Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Clarion (Propeller), U125937, aground, fire, 8 Dec 1909
Full Text

      by Thomas J. Thomas
      It was on the night of December 8th, 1909, that the steamer CLARION, commanded by Captain E. J. Bell steamed out into Lake Erie from the Detroit River to encounter one of the worst midwinter storms in the history of Great Lakes navigation. Many a good boat went to her doom that night, and half a hundred brave men, when the dawn finally came, had gone to their last grim journey.
      As Captain Bell swung his ship into the gale torn waters of the lake, he did not know that other vessels were at that moment making their last struggle against the combined furies of wind and water - that even at that moment his own ship, a wooden craft of about three hundred feet in length, was within little over an hour of her doom.
      In steaming slowly down the treacherous channel of the river the freighter had trimmed in preparation for the ordeal upon the open lake, for lake captains know and respect the might of old Erie, which bears an evil reputation among fresh-water sailors. Its yearly toll is great, its sandy bottom is strewn with innumerable wrecks - ghastly monuments to her power.
      From the very first the captain of the CLARION realized that the struggle was going to be a desperate one, but the freighter had weathered many a storm in her long and eventful life, and her master had the utmost confidence in her. The waves were running mountain-high, lashed to fury by the cold December wind. To make matters worse a heavy vapor, rising from the foaming water, was instantly converted into a dense fog, which, being quickly frozen was driven with stinging force against the faces of the men on the bridge. Despite the heavy seas and the roaring wind, however, the CLARION made good headway until near the South-East Shoals, the exact location of which the wheelsman could only guess, since the lightship which marks the spot was hidden in the dense fog through which it was impossible to see even as far as the engine-room.
      On deck the men whose watch it chanced to be were kept busy. The hatches ranged in a long row along the deck, were battened down, and everything movable was lashed fast, for the waves were smashing with crushing force even over the upper deck. In the crew's quarters aft the off-watch men were sleeping, or, at least making the effort. Captain Bell, at his post on the bridge, kept his eye constantly on the compass. He knew that the steamer was now in or near the danger zone - that the South-East Shoals were, or should be, just off the starboard quarter.
      Satisfied at last that all was right, and that the dread menace had been passed, the captain was just about to enter the pilot-house when, without warning there came a cry from the after end of the ship.
      " Fire !" yelled the man on watch. "Fire !" The cry was repeated forward.
      Captain Bell - His face grown suddenly white - turned to the bridge-rain and looked aft. His eyes discerned a red glow just forward of the after deck-house. At the same instant a deckhand tore up the ladder to the bridge and cried out that the hold was a seething furnace.
      A fire at sea is terrible enough under the most favorable conditions, but with the added terrors of a midwinter storm it assumes the most horrible of aspects. Captain Bell called the crew to quarters, and every effort was made to arrest the progress of the flames, but in a few minutes it was seen that the task was hopeless. The CLARION was doomed.
      Hoarse cries, curses, and shouted orders mingled with the howling of the wind and the deep-toned roar of the waves; and then, like the shriek of some animal in an agony of terror, the whistle roared forth, giving the call for help. Somewhere off through the gloom there was an answering shriek. The CLARION's siren again bellowed its cry for succor, and once more the other answered. By this time the flames were leaping high into the air from an open hatch, the wing fanning them into a fury. The roar of the blaze, mingled with the rumble of the waves and the shrieking of the gale, made a medley of sound so awesome that those who heard it will never forget.
      Meanwhile the CLARION's engines had been stopped and the steamer, her hold a roaring furnace, drifted at the mercy of wind and sea.
      Captain Bell pulled the whistle-rope with insistent regularity, and always came the answer through the flying mist. Nearer and nearer came the other vessel, its siren sounding louder every instant. Already one of the CLARION's boats swung at the davits, and the crew were ready to abandon the doomed ship on a moment's notice. The two sirens kept up a constant bedlam, the sounds indicating the other craft was close aboard and bearing down rapidly.
      Suddenly, through the driving mist, those on the CLARION saw the lights of the other vessel looming up out of the gloom just astern. Nearer they came - so near, indeed, that the huddled group of men on the CLARION could see the outline of the hull. The other steamer seemed to be tearing on a full speed. She passed so close that the watchers on the fire-swept CLARION could distinguish the strained faces of the crew leaning over the rail, reflected in the ruddy glow of the flames. A shout went up from the doomed boat's crew as the other drew near, for they fully expected her to stand by, but to their horror she passed on unheeding.
      Some day, perhaps, the master of that unknown steamer will meet a fate as terrible as that to which he abandoned the men of the CLARION. He never stopped - he did not even slow down - but shot on into the gloom and the storm. The crew of the CLARION was too stunned to cry out. Not a man moved; all stood transfixed, mutely watching with fascinated, horrified eyes while the black hulk of the other craft melted into the darkness.
