Nov 9, 2013

The Curious Case of...

posted by killre

Credit where credit is due: The narrative outlined below is cobbled together from several sections of a book called Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals.  Written by William Ratigan, it was first published in 1960.  A revised edition was published in 1977.  In this case, the ambiguous word "revised" translates to "66 additional pages devoted to the Edmund Fitzgerald."  (If that statement makes you jump to the conclusion that this is yet another rehashing of that story, rest easy: It isn't.)

As for the series of events I am about to relate, there are several reasons why I have chosen to do so.  The first is the happy coincidence of recently rediscovering the story combined with the realization that the events happened almost precisely one hundred years ago-- a nice, round, and strangely gratifying number.  The second is that in this age of information, where nearly everything is available through the diligent use of a search engine, Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals remains a fairly obscure source outside the State of Michigan.  The third reason is that Ratigan never tells the whole story from beginning to end.  Ratigan is not a bad writer, especially compared to some of the utter tripe that passes for writing these days, but he does vacillate somewhat between prose that is a bit stiff to prose that is uncomfortably loose and he flashes forward and back through the narrative in a way that seems calculated to make the reader seasick.  A fourth reason will become apparent later.

In the story that follows, I'm going to throw a lot of proper names at you: people, places, things.  Most of the things are given the names of people, which confuses the issue somewhat.  (The things in question, of course, are boats.  I use that term deliberately.  It is common practice on the Great Lakes to refer to vessels as "boats," irrespective of their sometimes massive size.)  In a move that would seem destined to confuse things further, I will likely follow the custom of occasionally referring to these boats by a feminine pronoun despite the fact that most of them were christened with masculine proper names.  The practice of bestowing a decidedly him name on something commonly regarded as a her reflects the fact that the people who give names to big boats don't often set foot on them.  The people who live and work on and around the big boats on a daily basis hope their vessel will be nurturing and non-confrontational, although they remain fully cognizant of her fickle nature.  The men who give the vessel its name, on the other hand, just like to put their names on things.  The bigger, the better.  I'll give you one guess why that is.  If your guess is in some way inadequate, well, you're stuck with it-- you'll just have to do the best you can.

Anyway, I'm going to throw some names at you.  If I'm any good at telling stories, you should have no trouble remembering the ones you'll need to and quickly disregarding the ones you don't.

Turn back the calendar, if you would, almost precisely one century...

At noon on Friday, November 7th, 1913, the Coast Guard station at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, a town located at the southeast corner of aptly named Lake Superior, hoisted a set of signal flags: a white pennant over a red square with a black square center.  It was a weather warning.  Gale-force winds had pushed a powerful low-pressure system down from the Arctic, across the western marches of Ontario and most of the length of the nearly 400-mile-long lake.  Captains and crews in Whitefish Bay and the St. Marys River scurried to batten down their hatches, which, for those of you who don't know, means little more than securing a tarp over the tightly clamped hatch covers as an added hedge against leaks.

Several hours later, in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon, lighted oil-lamps replaced the flags atop the flagpole.  These were not aligned in the white-over-red of a so-called nor'wester, however.  The scheme now was red over white over red, a configuration seldom seen on the Great Lakes: a hurricane warning.  Afternoon wind speeds of fifty miles per hour had already been recorded.  Now the Coast Guard was predicting gusts approaching eighty.  Compounding the issue, a rapid temperature drop began to squeeze heavy snow from the storm front.  As it barreled headlong toward Lake Huron, it wasn't just a hurricane anymore... it was also a blizzard.

Saturday morning, November 8th.  Cleveland, Ohio.  News didn't travel as quickly as the wind in 1913, so Milton Smith had no concrete idea of the white hell about to be unleashed up north.  Smith was an assistant engineer aboard the 524-foot ore carrier Charles S. Price, which was due to weigh anchor later that day and make steam for the western reaches of Lake Superior.  The weather information in that morning's Cleveland newspaper seemed innocuous enough --cold, a mixture of snow and rain, with "unsettled" weather on Sunday-- but some ambiguous, uneasy feeling made Smith pack his grip and tell his boss he was quitting.  Chief Engineer John Groundwater tried to talk him out of it, telling Smith he was throwing away good money.  This would surely be their last trip of the season, Groundwater said, and upon their return they would receive a sizeable bonus.  Smith was unmoved.

Before leaving, Smith went to see his best friend on the boat, a wheelsman named Arz McIntosh.  McIntosh leaned toward quitting, too, but ultimately he stayed.  He needed the money.  Among his parting words, McIntosh told Smith, "See you in Port Huron."  Both men lived in the area of Port Huron, Michigan.  Coincidentally, the Charles S. Price would pass close by that town on her way north, navigating the narrow shipping channel connecting the northwest corner of Lake Erie with the southern tip of Lake Huron-- a waterway formed by the Detroit River, Lake St. Claire, and the St. Claire River.  For decades before and since 1913, it was customary for friends and family of Great Lakes officers and crewmen to come down to the river whenever they knew their loved one's boat would be passing through the channel, simply to wave as the boat went by.  The men in the pilothouse would return the gesture with a salutary toot of the whistle.

