Sinking of the Lady Elgin

Make a visit to the Chicago Maritime Museum and you’ll learn much about the popular lake steamboat the “Lady Elgin” and the story of her sinking on Lake Michigan in September of 1860.

The Chicago Maritime Museum is located at 310 South Racine in the Helix Building. This is the venue to add to your next trip to Chicago as the museum unveils and highlights the history of Chicago as an important port city as well as the ships and steamers that operated from there.

Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin was a popular side wheel steamer built in Buffalo New York in 1851. As with most steamers of the era, her hull was made of wood. She was a ship that carried hundreds of passengers up and down Lake Michigan. She was considered a luxurious first rate steamer. In addition to runs on Lake Michigan, the Lady Elgin had made journeys from Chicago to Buffalo and Chicago to ports in Ontario Canada. She also had some sailings as far north as Lake Superior.

September 8, 1860

One of the worst Lake Michigan ship disasters occurred on the night of September 8th, 1860 just about ten miles off Winnetka Illinois. The Lady Elgin was rammed and almost cut in half by a fully loaded lumber schooner.

What made this a particularly deadly shipping disaster was that the Lady Elgin had a full compliment of passengers that evening and 297 of them lost their lives. What made this collision and sinking all the more unreal was that it occurred just ten miles from shore.

The Great Lakes

An Excursion to Chicago

The beginning of this deadly voyage actually started in Milwaukee Wisconsin early in the morning of September 7th. The Lady Elgin was filled with members of Wisconsin Democratic militias which chartered the ship for an excursion to Chicago with a planned return the following day. The militia would tour the city of Chicago, participate in a patriotic parade and then set out back to Milwaukee later in the evening. This trip was a show of solidarity with the Union cause as the question of Wisconsin’s loyalty to the Union was somewhat of a question at that time.

The Lady Elgin reportedly pulled out of Chicago at about 11:30P on the night of September 8th. It’s also been reported that she picked up additional passengers for the return trip to Milwaukee and probably had between 600 and 700 people on board.

Britain's Lord Nelson of whose wife the Lady Elgin was named. Lord Elgin was Canada's Governor General from 1847 to 1854

There are stories that the Lady Elgin’s captain, Jack Wilson, was a bit concerned about the weather. Weather on the Great Lakes has a habit of changing dramatically and fast. The closer to the fall season, the more dangerous the lakes can become and on very short notice. This story is about a disaster that happened in 1860. Even today with the advancement in meteorology and modern navigation gear, Great lakes weather is still a large concern for lake freighters.

Regardless of any weather concerns the captain may have had, the Lady Elgin set sail. The captain’s decision may have been influenced by the number of passengers counting on getting back to Milwaukee as originally planned plus the fact that the steamer had a federal mail contract.

The Collision and Sinking of the Lady Elgin

What is known about the fatal collision on the night of September 8th, 1860 is as follows.

The Lady Elgin was fighting gale force winds when it left Chicago heading north along the shoreline. The schooner Augusta was sailing in this weather using only a single white light. The Augusta hit the Lady Elgin on her port side and while being damaged herself tore through the steamer leaving a huge hole on her side. The Augusta was damaged on the bow but was not taking on water.

After the collision the Augusta kept sailing south toward Chicago thinking that somehow the Lady Elgin must have continued her northward journey. This of course was a mistake. After the collision, and even though the captain ordered cargo and cattle to be thrown overboard, the Lady Elgin sunk in only about twenty minutes. Two lifeboats eventually reached shore, some survivors were taken off life rafts and still some managed to be rescued from floating debris.

The final records indicate that about 300 people died in this collision and sinking. The captain, Jack Wilson, also died.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting are the Loss of the SS Wexford in 1913 and the Sinking of the Carl D. Bradley on Lake Michigan.

Schooner of the era being built in Maine

Changes in Maritime Law

The investigation which followed the collision and sinking absolved the crew of the Lady Elgin of any blame. Interesting maritime law at the time gave sailing vessels the right of way over steamers. By the same token, sailing ships were not required to use running lights. As a direct result of this collision and the subsequent investigation, a new regulation was passed in 1864 requiring sailing vessels to carry full running lights.