      Another steamer, up-bound, presently sounded a warning whistle just off the CLARION's port bow. Her captain had undoubtedly seen the glare of the fire and wondered. The CLARION's whistle answered with a shriek of distress; Captain Bell believed that the first steamer had put about and was coming back to the assistance of his men and himself, but it was a groundless hope. The other ship passed so far away that even her lights could not be discerned through the gloom, but her constantly shrieking whistle told of her approach and her plunge into the darkness astern.
      It was about this time that the crew of the CLARION heard the measured tolling of a bell, the sound reaching them faintly through the mist and the storm. They then understood why the other boats had not stopped. The bell was on the South-East Shoals lightship, and, judging by the sound, it could not be more than half or three-quarters of a mile away. The CLARION was even then on the shoals ! It was this fact, doubtless, that accounted for the fear of the other masters to approach. Captain Bell and his crew expected each instant to feel the sickening shock which would tell of the vessel striking on the rocks. The minutes passed by, however, and still the dreaded impact was not felt. Another steamer whistled far off to port and passed on down the lake to battle her way to safety or founder in the giant seas. Captain Bell, as fearless a navigator as ever trod a bridge, finally called his men around him.
      "Boys," he said, "the CLARION is doomed. She can live but an hour at best. The lightship is not far away, let us try to make it. It is the only chance we have."
      In the next instant the steamer's two lifeboats - one a steel affair, without air-tight compartments - were ready for launching. Captain Bell, with twelve of the crew, dropped into the steel boat, which was lowered into the sea on the lee side. By dint of hard work the craft was forced away from the doomed steamer's side, and finally plunged into the darkness towards the lightship. It was never heard from again.
      The other boat, launched on the windward side , was wrecked before even one man could clamber aboard. The frail boat, as it struck the water, was caught on the crest of a giant wave, which twisted it in such a way that the lines which held it to the davits parted.
      The boat was rapidly being carried away when one of the crew, George McAuley, an oiler, and the first hero of the wreck, stepped forward. He realized that if the boat got away the eight survivors on the burning boat would perish miserably.
      Without hesitating for an instant, he sprang to the rail and leaped into the icy water, striking out towards the drifting boat. He reached forth his hand to grasp the thwarts - and missed ! A cry escaped him, and Chief Engineer A.E. Welch threw a life-preserver to the struggling man. But the unhappy fellow, his fingers stiffened by the icy water, could not grasp the line. He sank from sight, and a groan went up from the seven watchers.
      The fact that the brave oiler had lost his life in a vain attempt to save the others was depressing enough in itself, but when the seven men on the CLARION saw the life-boat drift away, only to be swallowed up in the darkness, they gave up all hope. As a last resort the doomed men decided to make one last stand against the flames. A hose was manned and Jim Thompson, first mate, volunteered to go into the burning hold. Without more ado the mate, after shaking hands with his fellows, went down through an opening in one of the hatch covers. The hose was thrust down, but no hand reached out to grasp it. Mate Thompson never came on deck again - he was just another who gave up his life for his fellows.
      Following this tragic incident the survivors, now reduced to six in number lived only in hope that the captain would send help. None of the unhappy men knew that the steel life-boat had been lost. Besides, even had it survived the terrible storm and reached the lightship, the captain would have believed that the second boat had got away safely with the rest of the hands.
      Finally driven to the after-deck by the steady advance of the flames, the mere handful of men stood about, hopelessly awaiting the end. Each and every man had now reconciled himself to his fate. There was nothing left to do but wait and if at the last minute no help appeared they would hurl themselves into the sea, preferring death by drowning to that of being roasted alive on the ill-fated vessel.
      Then, to the horror of the little party huddled on the after deck, the CLARION suddenly scraped bottom. Carried over the obstruction by the driving seas, she rode free, only to strike again, lightly.
      The boat was on the shoals now in dead earnest, and death for all on board was but a few minutes away. The next instant might bring the grinding shock that would mean the burning steamer's end. The crew, huddled together in the shelter of the after wheelhouse, their faces covered with ice and sleet, gave themselves up for lost. Welch, the chief engineer - a burly fellow who had sailed in the CLARION almost from the day of her launching - turned a pale face to the rest of the men.
      "I guess this spells the finish, boys," he said. "It's our last cruise !" No one vouchsafed any remark, and Welch continued: -
      "I say, lads," he cried, his teeth chattering with the chill of the winter wind, "If we've got to go, let's go like men. There ain't no chance in the world, but we'll die fighting." A minute later he went to where the funnel loomed up into the darkness and started to climb the exhaust-pipe.
