six o'clock the cargo shifted in such a way as to hold the brave ship heeled over, and the water dashed into her in mighty volumes. Part of the flour and the ore were gone, but the water was far heavier, and officers whispered to each other in bated breath, that none might hear and raise a cry, that the Coburn was gradually foundering! She was slowly and surely settling down, and all the efforts put forth by the crew could not avail against the dashing of the giant waves. Still there was no alarm. If the officers thought of the passengers, they were too prudent to break the news and raise an alarm which could only end in death coming the sooner. In the steerage was a widow woman and three children. Gray and others saw her cowering down in fear, her little ones on her lap and in her arms, but she gave no outward sign of the terror in her heart. Not a scream nor a wail. Not a sign to show that anyone feared the yawning grave before him.


the Coburn was heeled over on her side, engines working in a fitful way. Each one was left free to take care of himself. The vessel was sinking slowly down, and there was no keeping the fact from any one on board. One by one the firemen came up, the crew left the main deck for the upper one. Still the first mate, William Simmons, kept shoving the flour overboard, and was hard at work when the last deck hand went above. He undoubtedly went down with the propeller, working to the last for her salvation. Between seven and eight o'clock Gray left the cabin for the hurricane deck. as he took a last look around the room, men and women were still clinging to their supports, but each one was outwardly calm and cool. Not a sob or a tear--not a word of fright. Going up on the hurricane deck, he stood for a moment close by the unfortunate captain, who was gazing seaward. Dawn had long since come, but it might as well have been midnight for all hope of relief which could be gleaned on that wide waste of dashing, breaking billows, sweeping over and over the struggling ship as if angered that she had fought so long and well. With death waiting for him no fifteen minutes away, Captain Dumont had no quiver in his voice, and his check was not a shade paler.


All of the crew and most of the passengers had by this time taken refuge on the hurricane deck, as the water was rapidly rising in the cabins. It was evident that the end was near, and preparations were made for getting out the boats, of which there were two life boats and a yawl. But little hope was had that they would live in such a sea as was then running, but no other resource was left. Some of the negro deck hands and firemen got possession of the yawl and were launching her, when they were seen, and some of the passengers jumped in. By this time the hurricane deck, on the starboard side, was even with the water.

The other boats were shoved off; there was a rush for them, and they were soon filled with the passengers and crew. In a moment they were sept a hundred yards away. Looking back, the steamer was no longer seen afloat, but as she went down.


separated, and carried off some of the remaining unfortunates. Those in the boats made every effort to keep by each other and by the hurricane deck, but were gradually worked away by the force of the wind and waves.


The boat which contained Gray also contained nine others. Although he says that he saw no one else enter it, and supposed for a time that he was the sole occupant. There were four oars at first, but one was soon lost, and then three men pulled, and Langdon, a practical seaman, took the tiller and kept her before the wind. The boats rapidly drifted away from the wreck and from each other, and no effort was made to take off any of those clinging to the tossing deck. In one of the boats seven persons were counted, but it is not known how many were crowded into the other, except that she seemed to have a full load.


We have only to do with this one boat, as the others have not yet been heard from. In fifteen minutes after lowering the boat, tis occupants had lost eight of the two others and of the wreck. The last seen of the fragment holding up so many lives, it was pitching and tossing in the trough of the sea, and there is not the faintest hope that it rode the waves for half an hour. There was no shouting or screaming heard as the boats were swept away, and with them all hope of escape. The victims were clinging to the frail stays and beams, and they went down to their death with the same unflinching nerve which had characterized their actions all through the terrible night.


The boat was kept before the wind; but the waves threatened every moment to swamp her. By bailing out and by the greatest exertions at the oars, the little craft was kept afloat for several hours, and then the wind began to die out and the seas to go down.


Tolling by turns at the oars, and encouraged by Langdon, the half-a-score had hope come to them after a time, and their incessant scanning of the dreary waste was finally rewarded by the sight of a sail, and about the middle of the afternoon the bark Robert Gaskin bore down upon them and took them on board, transferring them to the Keweenaw Monday morning.


