The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
British Whig (Kingston, ON), 13 Oct 1906

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Kingston's Marine Expert Very Busy.

Capt. Thomas Donnelly returned this morning from Collingwood to spend the weekend with his family. After raising the dredge at Hamilton, he attended to the collision damages of the steamer Dundurn and barge Cornwall at Montreal, afterwards attending the investigation into the steamers Ottawan-Maude collision. When this investigation was over he was called to Midland to look after the interests of the steamer Winona, stranded on Bennett Bank, laden with a cargo of wheat from Fort William. When this ship was released and discharged, the captain accompanied the steamer to Collingwood, where he held survey on the hull. It will take some three weeks to repair the damage and Capt. Donnelly will supervise the repairs. Last week he made a flying trip to Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland on business, having a survey at each port. At Detroit he held survey on the ferry steamer Lansdowne, owned by the Grand Trunk Railway. This steamer will be laid up about four weeks with a fractured paddle shaft.

Marine Notes.

The sloop Maggie L. is at Richardsons' with oats from Wolfe Island.

The schooner Suffel is at Richardsons' and is being loaded with feldspar for Charlotte.

The tug Thomson of the M.T. company cleared for Montreal this morning with grain laden barges.

Craig's: steamer Alexandria up tonight; steamer Stranger cleared for Smith's Falls this morning; propeller Persia up tonight.

The steamer John Sharples arrived at the M.T. Co.'s wharf on Friday from Chicago with 80,000 bushels of corn and cleared this morning for Duluth.

Swift's: The steamer Hamilton down today; steamer Belleville up today; steamer Haddington clears tonight for Fort William with a consignment of pressed hay for Foley Bros.



Have Claimed Many Thousand Souls.

[Cleveland Plaindealer]

It is generally admitted and statistics substantiate it, that in a storm, navigation is more dangerous on the Great Lakes than on the ocean. There is not space enough for safety, and the short waves and narrow channels require more skill than the broad sweep of the ocean. There is always a lee shore near, and vessels cannot run away from it as they can at sea.

Wrecks, explosions, beachings, collisions and founderings without number have marked the short but eventful history of navigation on the Great Lakes. It is an awful death list, 100 to 200 in a single season, that the beautiful Great Lakes have claimed as their prey. Is it any wonder that they have gained for themselves the reputation of being the most perilous body of water in the world?

While the majority of the wrecks have been "ordinary" marine disasters which have strewn the shores with the wreckage of a thousand vessels resulting in millions of dollars of losses to their owners, there have been some wrecks that will never be forgotten, either because of the frightful loss of life or because they are still mysteries, tales of boats that have simply dropped out of existence, bearing with them to oblivion their entire cargoes of humanity.

From two to four hundred vessels of all kinds are wrecked each year. Of that number perhaps one fourth are total wrecks. The financial loss is always upward to a million dollars and many years it approximates two millions for the vessels alone. The losses to the cargoes are invariably half a million or more.

Every spring and every fall the treacherous waters of Lake Erie wreck several vessels. Few of the huge modern carriers are ever wrecked by the fury of the storms alone, but scores of the old wooden freighters go down, many of them with all hands. The number of wrecks and the property loss has been steadily decreasing during the past few years and there has not been a single disaster where more than a score of lives have been lost for more than a decade.

Loss of the Lady Elgin.

One of the greatest marine disasters on the Great Lakes or anywhere else in the world, was the loss of the Lady Elgin, in Lake Michigan, September 8th, 1860. She was struck by the schooner Augusta, and sank in twenty minutes. She had on board 300 excursionists, fifty ordinary passengers and a crew of thirty-five officers and men, a total of 385. Of these only 98 were saved.

The steamer Lady Elgin had left Milwaukee early Friday morning, September 7th, with 300 excursionists. She left Chicago in the morning between ten and eleven o'clock on her regular trip to Lake Superior, taking on board about fifty passengers for Mackinaw and other northern points, in addition to the Milwaukee excursionists. The steamer had all her lights set; the Augusta had none.

