|DISASTER STRUCK THE carferry Marquette
and Bessemer No. 2, Dec. 9, 1909, just off Conneaut, the ships home port.
Captain R. R. McCleod and his 36 crew men were lost.
ASHTABULA COUNTY -
Lake Erie was the last of the Great Lakes discovered by the white man,
although it carried the first ship to travel to the upper Lakes, LaSalle's
Griffin in 1679. Later, it also carried the first steamboat, the
The Griffin, a mere 60 feet long, was a 45-ton schooner
that carried seven cannons and boasted a golden griffin on its prow.
On its maiden, the only voyage, it carried an important man, Father
Hennepin, who was called the wandering priest, and sometimes, "the
cheerful liar," writing his colorful and imaginative impressions of what
The priest wrote that the name, actually called
Erie-Tejocharontiong by the Iroquois Indians, had, on its southern shore,
"a track of land as large as the Kingdome of France." He called the
Lake "a vast reach of lonesome waters surrounded by wilderness, with,
along the trackless shores a dream of great cities, an infinite number of
considerable towns and an inconceivable commerce." His prophetic
statement became reality 200 years later.
Sail and steam ages
There have been two ages of transportation on
the Great Lakes: The Age of Sail and the Age of Steam. The Age
of Sail began in 1800, ranging into the beginning of the 1900s, reaching
the peak in the 1860s. At that time, there were 1,855 commercial
sailing ships on the Great Lakes.
The Age of Steam began in the mid-1800s to the present,
with the peak, as far as numbers being at the turn of the century, when
there were 17792 steam vessels on the five lakes.
Graveyard of ships
For many decades, the loss of life, annually,
was somewhat appalling, averaging more than 1,000 dead every year.
In the year of 1873 alone, there were 1,021 disasters, which included 250
collisions. With figures like these, the Great Lakes became a
graveyard of ships, with more than 15,000 shipwrecks known to the year
Beyond the loss of life, another staggering statistic
is seen. The goods and monies left in the wrecks amounts to more
than $1 billion, turning the Great Lakes into treasure troves for the
adventurous and daring.
Gold and goods
Gold and silver were used for pay and for
goods for many years, accepted readily anywhere, for trade. Crews
were paid in gold and silver, with almost all ships carrying a safe or
strong box for security, usually in the custody of the captain of a
Experts say that $10,000 in gold that went to the
bottom in the 1800s is worth about $100,000 today. In addition,
coins of that time are worth thousands of dollars today, though their face
value was only a few dollars at the time.
The cargoes which remain in Lake Erie's mud
have in some cases increased in value. Time has a way of turning
such things into collector's items, however out of reach they may seem to
be. These things have been kept fairly quiet, as ship owners and
insurance companies of old did not want the public to know or try to
recover such valuables.
Marquette and Bessemer
One of Lake Erie's
ghost ships is the carferry Marquette and Bessemer No. 2. The ship
was only 4 years old and considered a strong and true vessel as it headed
out of Conneaut Harbor on Dec. 9, 1909.
Filled with railroad cars that were loaded with coal
and steel, the Bessemer headed out into a heavy storm, bound for Port
Stanley, Ontario. Her crew of 36 men was under the command of Capt.
R. R. McCleod. His brother John was serving as first mate.
The ship never reached its docking at Port
Stanley, though it is thought it came near the port, only to be turned
back by the severity of the storm. The captain is thought to have
attempted to return to Conneaut.
Three days after the Bessemer disappeared, a lifeboat
was found about 15 miles off Erie, carrying a grim cargo of nine frozen
bodies. Five of the bodies were frozen in a sitting position, while
the other four were huddled over the body of a young man, as though they
had attempted to keep him warm. Of the nine, seven men were Conneaut
residents, plunging that community into shock and grief.
While no one will ever know what actually
happened, it is thought the railroad cars broke loose, possibly smashing
the low stern gate, allowing the raging waters to engulf the vessel.
This had nearly happened just one month before, Capt. McCleod had
It is said that workers on the Conneaut dock reported
hearing a distress signal form a ship about 1:30 a.m. Also, the
captain of a freighter riding out the storm at anchor outside the
breakwall claimed he saw the black shape of the carferry pass him headed
east at the time.
Whatever the cause, facts list a cargo of 30
loaded cars and 36 lives lost, with 18 bodies eventually recovered.
It is also reported that monies in the ship's safe would not be worth
between $25,000 an $50,000.
The ship has reportedly been seen from the air on clear
days, sunlight showing clearly the hull. But, so far, it has not
been located by boat. It is thought to be in about 10 fathoms of
water, about eight miles northeast of Conneaut Harbor, remaining one of
the elusive ghosts of Lake Erie.
The blackest day of Lake Erie shipping
history occurred Oct. 20, 1916, when a monster storm spent its full fury
on this most treacherous of the Great Lakes. Four ships were caught
in the 70 mph winds of the open lake, all going to the bottom.