      "Just one more toot, for luck," he bawled out to the men below.
      The next instant he pulled the whistle-cord, and the CLARION's siren once more split the air with its cry of distress. This time the rumbling scream died away into a dismal moan, which seemed almost human. The last ounce of steam in the CLARION's boilers had gone out in that final, pitiful plea for help.
      To the indescribable joy of everyone the signal was answered, but recalling the actions of the other three boats the unhappy men would not allow themselves to hope. No master would risk his boat on the shoals.
      Nevertheless, the whistle of the other steamer sounded nearer, and every instant the answer to that last dismal, soul-stirring wail of distress grew greater in volume. In less than ten minutes the shadowy outline of a big steel freighter loomed up out of the mist. The six men on the CLARION watched her without interest, for they knew that she, too, fearing the dangerous shallows, would pass on her way.
      And she did; but is seemed to the watchers that her speed had diminished. Her whistle kept up a constant shrieking, which first grew faint, then gradually louder, until the black hull again stole into the circle of light that penetrated the gloom.
      "Good heavens !" cried Welch. "He's going to take us off ! He can never do it; he'll run on the shoals."
      The chief engineer cried out in warning, but his voice failed to carry through the storm. The other steamer came on at slow speed, and passed within hailing distance of the CLARION's stern.
      "Stand by to be taken off !" came a voice from the stranger's bridge. "I'm going to circle around you and come up close to your fantail. Stand ready to jump."
      "The shoals !" roared Welch through a megaphone.
      "Hang the shoals !" came an answering voice, and the big freighter slid on into the night like a giant specter. In less than ten minutes she again came in view, making little more than steerage way. Slowly she came on, pitching and rolling in the heavy seas. It was plain that her captain was going to risk running close aboard. He didn't intend sending out the small boats.
      In the circumstances it was a long chance to take, for the shoals are treacherous. Moreover, there was a danger of the seas throwing the two boats together with such violence as to precipitate a double disaster. But the unknown took a desperate chance. Her bow was almost abreast of the CLARION's fantail when the chief engineer got a lantern, which he swung, over his head the better to guide the bold captain of the stranger. Now the bow had passed. The stranger's engines had stopped, and she staggered along under her own momentum. Foot by foot, inch by inch, she drew nearer to where the six men stood shivering. A gap of ten feet remained; now eight, now six, now four - two !
      "Jump !" cried Welch to the men "Jump ! For heaven's sake, Jump !"
      And jump they did, to be caught in the waiting arms of members of the stranger's crew. The last man to leap had taken a long chance, the unknown boat was drawing away as he made the leap, and, miscalculating the distance, he crashed against the steel side of the rescuer. He was already rebounding into the sea when a pair of hands reached down, grabbed frantically, and drew his up to safety. Then the stranger drew off, and as she did a shout went up from her crew. The chief engineer still stood on the CLARION's fantail. So intent had he been on swing his signal-light and getting his fellows off that he had been left behind. He stood on the deck of the doomed vessel, a solitary, pitiful figure, watching the big steel freighter with anxious eyes. His hand, still holding the lantern, had dropped limply to his side.
      And the stranger kept on, gradually melting into the night and the storm. Welch groaned. It seemed that, after all, he was to perish. He looked forward. The deck of the CLARION was now burning fiercely, and tongues of flames were already licking at the after-deck, on which he stood. He looked away into the night, but could see and hear nothing but the howling of the wind and the roaring of the sea. It was beyond all reason that the stranger would take the risk again - for one man. Welch muttered a prayer. It was the end.
      The heat from the fire grew intense, almost more than the unhappy man could stand. His weather-beaten face had already commenced to blister. Minute after minute passed, and still he stood there.
      "I guess that it's time for a swim," he told himself at last.
      On the bridge of the steamer LEONARD C. HANNA, Captain M. B. Anderson, his own trained hands on the wheel-spokes, guided his vessel past the burning CLARION. He had seen the ruddy glow of the flames through the fog long before the doomed boat's siren split the air with its plea for help. At first he believed the burning steamer to have been abandoned, but that shriek for help told him a different story. "That craft's on the shoals," he told himself. "I'll take a chance." And he did, with what success has already been told.
      It was not until the last minute that it was seen one man had remained. "It's Welch !" cried a member of the CLARION's crew. "God help him !"
      Captain Anderson, up on the bridge, looked at the solitary figure on the CLARION's fantail. He saw the lantern, idle now. This man was doomed unless help quickly reached him. The master of the HANNA rang the engines on to half speed. He himself was on the shoals, and his boat was in danger. He steamed slowly ahead, feeling his way through the night. At any instant he might put his ship upon the rocks. That would mean disgrace and dishonor. Down in his heart the captain knew he would have been within his rights had he abandoned the CLARION's crew to their fate. To go near the burning boat was bad navigation and he knew it; but he weighted the problem in his mind and took a chance.