Milton Smith's precise movements in the two or three days after stepping off the gangplank in Cleveland are not well documented.  Most likely he took a train to Toledo or Detroit, where he changed trains for Port Huron.  He would reenter the story later.

The movements of the Charles S. Price over that same time are a bit easier to follow.  She departed Cleveland on schedule, headed for the mouth of the Detroit River.  The Price, too, would play a key role in the upcoming drama.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, November 9th, Captain A.C. May and his boat, the 550-foot H.B. Hawgood, cleared the head of the St. Claire River near Port Huron and steamed north, up the open lake.  A few hours later, the Charles S. Price also moved up the St. Claire River.  Second mate Howard Mackley, on duty in the pilothouse, spotted his wife on the western shore and pulled the whistle cord in greeting.  Another hour or so and the Price was also upbound on Lake Huron.

The storm struck Lake Huron that Sunday with all the unbridled fury of an especially ill-tempered and angry ancient god.  The low-pressure ridge howling down from the Soo, driving a ferocious blizzard before it, smashed into another low-pressure system that had formed over the Rocky Mountains and swept across the Great Plains.  The two fronts flung themselves around each other over the open lake like those modern-day computer models of galaxies colliding, each fueling the other to greater frenzy.

In the century since, many names have been given to this monster storm.  "Freshwater Fury" is colorful (purple) if unspecific.  "White Hurricane" is certainly on point, although it sounds like the nickname of a particularly pasty pugilist.  "Dark Sunday" has a nice ring to it, even if it is begging to be co-opted by a chain of ice cream stores.  Perhaps the most eloquent title of all is the most tellingly simple one: "The Lake Huron Storm."  No-one who lived through it ever needed to ask which one.

A report published by the Lake Carriers Association later used descriptions like, "unprecedented violence... gust of such fearful speed... raged for sixteen hours continuously... average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over... waves were at least thirty-five feet high and followed each other in quick succession...ships must have been subjected to incredible punishment... wind blowing one way and the sea running in the opposite... cyclonic."

It was, in short, the worst storm in the recorded history of the Great Lakes.

In the early hours of the storm, the combination of wind and waves broke U.S. Lightship No. 61 loose from her anchorage near the northern entrance to the St. Clair River and began to batter her against the lakeshore.  Her navigational importance into the shipping channel would be proven more than once before the day was out.

Pounding her way through the storm Sunday afternoon was the iron ore carrier Matthew Andrews, downbound and heavily laden.  Having braved hundreds of miles of high wind, monstrous waves, heavy snow, and ice buildup on every surface, she was within a few minutes of making the entrance to the St. Claire River and the relative shelter therein.  Steering the course would be incredibly tricky, though.  Sighting Lightship No. 61 through the snow squalls, but unable to discern she'd been hammered hard against the shore, Captain Lampoh miscalculated his position and ran the Andrews onto the shoals.

Meanwhile Captain May, aboard H.B. Hawgood somewhere beyond Michigan's thumb, had spent much of the morning thinking discretion might be the better part of valor.  Turning the Hawgood about --no easy maneuver in those conditions-- he steamed back toward Port Huron.  Around the time of his turn, he sighted the Charles S. Price, still headed north.  May observed, in the parlance of his profession, that the Price was "making bad weather of her passage."  This was a euphemistic way of saying the boat was bucking and wallowing her way up the lake in a decidedly unhealthy manner.

Perhaps an hour went by before May sighted the upbound Regina, a 269-foot Canadian package freighter.  Captain May would be the last person to see her and live to tell of it.  Still later in the day, he spotted the 524-foot Isaac M. Scott, upbound for Milwaukee via the Straits of Mackinac.  This ship, too, would soon disappear with nary a trace.

May would have problems of his own.  Shaping his approach to the St. Claire River by Lightship No. 61, just as the captain of the Andrews had, he piloted the H.B. Hawgood aground two miles north of the channel.

On shore, the blizzard paralyzed traffic of all kinds.  Streetcars became stuck in snow drifts.  Trains were cancelled.  In some places, the snow was four feet deep.  In Cleveland, where Milton Smith had read that the weather on Sunday would be "unsettled," twenty-two inches of snow shut the city down for two days.

On Monday morning, November 10th, the newspapers were heavy with information about the thousands of dollars of damage on shore, but empty of any word from out on the big lakes.

