THE "EMPEROR" OF ISLE ROYALE.
Bettey Tomasi and Frederick Stonehouse
Lake Superior has triumphed over vast numbers of sea-going vessels - most being early sailing wood-hulled craft which were no match for Nature's moody lady. But the Great Lake continues to prove her superiority over man's humble efforts to traverse her as she still occasionally claims a trophy in the form of a mighty steel hulled cargo ship. Such was the case in the demise of the ore carrying EMPEROR - Destination -- depths!
We had read about her, dreamed about her and yearned to see her and now, finally we were actually going to dive on her! Our excitement mounted as we helped each other into the last wet suit glove prior to our entry off the gunwhale of our dinghy. We tried mentally to prepare ourselves for the icy onslaught of Lake Superior's merciless waters, but immediately on 'splash-down' we became aware that, while we were mentally prepared to descend into the frigid depths, we were definitely not physically ready! The liquid ice seeped into our suits and until our body heat was able to warm the water, a process requiring only a minute or two but seeming much longer, we began to wonder at the dubious wisdom of this adventure. Once the gigantic bow loomed into sight, though, all doubts disappeared and we began eagerly our descent down the starboard - swimming over one ghostly gaping hatch after another. In the eeriness of the swim, it seemed as if the emptied hatches would go on adinfinitum or, perhaps one of the reported trapped crewmen might make himself manifest to confront us with our audacity at trespassing on this watery graveyard. These thoughts were dispelled when we, at last, reached the end of the cargo holds and came upon the stern cabin which was emblazoned with the identification "EMPEROR" across the superstructure. It had been a relatively easy swim to the cabin, to about 110 feet as the ship rests on a steep incline of an underwater granite mountain -- one of many such edifices in Lake Superior. However, a glance at our underwater pressure gauges indicated that there would be no time on this trip for exploring the stern as we were well aware that the swim to the surface would be more challenging as it was all 'uphill' and therefore, we wanted to conserve enough air for the climb.
During the entire dive, our thoughts were taking us back in history to the early June morning in 1947 when the mighty EMPEROR made her final voyage.
On November 6, 1918, the 525-foot ore carrier CHESTER H. CONGDON met death on the razor edged reefs of Isle Royale's deadly Canoe Rocks. Twenty-nine years later, on June 4, 1947, the Canada Steamship Lines steamer EMPEROR repeated the CONGDON's error and died on the same reef. The crew of the CONGDON was lucky; the moody lake gods smiled and not a man was lost, but the gods frowned on the EMPEROR and 12 of her crew of 33 drowned in the
At 3:10 p. m., June 4, the EMPEROR was working her way through the wispy tendrils of a thick Lake Superior fog. The silence of the inky darkness was pierced only by the intermingling sounds of the low rumble of the steamer's powerful 1500 horsepower Scottish built steam engine, the gentle chuckle of water at her barn-sized bow, and the methodical bleat of her bellowing fog horn. Behind was the dock she had just left at Port Arthur (Thunder Bay, today); ahead, her destination, Ashtabula, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie.
Sleepily, First Mate James Morrey peered ahead, out through the pilothouse window, but the fog prevented his seeing much beyond the EMPEROR's bow. Morrey was bone-tired. He had spent the steamer's entire dockside period (as per regulations) personally supervising the loading of the steamer's iron ore cargo. Now it was his watch and his responsibility to guide the freighter safety past Isle Royale. There would be plenty of time for sleep later. Sipping his coffee, he continued to search ahead.
Five minutes later, the sleepy Mate was jarred from his feet and thrown to the steel deck. At her full speed of ten knots, the EMPEROR had rammed into the northeast edge of Canoe Rocks! As there was no doubt that the vessel was sinking, an immediate SOS was radioed off
into the airways. Quickly the desperate signal was answered by the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter KIMBALL. The cutter had been at Isle Royale on purely routine matters when the call for help galvanized her into action. With her engines straining at forced full speed, the staunch Coast Guard craft headed for the EMPEROR, now rapidly sinking 3½ miles, 281 degrees from the Blake Point Light (Isle Royale).