The other boat contained passengers and crew, but no names can be had. It is said by some that they were not so well supplied with oars as the rescued boat, and had not its chance of outriding the storm, but there is still a hope that both may have made the land or been picked up.


No one can now tell who is lot, or give the full list of the saved, owing to the uncertainty about the missing boats. A fireman stated that Robinson, the engineer, was a his post when the vessel went down, and others claim that they saw him on the hurricane deck. The same uncertainty is felt in regard to the others, as none of this party can remember seeing them during the last sad moment. All accounts agree that a score or more were left on the hurricane deck. If either of the missing boats outrode the gale, further particulars will of course come to hand, although the loss of life will be serious even if both crafts kept their freight of human life.

The most authentic account of the numer of passengers places it at twenty-two. Among these were Major Smith, Indian Agent at the Sault, with his wife, Lieutenant Wm. Atwood, and Aid-de-Camp of General Cooke, and perhaps another regular army officer, both coming from the Sault. J. J. Rhodes of the Garrison House in this city, whose brother, H. M. Rhodes, was tender on the boat, was on board, and was sick in his berth at the time of the disaster. The steward, George Westcott, who is a newphew of Captain Ward, had his wife along. None of thse are among the saved. It is said that a brother of Captain Dumont was on board.


As stated before, the boat picked up contained three men and seven negro deck hands and firemen. Two of the white men were passengers, named John Gray, from Marquette, and James Quinn, of Detroit. The third was a captain Congdon. He is a sailing master, who wanted to learn the Lake Superior route, and so was intending to go on the Coburn as Second Mate. He went up to the Sault to meet her, and was merely a passenger coming down, but rendered good aid, and it is probably due to him that the lives of those in the boat was saved.


The following is a list of the officers of the Coburn:
Captain--Gilbert Dumont, Detroit.
First Mate--Wm. Simmons, Detroit
Second Mate--Mr. Carson, shipped at Buffalo.
First Engineer--W. S.Robinson, Marine City.
Second Engineer--Wm. Hutchinson, Detroit.
Clerk--E. Major, Bromfield, Ont.
Steward--George Westcott, Marine City.


most of the officers were in different parts of the boat. Congdon says that he saw Captain Dumont swept off from one of the arches before she went down. Simmons was last seen between decks. Som of those rescued say they saw the second mate in one of the other boats. Engineer Robinson stayed in the engine room until within five minutes of the final catastrophe, and the fireman left him there. He was last seen on the deck. When the Steward was last seen he was in the cabin taking care of his wife, who was almost beside herself. It is probably that they did not go upon the hurricane deck, but met a more speedy death when the hull went down.


The R. G. Coburn, which met such an untimely end, carrying so many people down to a grave in the bottom of Lake Huron, was almost a new boat, and was as staunch as any wooden boat on the lakes. She was built for Captain Eber Ward in 1870, at Marine City, and received her machinery and cabin work in this city. Her first trip was made a year ago last August. She was of about 900 tons measurement, constructed with water-tight compartments, and had every life saving appurtenance. Captain Ward was the principal owner, but C. H. Westcott, J. M. Nicol and Thomas Arnold owned small shares. The Coburn was valued at $80,000, and insured for $50,000, as follows:

Cleveland Commercial $12,500
Detroit Fire & Marine 5,000
AEtna 5,000
Serenrity, of Buffalo 5,000
Buffalo Western 5,000
Buffalo Fire & Marine 5,000
Buffalo City 5,000
National 5,000
Toledo 2,500

Of the insurance $15,000 is in companies which have suspended, but will probably pay a part of their losses. The rest is in good companies.

The Coburn at the time of the disaster was bound down from Duluth with a cargo consisting of 12,000 barrels of wheat, 2,700 barrels of flour, 30 barrels of silver ore, and sundries. The load was not as large a one as she could stow away.

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19 Oct 1871
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  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 44.3206577821975 Longitude: -82.98548765625
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Lost at Sea