The captain of the Lakeview lifesaving station north of Port Huron scanned his tiny portion of the lake with a telescope.  At the edge of its range, he thought he saw what looked like a big boat stripped of its smokestacks.  He ordered one of his tugs to investigate.  The tug captain couldn't believe his eyes: a large ore carrier, floating upside down, encased in ice, its bow sticking thirty feet out of the lake and its stern sunk so deeply into the choppy, dark waters that the boat's length could only be guessed.  No visible markings.  The tug captain circled several times, then went back to shore in search of a diver.  Upon returning, the diver refused to go down, citing the still-rough seas.  Throughout the rest of the week, the much-talked-about hulk would be known simply as "the mystery ship."

On Tuesday, a farmer near Grand Bend, Ontario, found the first body.  Two more corpses were quickly discovered nearby.  All three wore life jackets stenciled with the name Wexford, a 270-foot package freighter registered in Canada.  She had been built in Scotland, and no doubt had survived many an ocean storm before tramping her way to the Great Lakes.  Seventeen men died with her.

With telephone and telegraph lines still down throughout large swaths of Michigan and Ontario, and roads choked with deep snow, it fell to a railroad conductor to bring word to Sarnia (the Ontario town across the river from Port Huron) that bodies were washing ashore up the lake.  The grisly march of corpses and debris continued all week, as hope for the crewmen of missing, overdue boats faded.  In all, at least eighteen boats, including eight of the biggest on the lakes, went down with all hands in the Lake Huron Storm.  The death toll was 235.

On Thursday, the 13th, Milton Smith made his way to Thedford, Ontario, a small town about thirty-five miles east of Port Huron, where the showroom items of a combination furniture store & funeral parlor had been shoved aside to make room for a row of lifeless bodies covered in blankets.  Smith was taken aback by the first face he was shown.  Battered and bruised though it was by the storm, he easily identified the face as that of big John Groundwater, Chief Engineer of the Charles S. Price.

The coroner gave Smith a stern, skeptical look.  "Are you sure?"

Smith said he was.  After all, he had served with the man all season and had just spoken with him five days prior in Cleveland.  He was certain.  "Why?" asked Smith.

The coroner looked from Smith to the body, then reached down and grabbed a corner of the floatation vest that was still strapped to the corpse.  "If he was the chief engineer of the Price," the coroner said, returning his gaze to Smith, "why is he wearing a Regina life preserver?"

Groundwater, it turned out, was not the only man from the Charles S. Price whose body washed onto a beach wrapped in a Regina life jacket.  There were several others.  Initial speculation was that the two boats had collided somewhere on Lake Huron and the crews had intermingled.  Then, as the boats went under, the men had grabbed whatever life preserver was handiest, regardless of its stenciling.  One point against this scenario early on was that no Regina bodies came ashore wearing Price jackets.

A better point against the collision theory would soon be made.  On Saturday, November 15th, a diver finally summoned the courage to plunge into the choppy, frigid waters north of Port Huron and identify the mystery ship.  It was the Charles S. Price.  There wasn't a scratch on her.

In Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals, William Ratigan speculates half-heartedly about the sequence of unknowable events that must have transpired between the Price and the Regina on Lake Huron that dark Sunday, advancing several unlikely theories (most of them still involving a collision) and just as quickly dismissing them (because there is no evidence of collision).  In the end, he puts forward no conclusions.  Perhaps he felt maintaining an air of mystery made for a better telling.

I, on the other hand, not only have a theory, but am willing to share it.

Bucking and shuddering her way up the lake, continuously coated anew with spray whipped from wavetops by hurricane winds and then freezing on contact, the Charles S. Price slowly turned into a steam-powered block of ice from the waterline to the topmast.  Empty but for ballast, she eventually became top-heavy.  An errant gust of wind or the proverbial rogue wave rolled her far enough for gravity to take hold and capsize the boat.  Some of the crew obviously made it out, some likely did not.  (Recovered bodies never accounted for every man aboard the Price.  While a dozen different things may have happened to the ones who remained forever missing, it's possible that some of them are to this day entombed in the boat, which did eventually lose buoyancy and sink.  The wreck has never been salvaged.)  Those who did escape the boat as it capsized probably had little time to do so-- so little time, perhaps, that they went into the water without life jackets.

Somehow, some way, against some mighty long odds, the Regina happened upon the survivors of the Price shortly after the latter rolled over somewhere near the center of the unholy maelstrom that was Lake Huron.  (The capsized but still floating hull of the Price shortens those odds a bit.)  Being a package freighter, the Regina was more likely to have been hauling cargo and therefore less likely to become top-heavy-- at least for a time.  Maybe they could do little more than throw life preservers to the struggling men in the water before the storm separated them, or maybe the crew of the Regina was able to fish them from the frigid caldron.  If so, the men of the Charles S. Price would have been given dry clothes, maybe a hot drink... and eventually new life preservers when this, their second boat of the day, finally succumbed to the storm.

The smaller details will never be known.  In general, though, I think this theory, um, holds water.

P.S... Dan "It's A Sad Commentary When Abbott Is Even Dumber Than Costello" Hicks must go.

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