Edmund Fitzgerald anchor displayed at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, Detroit Michigan

The Discovery of the Lady Elgin

The wreck of the Lady Elgin was discovered in 1989 in about fifty feet of water off Highwood Illinois. Today, the vessel is a destination for divers. Permission to dive the wreck is required from the Lady Elgin Foundation. Most artifacts have long been taken away and the dive is essentially an interesting recreational endeavor. The shipwreck site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a visit to the Chicago Maritime Museum offers one of the best ways to learn about the rich history of Great Lakes shipping, both passenger and cargo shipping.

Another excellent site is the Dossin Great lakes Museum located on Belle Isle in Detroit Michigan. Belle Isle is an island in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario Canada.

(Photos and images from the public domain. U.S. public domain. Edmund Fitzgerald anchor courtesy GNU Free Licensing Annebethmi at English Wikipedia)


The General Slocum / Little Germany

There is a memorial in Tompkins Park in Manhattan Island, New York City, which is there as a reminder of what was, prior to September 11, 2001, the worst disaster in terms of loss of life in New York. The disaster was the burning of the General Slocum steamboat on the East River of New York City. The boat fire disaster occurred in the year 1904 and there are reasons why this event somehow was shadowed by other events which may have contributed to the fading of it’s memory.

There has been a lot written about steamboat safety in general, particularly during the mid 1800’s. Because steam power was the power of choice, it was employed extensively. Steamboats plied rivers all over the country including even in the far west. Knowledge of the technology of steam power was another matter.

steamboat general slocum

Steamboat General Slocum

Steamboat boiler explosions were happening much too often and in some cases with hundreds of fatalities. The most deadly steamboat boiler explosion recognized by many historians was the Sultana explosion in April 1865 just north of Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River. The Sultana was packed, even overly packed, with Union soldiers heading back to the north at the end of the American Civil War. In the book Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, author Alan Huffman describes how the steamboat operators were paid by head count thus encouraging them to grossly overload many vessels. The boat was so overloaded that it was difficult to even find room to lay down.

The sidewheel steamboat General Slocum, launched in 1891, was named after Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War General of some fame who was also a congressman from the state of New York. The vessel was owned and operated by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company and generally worked carrying passengers around the New York City waterways. The boat was captained by William H. Van Schaik who was 68 years of age.

The Disaster

It so happened that the General Slocum was chartered by a Lutheran Church in New York, St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church, to take a group of St Marks New York church members on a picnic to Eatons Neck Long Island. The vessel was chartered for a cost of $350 for the date of June 15, 1904. Most of those who be making the trip were women and children. As the church band played while the General Slocum departed at 9:30 am everyone onboard was looking ahead for a fine ride and a day away from the big bustling city. Trouble started relatively soon on the voyage. About forty minutes after pulling away from the dock and heading north on the East River a fire erupted onboard the boat.

burned wreckage of steamboat general slocum

Burned wreckage of the General Slocum

Afterwards, some would say the fire started in the Lamp Room and some others would point to a storage room. Some would also go on to say that the boat fire was caused, whether in either room, by a carelessly discarded cigarette. Many eyewitnesses even claimed the fire started in several different locations. Nevertheless, the blaze spread very rapidly.

Upon learning of the fire, Captain Schaik, with 1,358 passengers from St. Marks Church, headed for land at full steam. He was steering for Randalls Island but the blaze was engulfing the entire vessel aided by a strong breeze and the wind caused by the boat moving at full power. Heading at full steam to Randalls Island would later be a major criticism of Schaik’s handling of the emergency. It was suggested that he would have been wiser just heading to a nearby landing or just grounding the vessel. His speeding of the boat was felt to have added to the fires rapid spread. The vessel eventually beached at North brother Island.

The Aftermath

As with many large disasters and especially one that occurred around the beginning of the 20th century, statistics differ slightly. Officially, it was thought that 1,021 people were lost.  The cause was either burning in the fire or drowning in the river. In the book, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, author Edward T. O’Donnell points out that there were not many among the church group who were experienced swimmers. The trip was to be a short hop and the fact that most people couldn’t swim didn’t seem to matter. Obviously, this was an enormous loss of life. For comparison, the much publicized Triangle Shirtwaist Building fire of 1911 in New York City claimed 146 mostly young immigrant women.

Investigations after the General Slocum burning turned up a host of safety violations. The violations were so serious that one might wonder why a vessel in this condition was carrying paid passengers in the first place. Among the safety violations were rotting fire hoses incapable of holding any water pressure, oily rags and straw on the floor of several rooms and inferior life preservers that some reports stated were manufactured incorrectly. Also, the boat fire extinguishers were inoperable. All of this combined to cause New York City’s second most deadly disaster.