It was about 2:30 o'clock when the collision occurred. The schooner struck the steamer at the midships' gangway on the starboard side. The two separated instantly, the Augusta drifting by in the darkness. The vessel began to fill rapidly and listed.

Two boats had been lowered, and in these eighteen persons reached shore. Fourteen were saved on a large raft, and many others on different parts of the wreckage. Less than one-fourth of the total number of passengers reached shore alive.

Finally the raft broke up and large parties floated off on detached pieces. Nearly all of the unfortunates were lost. A few, more fortunate than their companions, reached the shore and were rescued. The captain was among the lost.

The season of 1860, as regards the loss of life and property was one of the most disastrous on record. The loss of property on the Great Lakes by disasters was $1,200,000 and 578 lives were sacrificed. During the terrific gale in November of that year the propellor Dacotah sank on Lake Erie off Sturgeon Point with all on board. Nothing but fragments was ever seen afterward, so complete was her destruction.

Sinking of the Pewabic.

Aug. 9th was the forty-first anniversary of the loss of the propellor Pewabic, which was the most serious disaster of the season of 1866, and one of the most famous wrecks on the lakes. The Pewabic was run down by the propellor Meteor in Lake Huron, about six miles off Thunder Bay light. It was about 8:30 o'clock in the evening and twilight still lingered over the lake. The approaching vessels saw each other when miles apart. They kept their course until near each other, when the Pewabic put her helm aport and had just commenced to swing when she was struck in the vicinity of the pilot house by the Meteor, cutting her down to the water's edge. A number of men were killed in the terrific crash, both vessels going at full speed. The Pewabic had on board about 178 passengers. Boats were at once lowered, but within five minutes the Pewabic went down. Capt. McKay was one of the last to leave the wreck. Many had thrown themselves overboard and others were still below when the heavy laden vessel disappeared from sight. The boats of the Meteor were lowered and many men, women and children who were struggling in the water were saved. The Meteor remained in the vicinity all night, and in the morning signalled the passing propellor Mohawk, which came alongside and took the rescued passengers to Detroit. At the time it was reported that the loss of life was about seventy, but Capt. McKay asserts that not more than thirty were drowned.

Lost With All Hands.

In 1857, the freighter Merchant foundered in Lake Superior with all on board. Not even a piece of her wreckage was ever found. Twenty-five years later, in 1872, the schooner Whitney foundered in mid-lake. Official records of the disaster state simply that she foundered "mysteriously." Nothing is known of her except that she left port ship shape and was never heard from again.

A year later the schooner Mollison met with a like fate. She was lost with all hands in Lake Superior. In 1879 the Waubuno, a Canadian vessel, foundered in Georgian Bay. Thirty souls went down with her. None survived to tell the tale of the disaster.

Two years before that, however, was a disappearance, a maritime enigma, that is still mysterious. In 1877 two boats, both in tow of a third, were lost by reason of the tow line parting. They both vanished simultaneously. In 1880 the crack passenger steamer Alpena disappeared in Lake Superior. She was last seen about thirty miles off Chicago. Days afterward, a few bits of wreckage were picked up along the shore of the lake. It was the last of the Alpena. Everyone on board had perished. There were fifty-seven in all.

Another Mystery.

The passenger steamer Asia, one of the finest on the lakes, perished in the same mysterious way in 1882. This was also one of the most terrible tragedies ever enacted on the great lakes. Over one hundred souls were lost. Two were saved after hours of terrible suffering in the icy water. These say the boat "foundered."

In 1883 the Manistee foundered in mid-lake on Superior. She is "supposed to have been struck by a southwest gale." Some little wreckage - that is all that was found to tell the story.

By burning of the steamer G.P. Griffin, twenty miles east of Cleveland, July 17th, 1850, 226 lives were lost. The steamer was about three miles from shore when she took fire and when first alarm was given the passengers were cool and collected. It was thought that the boat could reach land, but the steamer struck upon a sand bar half a mile off shore. The passengers became wild with despair and a great number plunged into the water.

