The Loss of Lightship 82 by Patrick Murphy.
The autumn of 1913 had been good to Great Lakes shipping. Owing to the unusually high temperatures, ice in the rivers and harbors was found only in inconsequent amounts in the extreme northern portions of the lake regions 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 generally worked eastward by the 13th. When the storm had passed, twelve ships had been lost along with their crews which totaled 248 men, and 27 other ships had suffered varying degrees of mishap from simple groundings to total loss.
The ships, had their masters taken heed of the approaching storm and storm warning flags that were being flown, might not have been taken out into waters of the lakes with eighty mile an hour winds and waves whipped to periodic heights of 35 feet. However, many vessels were caught in open water and simply did not have many alternatives open to them. They could only 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; U.S. Lightship No 82.
Her captain and crew were duty bound to remain on station during the storm and warn others of impending dangers off Point Abino, Ontario, in eastern Lake Erie, across from Point Sturgeon, New York, 13 miles from Buffalo Harbor.
Lightship No. 82 was built in Muskegon, Michigan and launched in 1911, and entered the service in 1912. Lighthouse Service records show her to have been a 187 ton ship, eighty feet in length, twenty one feet in beam, with a ten foot depth. She was fitted with a 30 foot beacon mast, and was powered by a 100 h.p. steam engine. Her livery was bright "English vermilion," and she had such creature comforts as leather upholstered oak chairs, French plate glass mirrors, and a small library book collection. Total cost of her construction and outfitting was somewhere near $45,000.
Captain 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, and Cornelius Leby, also of Elyria, was his assistant. Peter Mackey of Buffalo, was the cook, and the sixth member of the crew was William Jensen, of Muskegon, Michigan, seaman. Little did they realize that when they went out on board Lightship No, 82, to take up their task 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 hawsepipes in the proper position on the vessel. Hawsepipes are for the mooring cable and the anchor chain. If placed in the wrong position, a single 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 criticized 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 of what it must have been like for the 48 hour period aboard Lightship No. 82, with thundering graybeards breaking over her'
The lightship had two auxiliary boats aboard in which a possible escape attempt might have been made. However, the boats would undoubtedly 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 ship since the captain and crew were duty bound 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, ôCertainly not! Capt. Williams and his crew were guardians and they would remain at their stations 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 on Lightship 82's station was received by Roscoe House, Lighthouse Inspector, 10th District, Buffalo, N.Y., 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 Buffalo Breakwater. As soon as communications could be made with the lightship tender Crocus she was ordered to proceed at once to the lightvessel's 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 itself was disabled, as those articles could 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 those 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, that the light vessel was not on station.
Before the Crocus returned, the tug Yale was chartered and sent out under the assistant superintendent to make such a search "as practable" and the Buffalo Life Saving Service was helping by patrolling the beach. Every effort humanly possible. in that day, was made to 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 ships 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 area. 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 Lightship 82. The most important development this day was the discovery of a board from the ship's powerboat containing the brass cover to the gasoline tank. Thus, both small boats on board the vessel were known 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; "Goodbye 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 on 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, had 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 writing. 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 this 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. Jensen had misunderstood in the storm what the captain had said. Mrs. Williams said "the captain never called her 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 she felt that if she went out into angry Lake Erie perhaps she might be able to find her husband. Standing upon the pitching deck of the 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 not found.
On Thursday, November 13th., Capt. E. M. Trott of the Lighthouse Service, arrived from Washington, D.C., to take over the search. After taking aboard the Crocus the largest acetylene gas 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 lightvessel's 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 as can be judged, it must have been during Monday, when the storm was at its height, that Lightship 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 Lightvessel No, 82 be discontinued 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 that Williams and his men were paid:
Captain Williams $900. per year
Mate Lehy 660. per year
Engineer Butler 840. per year
Asst. Eng. Lehy 660. per year
Cook Mackey 40. per mo
Seaman Jensen 37.50 per mo
By today's standards these wages weren't very high when one considers the high risks involved in this service of protecting fellow Great Lakes Sailors.
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. During her submerged solourn she had filled with sand and become very heavy. Money needed for war materiel took priority over that available to salvage costs and further delayed the expenditure by the Light House Service. Reid Wrecking and Towing Company finally accomplished the job on September 16, 1915 at a cost to the government of $36,000. She was beached at Buffalo, then towed to Detroit, where she was refitted. Her final days were spent as an auxiliary lightship at various stations around the Lakes.
Among the names painted on her sides after resurrection were Relief in 1920 and 23, and Eleven Foot from 1926 to 1932. She failed to appear in the U.S. Lighthouse Service lists in 1937, or thereafter, and there is no evidence she ever regained the name BUFFALO, which she bore in the year she was lost, 1913.
January-February 1975 pp. 16-21