The public outrage was predictable. A Federal Grand Jury indicted eight individuals. In addition to Captain Schaik, two safety inspectors and officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted.

triangle shirtwaist fire

Fire crews racing to the Triangle Fire in 1911

The only one convicted was Captain Schaik of the charges of criminal negligence, failure to conduct fire drills and not maintaining workable fire extinguishers. Incredibly, the steamship company received rather modest fines regarding the altering of inspection reports. Schaik’s sentence was ten years at Sing Sing Prison but Schaik was paroled after just three and one-half years. Just as with the exploding boiler problems on steamboats, after the General Slocum disaster, the federal government passed many new regulations regarding passenger ship emergency equipment.

There are several opinions why a disaster of this magnitude did not really receive it’s deserved place in history. The sheer number of fatalities in a single tragedy guaranteed worldwide shock. The question that remains is why was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, with many less deaths, perceived as the worst disaster in New York at the beginning of the 20th century? By the 1920s the Triangle disaster stayed more strongly in the public consciousness. What was remembered of the General Slocum fire was a small, annual commemoration at the Lutheran cemetery in Queens. One theory is that the Slocum fire involved German immigrants. There was quite a bit of German hostility leading up to, through and after World War One causing the public legacy of the tragedy to fade from memory. There was simply less sympathy for Germans as opposed to the young immigrants killed in the Triangle Fire. Also, with the Triangle Fire it came to be found that the factory owners had purposely locked the exits as a matter of policy to keep the workers at their sewing machines. While many of the General Slocum Fire deaths resulted from the failure to maintain safety devices like boat fire extinguishers and life jackets, there wasn’t perceived criminal action by the owners which could still certainly be debated.

Two additional stories we have on Trips Into History which you will find interesting are the Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Storms of Lake Michigan and the sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley.

The General Slocum Fire spelled the beginning of the end for the closely knit “Little Germany” section of Manhattan’s lower east side. St Marks New York eventually was sold and became a synagogue. While the disaster claimed only about one percent of the city’s German population, the continual immigration of people from other European countries, mainly eastern Europe, splintered the population more and Little Germany residents scattered to other New York City locales.

(All photos are from the public domain)




Deadliest Storm on the Great Lakes / The 1913 Storm and the Loss of the SS Wexford

The Great Lakes have always been treacherous to navigate on during the fall period. Many ships have been lost both in the 1800’s as well as the 1900’s. The storm that hit the entire Great Lakes basin in the year 1913 was unlike any other storm in it’s destructive fury. The storm has been given many different names including being called the “Big Blow“. All in all, more than 250 people lost their lives and some 19 ships were lost. The estimated loss of ship value alone was some $5 million dollars in 1913 money. A particularly peculiar facet of the 1913 storm was that it lasted some sixteen hours where most Great Lakes storms tend to last about four hours. No doubt that this added to the death total and loss of vessels. The storm was most powerful on November 9, 1913 with waves battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes. Lake Huron appeared to be the hardest hit..

cleveland 1913 storm

Cleveland Ohio during the November 1913 Great Lakes Storm

The Great lakes region often has a confluence of different weather fronts meeting together and as a result has some unpredictable and fierce storms. Most come during the months of October through December. It’s a well known fact that that Great Lakes seamen have long felt that the storms and wave action are equal to or can surpass anything experienced on the oceans. Lake Michigan as an example can be quite dangerous. Most shipping travels on a north to south direction and storms coming from the west, which is more common, hit the vessel with waves from the side. Lake Michigan, especially on it’s southern half, offer few harbors or bays to take refuge. The modern day breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley was just one example. Anyone living in the Great Lakes Region for an extended period of time can become all too familiar with the tremendous storms, or low pressure areas, that can settle over the Great Lakes Region in the fall. In short, as Polar outbreaks become more regular and intense, surging south into the Great Lakes area, they meet up with the warmer, moisture laden air from the Gulf of Mexico.

