BY BILL STEINBORN
The steel steamship Flora M. HILL was one of a number of victims of the ice on Lake Michigan. The ship sank on March 11, 1912, just more than a mile from the safety of the Chicago harbor.
She was originally constructed as the DAHLIA and was used as a lighthouse tender on the Eastern Seaboard by the U. S. Government. Built in 1874, the ship was 130 feet long and 26 feet wide. During the process of being rebuilt in 1910, the vessel was fitted with heavy iron plates in order to help protect it against damage by the ice during the winter. After being renovated, the ship was purchased by the Hill Steamboat Line, brought into the Great Lakes and put into service between Chicago, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Hill Steamboat Line was a family business, with several family members serving as crew.
Under the command of Captain Wallace W. Hill, the FLORA M. HILL left Kenosha, Wisconsin at 8:00 p.m. on March 10. Her cargo was the heaviest of the season, consisting of iron beds and brass automobile headlamps. The cargo was insured for $28,000.
The ship encountered drifting ice flows just a few miles from Chicago. Thinking that the ice was not a serious threat to the ship, Captain Hill attempted to press ahead and enter the harbor. About half-way between the two mile water crib and the harbor, the ship could proceed no farther. The ice had become so solid the ship could not move without suffering hull damage, despite her heavy steel plates. More importantly, the wind had switched to the northwest, driving ice in behind the ship, thus blocking any escape
The crew decided to man the pumps and wait for assistance. The wind, however, continued to push the ice against the stern of the Hill and water began to enter the ship at an increasing rate. First mate Roland D. Hill sent up distress signRls early in the morning of March 11. The signals were seen by the steamer KANSAS, of the Goodrich line, but she was unable to approach because of the ice.
Not until a rescue party arrived from the two mile crib did the crew realize the full extent of the damage to the HILL. The stern of the ship was buckling under the pressure of the ice. The water was now flowing into the hold faster than the pumps could draw it out. The captain ordered his crew of 28 to abandon ship. One by one they climbed over the rail and onto the treacherous ice. Using ladders and rnpes provided by the rescue party, the crew made its way back to the safety of the crib. Only the aged wheelman, W.S. Thompson, sustained any injuries. The dangerous trip took more than an hour and it was a happy crew that was re-ceived by cribmaster Charles Jacobson. Shortly after reaching the crib, the crew witnessed the sinking of the HILL. About noon, the crew was picked up by the tug-Boat INDIANA and taken to Chicago's Dearborn Street landing.
THE HILL TODAY
The HILL was found by Chicago diver Sam Mareci in 1976. The wreck lies in 37 feet of water between the two mile crib and the north entrance to the Chicago harbor (Loran C 50077.0 and 33375.4). The bow points to the southwest, as if she is still attempting to make it to the harbor.
The boiler on the HILL protrudes about ten feet above the bottom, while the remainder of the hull only comes three to four feet above the sand covered clay. Her prop and rudder are in place, but are badly bent out of shape. Dynamiting has reduced her hull to a series of steel plates. The upper parts of the ship were launched" during the explosion and can be found some distance from the bulk of the wreckage. The ship's anchor was removed by a crew on Mareci's boat during the early 1980s. The steel folding cross-arm was broken during the dynamiting, however, and is still trapped in the wreckage just ahead of the boiler.
The portholes also suffered during the destruction of the ship, with the glass broken by the force of the explosion. But, divers have recovered most of the portholes and either had heavy glass cut to fit them or have had mirrors put into the openings. There were several different sizes and styles of portholes on the HILL and the diver who keeps his/her eyes open may still be able to find some of them. A heavy hammer and chisel are needed to remove the 8 to 12 bolts (depending on the size of the porthole). The author can vividly remember working on portholes until arm cramps occurred. After a short rest, however, we would return to our labors. Even though most of the portholes are bent, they can be traight-ened without too much trouble.
Of equal interest to divers will be part of the ship's cargo. Although the bed frames were brass plated and have been ruined by 78 years at the bottom of the lake, the automobile headlamps are solid brass and worth recovering. Most of these lamps have been found just behind the boiler, although searching away from the wreckage may also be worthwhile.
Several different sizes and styles have been recovered. Most of the lamps are of the carbide gas type. These have gas jets coming up from the center of the bottom. The lamps had lines leading to a common tank, usually at the rear of the vehicle. Carbide granules were added to a tank of water to release the gas for the lamps. Each lamp was then lit and would provide light until the gas supply was depleted. ( Photo of the HILL included with article)
Skin Diver Magazine
Steam screw FLORA M. HILL. U. S. No. 206265. Of 623 tons gross. Built 1874. On March 11, 1912, vessel was crushed by ice at Chicago, Ill. With 30 persons on board, no lives were lost.
Loss Reported of American Vessels
Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1912
Steam screw FLORA M. HILL. U. S. No. 206265. Of 623 tons gross; 353 tons net. Built Philadelphia, Pa., 1874. Home port, Milwaukee, Wis. 130.9 x 26.4 x 19.8 Passenger service. Crew of 20. Of 225 indicated horsepower.
Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1911
Steam screw TENDER DAHLIA.* U. S. No. 206265. 442 gross tons. Built Philadelphia, Pa. 1874. 131.4 x 25.0 x 17.4
* Renamed DAHLIA - U. S. -
FLORA M. HILL - U. S. - 1910
Herman Runge List