On board the ore carrier the situation was serious. Vast torrents of freezing water were gushing through the steamer's sprung hull plates and rapidly flooding her holds. Aware that the steamer's life was almost over, fear-stricken crewmen rushed to their lifeboat stations and began to abandon ship. Within an hour the once proud steamer had slipped beneath the
surface of the lake. Above she left the inevitable result of any marine disaster, water-logged lifeboats wallowing in the gentle swells, floating debris of every nature and a total of 21 stunned, half-frozen survivors.
When the KIMBALL arrived on the scene she immediately pulled ten men from a half swamped lifeboat, four from the slippery keel of an overturned boat and seven more from a frigid perch atop the nearly awash Canoe Rocks. All told, twelve men died in the disaster and
it isn't inconceivable that some of them actually were trapped in the steel coffin of the steamer's hull when she sank! Notable among those lost was her captain, Eldon Walkinshaw of Collingwood, a veteran Lake skipper of 42 years experience, and James Morrey, the First Mate.
The reason for the loss of the EMPEROR is clouded in the mystery born of a multitude of bureaucratic investigations, all carefully conducted with the distinct advantage of hindsight. That the steamer was far off course is not hard to determine, but why, is. In the official
report, the Canadian Board of Investigation blamed the Mate, stating that he "did not keep proper watch" As the Mate was conveniently lost with the ship, he could hardly defend himself. The Board did, however, criticize the prevailing system "which required the First Mate to be in charge of the loading of the ship during the period when he should have been off duty. (and) . . . resulted in his becoming overly tired, suffering as he was from a lack of sleep."
But that conclusion hardly touches the root of the problem. The EMPEROR was far to the south of her intended course. Why? The downbound steamer track from Port Arthur was well known, and is in fact indicated on navigational charts, and there was no unusual wind or sea conditions (fog limits visibility, but does not force a ship off course). Regardless of Mate Morrey's ability to keep a proper watch, the helmsman should have held the steamer on the proper heading. Why then did the steamer strike the rocks? Stories of drunkeness and irresponsibility are legion, and probably untrue. The real reasons for the loss will most likely never be known. The fact remains, however, that the steamer was far south of her course, without apparent reason, when she struck and died on Canoe Rocks.
For the scuba diver, the wreck of the EMPEROR presents both a tempting and a terrifying target. Tempting because it is a relatively intact ore carrier, and therefore a very unusual wreck. But she does paint a streak of terror (however faint and admitted or not) through a
diver's heart. The grisly remains of at least part of the dozen men lost during the sinking are undoubtedly still entombed in the stern, not a pleasant thought for the diver exploring the steamer's inner recesses.
Resting on the west slope of Canoe Rocks, only a short distance northeast of the CONGDON, the steamer's bow is in a shallow 40 feet, but the stern slants sharply downward into 150 foot depths. Listing to port with her hatch covers blown open by trapped air during the sinking and covered in part by a thick brownish-green lake growth, the EMPEROR is an awe-inspiring sight.
The EMPEROR, official number 126654, was launched in 1910 at the Coliingwood, Ontario shipyard of the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company. Until 1916 she was owned by the Inland Lines Ltd., but in May of that year she was purchased by the Canada Steamship Lines. At 7,031 gross registered tons, 525 feet in length, 56 feet in beam and 31feet in depth, she
wasn't the largest vessel on the lakes, lthough she was still respectable indeed.
During her life, the EMPEROR was just another bulk carrier; but in death, she became the "Emperor" of Isle Royale, and the exalted playground of scuba divers.
Almost before we realized it, we were breaking surface and helping each other with our clumsy reentries into the dinghy for the return trip to our 'mother ship,' the W. R. Busch which was standing off about a quarter of a mile in about 600 feet of water. As soon as our teeth stopped chattering, we began to all report different sights, reactions and enthusiasms. On one point we were all clearly agreed -- we must return and make another 'drop' on one of
the most exciting wrecks Isle Royale has to offer. There was so much left to explore in the stern cabins, that the mutual obsession and resolve was unanimous. We would return to
the wreck of the EMPEROR!
Author's note: Subsequent dives were made the following summer revealing cabins
with bunk beds still intact, replete with shoes under them! Could these have belonged to the crewmen entombed somewhere in the bowels of the ship?
Canadian Diving News
Vo. 4 No. 9 April