The story of the SS Wexford and it’s fatal demise on Lake Huron in 1913 exemplifies the dangers. Remember, that in 1913 maritime weather forecasting and warnings were not as sophisticated as what we now have in the 21st century. According to records from NOAA, the November 1913 weather map pattern of storm development was  not unlike the storm development of another more recent monster low pressure system that formed during the period of January 25-27th, 1978. Both systems involved an Arctic shot of cold air moving south across the Lakes area, while at the same time, an intensifying low pressure area took shape over the southern Appalachians. The 1913 great storm produced 90 mph winds, waves over 35 feet, and whiteout snow squalls.

ss wexford

SS Wexford

The SS Wexford was a steel hulled, propeller driven bulk freighter that was built in Great Britain in 1883. She was 250 feet long and 40 feet wide. At the time the SS Wexford went down on November 10, 1913, she was hauling a load of steel rails and was owned at the time by the Western Steamship Company of Totonto.  According to NOAA, eight out of eighteen ships that battled the 1913 storm on Lake Huron were lost. In the  book, The Wexford: Elusive Shipwreck of the Great Storm, 1913, author Paul Carroll points out that there was a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that the SS Wexford had actually traveled further north heading up Lake Huron than where she eventually sank. The speculation is that the ship was pushed far southward by the fierce northerly winds before she went down. All 22 of her crew were lost in the sinking. Bodies, life jackets and debris washed up on the shores of Ontario for some time afterwards. Another vessel, the 524-foot steamer, the Charles S. Price was found floating upside-down off Port Huron Michigan. Some artifacts of the SS Wexford were actually discovered along the Canadian shoreline some years later. Another good book regarding this storm is White Hurricane by author David G. Brown.

detroit news 1913 great lakes storm headline

Detroit News headline, Nov. 1913

The story of what exactly occurred with the eight lost vessels on Lake Huron will never be completely known since there was not one survivor from any of them.

Very interesting is that the wreck of the SS Wexford was actually discovered in the year 2000, 8.6 miles NNE of Grand Bend Ontario Canada. The ship was lying upright in 75 feet of water. Of the eight ships lost on Lake Huron to the November storm of 1913, the Wexford is the only ship sitting fully upright. It sits on the bottom of Lake Huron in a north/south orientation. The wreck is being explored today by divers although I have read of a few prosecutions made for removing artifacts from the wreck. At the relatively shallow depth that the SS Wexford lies, it affords a excellent experience for skilled divers.

The Great Storm of 1913 not only devastated Great Lakes shipping but rained havoc on Great Lake communities as shown on the photo on top of Cleveland Ohio which had a 22 inch snowfall. Power was out in vast areas of Michigan and Ontario. In regards to lake Erie shipping during the brutal storm, Buffalo New York on the east end of Lake Erie offered shelter and an end to Lake Erie’s constant, brutal wave action.

You will want to read two additional articles relating to Great Lakes shipping disasters. The sinking of the Carl D. Bradley in Lake Michigan and the G.P. Griffith tragedy on lake Erie.

Michigan is a vacation wonderland during the summer and there are several Great Lakes museums that offer a lot of information about the history of this shipping region. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point on the very southeastern part of Lake Superior on Michigan’s upper peninsula. Another is the  Steamship William G. Mather Maritime Museum in Cleveland Ohio. The museum is located just north of the Great Lakes Science Center at Dock 32. Detroit Michigan offers the Dossin Great Lakes Museum  located on at Belle Isle which is in the middle of the Detroit River.

(Photos are from the public domain)




The G.P. Griffith / The Great Lakes Second Worst Passenger Steamer Disaster

The Great Lakes have produced some of the most severe storms and waves on the surface of the earth. In this unpredictable environment was the burgeoning Great Lakes shipping industry. The toll on lives and vessels traversing the Great Lakes since the earliest times has largely been lost to history. Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes have been around as long as man has been sailing on them.

Beginning in the 1840s, lumber, coal, iron and agricultural products were hauled by boats over the Great Lakes. As an example, iron ore from the upper lakes region was carried east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. The early ships that traveled the lakes helped build the great cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit among others. The lake boats were the economic catalyst of the entire Great Lakes region.

On the Great Lakes During the Mid 1800’s

The year of 1850 proved to be the most deadly of any Great Lakes shipping season up to that date. The Great Lakes truly do have a shipping season since the winter months largely ice over all of the lakes. The season generally runs March through November although November has always been a question mark. The storms of November are infamous for taking down many vessels, large and small.

steamboat explosion

Steamboat boiler explosion

The loss of lives and ships during 1850 however didn’t seem to need much help from mother nature. If you were to name the biggest danger to ship, crew and passengers during this mid 1800’s time, aside from mother nature and storms, you would probably point to boiler explosions. In fact, steamboat boiler explosions raised havoc all throughout the eastern U.S. waterways. The boiler explosions of 1850 were not the first and they certainly weren’t the last. Most historians might say that the second culprit was fire. Fire not related to boiler explosions would be combustibles in the boats cargo hold. There was even a Great Lakes steamboat fire started by someone tamping out his smoking pipe on the wood deck. This was an era of wooden steamboats. Whether it by explosion or by fire, a wooden vessel would go up in flames many times faster than someone could leap overboard or put on a life jacket. Add to this the absence of any meaningful safety regulations and a culture among captains and crews of racing and you have the proverbial “accident waiting to happen”.

