The sandsuckers are owned and operated by the US. Army Corps of Engineers and used for keeping harbors and navigable rivers' open for ships. In the old days long before the world was thinking about pollution and the other bad stuff that might be, lying on the lake bottom, private companies made a business out of extracting sand from the bottom of harbors and ship channels and then selling it.
The wooden-hulled steamer DESMOND was doing just that during the last eight years it roamed the lakes, owned by the Cream City Sand Co. of Milwaukee, the DESMOND led an active life, generally traveling from harbor to harbor along the Lake Michigan coastline.
The steamer was taking one of its last planned trips of the season when it sprang a leak and sank in a winter gale off the South Chicago Lighthouse on Dec. 8, 1917. Seven sailors perished. Six others were pulled alive from the capsized and sinking wreck by Chicago harbor tugs.
The DESMOND under the command of Capt. Emil Thorsen. left St. Joseph in southwestern Lower Michigan the previous afternoon, steaming northwest for Racine, Wis., with a load of sand.
The storm developed out of the north and blew the boat off its course. instead of battling the seas that were hammering the vessel from its starboard side, Captain Thorsen turned south for Chicago and put the wind at his stem. The storm was so terrible, survivor Herman Lederhaus later said he and other crew members pleaded with Thorsen to run the ship on the beach. Thorsen refused. "In 30 years on the lakes, I have never lost a ship," he said, "if the DESMOND goes down. I will go with her."
His words were prophetic. Thorsen died with his ship that day. The tragedy is that he almost made it. The rolling seas shifted the sand in the steamer's hold, causing a bad list. Crew members shoveled frantically; hoping to get the DESMOND, back on even keel once again. The lights of Chicago's harbor were in sight at about 2 a.m. when the boat took on a serious leak in the stern. The leak was so bad that Chief Engineer Jack Stahl was forced to shut down the engines and use the, steam in the boilers to operate the ship's pumps.
After that the crew hung on to their rolling, tossing boat, hoping that someone on shore would see, their lights and send help. The water gained. After one of the coal bunkers collapsed, floating pieces of coal and coal dust clogged the pumps and: siphons. The DESMOND appeared destined to sink within sight of shore.
Captain Thorsen made one final attempt to save his ship. He and four volunteers launched a lifeboat. They planned to row it through the storm to the harbor where they would fetch a tug. As the small boat began to pull away, the steamer suddenly lurched and rolled on its side. The stack struck and capsized the lifeboat.
Lederhaus said he and seven other sailors aboard the doomed ship scrambled over the side as the vessel rolled. He said the DESMOND then settled on its side and floated for quite a while, while the men tried to ride out the storm clinging to the hull.
"I threw a rope to the five who were struggling in the water. Two of them, the captain and (Frank) Kipper, seized it. We pulled them to the side of the ship. Captain Thorsen froze to death as he lay there.
"We shouted and screamed and waved our coats until we became too numb to move. Finally, we attracted the attention of men on board a steamer," Lederhaus said. That steamer was the tug WILLIAM A. FIELD, under the command of Capt. William Bowen. No sooner had the FIELD spotted the overturned DESMOND, then two other tugs, the Gary and North Harbor, also were steaming to the rescue.
Lederhaus, First Mate Arthur M. Emkey, Second Engineer T.J. Cunningham, Kipper, Carl Olson and Gus Yonson were all removed alive before the DESMOND sank at about 7 a.m. Dead were Thorsen. Stahl, Fred Cuby, John Henning, Arthur Hibbard and two unidentified sailors known only as Louie and Pete. (Article by James Donahue, weekly series run in paper.)
Port Huron Daily Tribune
August 26, 1996