      Would he now leave Welch to his fate ? The men of both boats wondered. Anderson said nothing. The HANNA had passed out of sight of Welch, but slowly she came around, guided by that master hand. Once more the blazing CLARION came into view, and the HANNA bore down upon her.
      Captain Anderson was going back for Welch ! A hundred yards separated the two boats. Captain Anderson placed a megaphone to his lips and bawled.
      "Get ready to jump !" Welch heard and waved his lantern.
      Nearer the HANNA drew - so close this time that the sea threatened each instant to throw the two vessels together. The high bow of the steel freighter scraped the low fantail of the wooden craft. There was a creaking of timbers as the boats ground together.
      "Now ! cried Captain Anderson and a score of others in unison.
      Welch did not need the advice. With a wild yell he tossed his lantern to the sea then leaped outward. Willing hands caught him and he sank to the HANNA's deck, exhausted. When he opened his eyes a few minutes later the HANNA was forging through the storm. Off to the south-west a faint glow marked the spot where the CLARION lay rolling in the heavy sea, making her last fight - alone.
      World Wide Magazine
      April, 1811
{ Thomas J. Thomas was the editor of the Cleveland Tribune, he wrote "I can vouch for every detail of the narrative."}

      . . . . .
      Six men Picked up By Cleveland Tug.
      Cleveland, Dec. 9. -- Two men lost their lives and the fate of 13 others is unknown as a result of the burning of the steamer CLARION, near Point Pelee, in Lake Erie, early today.
      Six members of the crew were taken from the CLARION by the steamer L. C. HANNA and brought here and then rushed by train to the Buffalo Headquarters of the Anchor Line Company, the owners of the CLARION.
      According to the hurried tale, all attempted to leave the CLARION as soon as it was ascertained that she could not be saved. Capt. E. G. Bell, of Ogdensburg, N. Y., and 12 other members of the crew took to the lifeboats. They left without food and it is feared that they may either starve or freeze to death before rescue even if the escape being drowned, for high seas are running on the lake owing to the recent storm. One of the crew fell overboard when attempting to enter the life boat, but he was later pulled out of the water and put in the life boat.
      The mate was frozen to death after he had been overcome by smoke and exposure. An effort was made by the six men who stayed on board to enter another life boat, but it eluded them. One sailor fell overboard and was drowned in his efforts to save the boat. Later these men were rescued by the steamer L. C. HANNA.
      The CLARION is a 1700-ton steel freighter. She was bound from Detroit to Erie to lay up when fire broke out last night.
      Identified as CLARION.
      At the Buffalo Offices of the Anchor Line this morning it was stated that the burning steamer has been positively identified as the CLARION. Word has been received here that the boat is a total loss, and that the fate of part of her crew is still in doubt.
      Six men were picked up by the tug HANNA, from Cleveland last night, from the burned vessel's yawlboat and taken to Cleveland. They report that one man who left the ship with them, an oiler named McCauley, was washed overboard and drowned.
      Mate Thompson went between decks with a fire extinguisher just before the survivors left the vessel, and nothing more was seen of him, and it is certain that he has perished.
      Fate is not Known.
      The Captain of the steamer and 12 of her crew also left in the steel life boat, but nothing is known of their fate. It is hoped that they will reach shore or be picked up safely.
      The CLARION was valued at $80,000, and the loss is covered by insurance. The value of her cargo is not known.
      Buffalo Evening News
      December 9, 1909
      . . . . .
      Captain Matthew Anderson, who rescued six members of the crew of the steamer CLARION last fall, has been presented with a bronze ship clock by the Western Transportation Company.
      Buffalo Evening News
      Tuesday, February 15, 1910

      CLARION Built July 29, 1881 Package freight propeller -- Iron
      U. S. No. 125937 1711 gt - 1513 nt 240.0 x 36.0 x 15.0
Burned and sank off Southeast Shoal, Lake Erie, Dec. 8, 1909; 15 lives lost.
      Detroit/Wyandotte Shipbuilding Master List
      Institute for Great Lakes Research
      Perrysburg, Ohio.

Steam screw CLARION. U. S. No. 125937. Of 1711 tons gross. Built 1881. On December 8, 1909 vessel burned on Lake Erie, with 21 persons on board. 15 lives lost.
      Loss of American Vessels Reported
      Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1910

Item Type
Reason: aground, fire
Lives: 14
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 41.843611 Longitude: -82.466111
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Clarion (Propeller), U125937, aground, fire, 8 Dec 1909