In this atmosphere was a country growing immensely. The mid 1800’s was an era of massive immigration. The Great Lakes served as a highway to the frontier because in 1850 the western frontier would have been roughly anything from Chicago westward. The forests of the upper Great Lakes would go on to provide needed lumber and would supplant the eastern forests which were essentially decimated. The Great Lakes was the often used route for immigrants from Europe who came to the U.S. with their life savings for the purchase of land.

A European immigrant might travel from New York City to Buffalo New York where he or she might then board a steamer for points west. Points west would include, among others, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. If the passenger had the funds then he or she might travel in a private cabin. If not, then steerage was the option and steerage accounted for the majority of travelers. Keep in mind, many of these people had already endured a lengthy voyage on the ocean before even arriving in Buffalo. In 1850, steamboat traffic on the Great Lakes was enormous. Today, we look at the Great Lakes as a venue for lake freighters and pleasure craft. In 1850 it represented the equivalence of the Santa Fe Trail, although without Indian attacks, for people wanting to travel to cities like Detroit and Chicago.

The Worst Disaster of 1850

Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes seemed to have been not an uncommon occurrence. During the infamous 1850 Great Lakes shipping season, the largest of all 1850 disasters occurred on June 17th. The burning of the steamer G. P. Griffith about twenty miles east of Cleveland, cost 286 lives to be lost. Some estimates I’ve seen put the total at 326. This was one of the greatest single event loss of life in Great lakes history. This disaster was the second of Lake Erie’s three great passenger steamer tragedies and the worst nautical disaster on the lakes until the SS Eastland capsizing while at port in Chicago in 1915. In that disaster, 844 people lost their lives. What’s incredible is that the worst Great Lakes loss of life occurred while the boat was tied up at a Chicago River dock. You might expect great shipwrecks  to occur during a storm or during an uncontrollable fire, but what happened to the SS Eastland is almost beyond belief.

ss eastland in chicago

SS Eastland docked at Chicago

On the G P Griffith, one woman was the sole survivor and what is so surprising about the Griffith loss was that it occurred just three miles from shore. A fire was reported in the hold at about 4 in the morning. One seaman took the wheel and tried to steer the boat to shore but hit a sandbar reportedly only about 600 feet from shore. The vessel burned all the way to the water line while passengers jumped in the water. Lights could even be seen on shore but with the panic that ensued  the shore could have been 100 miles a way. Burned bodies would have to be buried on the shoreline and there they stayed. The G.P. Griffith disaster was not only a Great Lakes boating disaster but it was a tragedy for the mostly German, Irish, English and Scandanavian immigrants who had traveled so far already just to have their lives snuffed out so close to their intended destinations. Also among the victims were the captain and his family who was traveling with him.

With the lax regulations in place, boats built of wood, steam boilers that were sometimes left unattended and the eagerness to race a break time records, it’s almost amazing that there were not more accidents and lives lost during the mid 1800’s. It’s estimated that the Great Lakes are home to some 8,000 shipwrecks and about 2,000 of them are located in Lake Erie. One-hundred and fifty years ago Lake Erie would have looked like a traffic jammed street. Lake Erie for centuries was a bustling water highway. It’s reported that the majority of the Great lakes shipwrecks have not been discovered even to this day. Each year more wrecks are discovered. Some have been found by fishermen while working with their nets. Diving expeditions, which I hear draw divers from all over the world, are undertaken each year. By inputting as much information that is available, maps of Great Lakes shipwreck locations have been plotted out and these are referred to by divers. Shipwreck maps are often updated when new information is discovered.

eastland capsized in chicago

Effort to right the SS Eastland after the dockside disaster

If you’re somewhat familiar with the Cleveland Ohio area, the area of the sinking, according to a Willowick Ohio web site, is approximately an area north of Lake Shore Blvd. from Cresthaven to East 305th Street.