In 1850 a frightful collision occurred between the steamer Atlantic and the propellor Ogdensburg, on Lake Erie, resulting in an estimated loss of life, of from 150 to 250, making it one of the most terrible disasters of lake history.

One of the saddest of these mysteries is that of the passenger propellor Vernon, which disappeared on Lake Michigan in 1887, only nineteen years ago. She was lost October 29th, and with her annihilation thirty-six lives were blotted out. It is, perhaps, the most harrowing part of this calamity that some time after her tragic end the Superior sighted several life rafts to which clung members of the sunken steamer's victims.

These poor souls made frantic efforts to reach the Superior, and the Superior exhausted every possible means of reaching them, but the sea was running so high and the gale blew so furiously that all efforts at rescue failed. The Superior was forced to leave the victims to their fate. And that is all that is known of the end of the Vernon.

The Hume Evaporates.

One of the most singular cases of vessel disappearance is that of the Hume, which an unknown fate overtook on May 21st, 1891. Her disappearance is, perhaps, the strangest on record. She was a staunch, well-built and perfectly equipped schooner, in charge of one of the best and most skilful navigators on the lakes, and was in first class condition when she cleared from Chicago for Muskegon. The last seen of her was when she left the port of Chicago. Never a word or sign was ever received to explain her loss. She was totally obliterated, as completely blotted out as though she had never been. Not a man, not a spar, not enough wreckage to make a toothpick was ever seen of her afterwards. In this case the Great Lakes historian does not even suggest that she "foundered." Yet she is only one of scores of mighty ships that have vanished without leaving a record of their catastrophe.

Many of the wrecks are mysteries absolute, but it is known by tangible evidence that they were lost. Still others are enigmas. Nothing is known of them.

Thus the schooner Atlanta went down in Lake Superior in 1891. Her entire crew went with her. A year later the Nashua foundered in Lake Huron with fourteen souls on board. In the former case nothing was found to indicate the ship's fate. In the case of the Nashua the disappearance was the same, only a few pieces of wreckage floated on the surface of the waters to tell the crews of the next boat to pass the spot that a terrible tragedy had been enacted there. In 1893 the Eddy met a similar fate. The manner of the loss of the Doty about this time is still a mystery. She had a tow. The line parted, there came a gale. The ship sank - they explain - the great lakes are generous with such explanations.

No Trace of the Chicora.

Only a few years ago the magnificent passenger steamer Chicora left St. Joseph, Mich. for Chicago on a wintry night. She was one of the finest, staunchest and best equipped passenger boats on the lakes. She sailed out into Lake Michigan, and from there into oblivion. Not a word was ever heard, not a single token found which threw light on her total disappearance.

The names of the Hudson, the Gilcher and the Western Reserve are memorable in lake annals. They are the names of the three disasters that were to herald a new era in great lakes navigation. They have been the last of the great wrecks, a fitting finale to the great lakes mysteries. The vessels were the first of the present modern type of lake boats. They were vast and deep leviathans in every sense of the word. All three were lost. In each loss there is deepest mystery.

There have been many other casualties, but one of the most calamitous pages in the history of the great lakes was the disappearance of the steel steamer W.H. Gilcher, on Lake Michigan, in 1892. Capt. L.H. Weeks, who was in command of the Gilcher was a master of undoubted seamanship and had a capable crew of sixteen all told, none of whom escaped to verify any of the theories that were formed to account for her disappearance.

The most acceptable view regarding the loss of the Gilcher is that she was in collision with the schooner Ostrich. The Ostrich was wrecked at the same time, and as the wreckage from both boats was found on the beach in a radius of 100 feet, the theory is generally accepted. The crew of the Ostrich was also lost.

(Karl K. Kitchen, in the Cleveland Plaindealer)

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13 Oct 1906
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  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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British Whig (Kingston, ON), 13 Oct 1906