The four ships were the schooner D. L. Filer, the
lumber hooker Marshall F. Butters, the Canadian steamer Merida and the
whaleback freighter James B. Colgate. All four of the captains
stayed with their ships to the last moments: Three living to tell
their stories; two being the only ones left of their crews.
The steamer Merida
Three days after the storm, the bodies of the
crew of the Merida were found floating in the middle of the lake in life
preservers, 23 men lost in all. No other sign of the ship was ever
found. It had last been sighted by another ship, about 10 miles off
Southeast Shoals, with the Merida fighting a losing battle with the
The Marshall F. Butters
The lumber carrier Butters carried 13 men
that fateful day, coming out of the Detroit River, bound east on Lake
Erie. Experts say her cargo of shingles and lumber shifted because
of the high seas, causing the ship to list.
Before the frantic crew could equalize the cargo, water
crashed over the ship. The members of the crew managed to lower a
life boat, while Capt. McClure and two other crew members stayed with the
sinking ship. The captain distress signal with the steam whistle
before the boiler fires went out, but there was no way it could be heard
above the storm.
To the rescue
Nearby, two freighters tried to get to the
stricken vessel. One, the F. G. Harwell, managed to pick up the men
in the nearly-swamped life boat. The other, the Frank R. Billings,
was commanded by a Capt. Cody, who, while unable to hear the whistle, read
the distress call by the puffs of white smoke from the whistle.
Cody, in a uncanny display of seamanship, maneuvered
his ship in a circle around the Butters, dropping storm oil, somewhat
calming the waters. He and his crew managed to pull the remaining
crew members of the Butters aboard just before the ship broke up.
Strangely enough, the 13 men were rescued just 13 miles from the Southeast
The D. L. Filer
The schooner Filer was also near the western
end of Lake Erie that Black Friday, nearly in the safety of the Detroit
River. But fate intervened, with overwhelming amounts of water
crashing against and over the ship that was loaded with coal.
All six of the crew members hurried up the foremast to
escape the rising waters, while the captain clung to the aftermast by
himself. The foremast snapped under the excess weight, drowning five
of the six men. The sixth swam to join the captain.
All night fight
The two men clung to the mast all night,
with, at one time, a ship coming so close to them that it nearly hit them.
Still, they could not make those aboard hear their cries. In the
morning the passenger ship Western States spotted the pair, hurrying to
the rescue. Unfortunately, only the captain survived, as the crewman
with him, exhausted from the ordeal, slipped beneath the water just as
hands were reaching to lift him to safety.
The James B. Colgate
The fourth loss that day on Lake Erie was the
whaleback ship the James B. Colgate, loaded with coal and a crew of 26,
commanded by veteran sailor Capt. Walter Grashaw. Having served as
first mate of the vessel for 10 years, Grashaw had received his command
only two weeks earlier.
The sturdy ship was opposite Erie, when the intensity
of the storm, actually of hurricane strength, sent water into the hold.
Soon the vessel was listing, the crew aware of what was about to happen.
At 10 p.m., the Colgate went down, bow first.
The crew lost
With the raging winds having cleared the ship
of any materials that might have forded rescue, there was nothing but life
vests to hold the men. These were of little use against the waves,
and served only to keep the 26 dead bodies afloat.
Grashaw was eventually rescued, on the following Sunday
morning, half dead, still clinging to remnants of a raft. He had
seen his ship and the men of his first command die, with only his own
supreme will to live brining him through Black Friday.
A miraculous escape
One of the most unbelievable, yet true
happenings of Lake Erie, occurred in the fall of 1833, and strangely
enough, involved a woman rather than a sailor. The schooner New
Connecticut was caught in a squall between Conneaut and Erie. A Mrs.
Lynde was in her cabin below decks when the ship rolled over on its side.
She was the aunt of one of the most well known captains of the times,
Capt. Gilman Appleby.
Water engulfed the cabins so fast, that no one figured
anyone in the cabins so fast, that no one figured anyone in the cabins
could survive, so the crew lowered a boat and left, leaving the
still-floating ship to sink. Three days later, the distressed
Appleby asked another captain to try to get the body of his aunt off the
wreckage if it cold still be found.
His friend, Capt.
Wilkins, found the New Connecticut wreckage, drifting on its side, full of
water. He sent a boarding party with a search pole, which was shoved
repeatedly through the side of the hull. With no human contact
apparent, it was assumed the body had floated out into the lake.
Wouldn't give up
Determined that Mrs. Lynde should have porper
burial, Capt. Appleby would not give up. Taking Mrs. Lynde's son
along, he went to the wreck, taking a work boat with equipment to right
the vessel and bring it to port.
When the ship was nearly upright, Mrs. Lynde appeared,
walked up the stairs through the water, facing the startled workers.
She had been in the vessel, in water up to her arm pits, for five days and
nights. She could only stand all that time, even sleeping brief
moments. She had a single cracker, and an onion which floated by,
The will to live
She had heard the Wilkin's search party, but
could not make them hear her. She was nearly touched by the pole
they shoved through the hull, but again, was not heard. The will to
live during seemingly impossible circumstances had once again sustained