Today, there is a memorial in place in regards to the G P Griffith tragedy at Lakefront Park in Willowick Ohio, east of Cleveland.

I also have a short article about the devastating steamboat boiler explosion at the docks of Lawrence Kansas. Also an interesting article on the Mosquito Fleet and wrecks on Washington State’s Puget Sound. Another Great Lakes related story which is very interesting concerns the break up and sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley during a fierce Lake Michigan November storm.

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

(Photos are in the public domain)

The Storms of Lake Michigan And The Carl D. Bradley Sinking

The Great Lakes are truly a geographic wonder. If you have traveled on or near them during the summer months you are probably well aware of their natural beauty. In fact, the Great Lakes are one of America’s premiere vacation destinations covering a major part of the upper midwest. There are many cottages, hotels and resorts dotted along it’s shores that are excellent for family vacations. There are many interesting stories about the lakes and vessels who sailed and steamed on them. Many people who may not be familiar with the Great Lakes might also be a bit surprised by the degree in which they can be deadly.

french ship on the great lakes

The Le Griffon, the first vessel ever to sail on the upper Great Lakes in 1679

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

lake michigan

Lake Michigan from Big Sable Point Lighthouse

The Great Lakes cover an enormous area spanning some 1,500 miles from the end of Lake Superior to Lake Ontario. The first discoverers of these massive lakes were quite surprised that they contained fresh water. This was because they were so large, the early explorers actually referred to them as oceans. While they certainly aren’t oceans, what is certain, and some may not realize it, is that there are factors involved with these chain of lakes which often make storms more hazardous to shipping than the oceans themselves. The Great Lakes of course don’t possess the massive depths of the ocean but this fact in itself often make wave action more unpredictable and deadly to shipping. It’s believed that the lake waves come so frequently as compared to ocean waves that a ship gets hit by the next wave before she has a chance to recover from the first one. Interestingly enough, most Great lake sailors believe Lake Erie, the most shallow of the lakes, can put forth the most dangerous waves. By the same token, many sailors contend that Lake Superior is the best lake to be on during a gale because it offers much more room to navigate. Great Lakes shipwrecks fill the pages of many books.

Lake Michigan is a very long lake running north to south and is the only Great Lake which doesn’t have an international boundary. It’s length is about 300 miles. An interesting fact about Lake Michigan which many may not realize is that it’s full length is longer than the entire U.S. northeastern seaboard. While the southern end of the lake is at a latitude similar to the southern coast of Cape Cod, the northernmost part of the lake is closer to the North Pole than Montreal Canada. Another characteristic of Lake Michigan is that it doesn’t have an abundance of natural harbors that most of the other lakes have. Indiana and Chicago are located on it’s southern end and the Straits of Mackinac mark it’s northern end. Between these two points, natural harbors really exist only in northern Wisconsin to the west and Grand Traverse Bay to the east in the northwest section of lower Michigan. A good two thirds of the lake’s southern part is without natural harbors. Lake Michigan is also known for having a variety of different currents caused by water running through the Straits of Mackinac. Weather in Lake Michigan also produces west to east crosswinds. Lake Michigan beaches on the eastern shore are characterized by their large sand dunes. As you can see, the lake is much more affected by geography than an ocean.

One of the most publicized Great Lake shipwrecks occurred in November of 1958 and was an exceptionally surprising event because of the ship involved. In fact, when it occurred it was the biggest Great Lakes disaster to date.

ship carl d bradley

Carl D. Bradley, 1958

The lake freighter Carl D. Bradley was built in Lorain Ohio in 1927 by the American Shipbuilding Company.. Lorain was a big ship building port located on the southern shore of Lake Erie just a bit west of Cleveland Ohio. The Bradley was built for the Bradley Steamship Company which was owned by U.S. Steel. When the vessel was launched, it was hailed as being the longest lake freighter to enter service. The Bradley at 640 feet in length was longer than two football fields. Built using riveted steel plates, the Carl D. Bradley was considered unsinkable and the safest vessel on the Great Lakes. Compared to earlier ship construction, the Carl Bradley was indeed a modern vessel for 1927.

The Carl Bradley was in service for decades. It wasn’t until the year 1958 where she and her crew met their doom. Like almost all Great Lakes ship disasters, there were some differing of opinion as to what exactly occurred. What is known was that there was some weakness reported in some of her plates. Missing rivets had been replaced with bolts and thus would have been fully repaired during the winter off season. When the Bradley was built in 1927, the use of rivets was the method of securing the steel plates. Since that time, welding is the method employed.

It’s well known that the long lake freighters like the Carl D. Bradley were built to be somewhat flexible. In other words, they were built like a tall building, being able to sway or bend rather than snap apart. After a strong lake storm it was quite common for crew members to pick up buckets full of torn off rivets. When a rivet would snap off during a storm it would shoot through the air like a bullet. It would be very dangerous to be in the immediate area. Many shipwrecks on the Great Lakes could easily have started with popping rivets.

The Carl D. Bradley’s last voyage would occur during November of 1958. November was considered the last month for lake traffic. Not all vessels would sail during November but the Bradley with her large length and several other large vessels, some approaching 700 feet, would try to get their last runs in. The Bradley steamed up Lake Huron and then turned west to go through the Straits of Mackinac. After that, it was just a run down Lake Michigan to her destination of Burlington Indiana where she would unload her cargo of limestone. In the book Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals by author William Ratigan, the Carl Bradley set out from Burlington Indiana after the winds and waves had been building up for a few days. The book points out that the rule of thumb regarding Great Lakes storms is that it takes three days for the storm to blow in and another three days to blow out. When the Bradley departed Indiana, the storm crossing Lake Michigan would probably have been at full strength. November storms on the Great Lakes, while not uncommon, were certainly not welcome. Over the centuries, the month of November has been no stranger to ship wrecks.

All accounts about the last voyage of the Carl Bradley were that the ship steamed northward on November 17th and was handling the storm well. Late in the afternoon of November 18th, as the ship was approaching the Beaver Islands, northwest of Traverse City Michigan, things changed fast. The captain and first officer were in the pilot house which on a Great Lakes freighter was located on the bow. The other superstructure was at the stern. Normal sounds of strain were heard by there was really nothing to do but  the captain which wasn’t all too irregular during a gale. Then the sound of thuds were heard, each getting a bit louder. Looking back out of the pilothouse toward the stern, the captain and first officer could see the stern bending downward. Seconds later the stern bent downward more. At this point there was really nothing anyone could do but watch. When the situation looked worse, the captain had the first officer radio out ‘maydays”. The captain sent out an abandon ship signal with his horn and everybody went for the life jackets.  At about this same time the final thud was heard and the ship broke in two.This also cut off power to the radio.

coast guard cutter

Two USCG Cutters similar to this were dispatched to the scene of the Bradley sinking

Life rafts were employed, crewmen were thrown into the water and the two sections of the carl D. Bradley were headed to the bottom of Lake Michigan. The distress calls were heard by the Coast Guard and boats and aircraft were deployed but in a storm through darkness the Coast Guard was hampered in getting their boats to the scene in any timely manner. They were well aware of the search area which was only about 47 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station but getting there in a gale was another thing. Real recovery couldn’t happen until dawn and by that time the freezing cold water of Lake Michigan would surely take it’s toll.

The scope of this disaster wouldn’t be realized until sunrise. The two Coast Guard cutters and a German freighter that made it to the scene were able to retrieve only two survivors. One was the first officer and another a deckhand. Only two survivors out of a thirty-five man crew. The swiftness in which the breakup occurred, the quick sinking of the two sections and the freezing water certainly made chances of survival slim. In a way, it was quite the opposite of what occurred to the Titanic about fifty years earlier in the North Atlantic. The Titanic took on water and there was a reasonable amount of time to get lifeboats prepared. Not the case with the Carl D. Bradley.

When you look at the design of a lake freighter, you can clearly see that the weak point of the vessel would be in the center. This was well known to almost everyone. In fact, a lake freighter is much more vulnerable when it steams empty. To compensate a bit for this, the captain took on a water ballast in Indiana that compensated for about half a normal cargo load. Freighters handle lake storms better when weighed down a bit. Sitting higher in the water increases the chances of a breakup in a gale.

The breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley demonstrated that the Great Lakes present unique dangers to sailors and that whether a vessel happens to be large or small, lake storms can be devastating.

Boatmen have lived with danger for a long time. A century earlier, steamboats had their own problems on our inland river system. Before the advances in construction, boiler explosions were a common occurrence. The following two articles describe the deadly explosions of the river steamboats Sultana off Memphis Tennessee and the Saluda near the dock in Lexington Missouri.

(Photos and images are in the public domain)