The storied shipwrecks of Saginaw Bay.
Saginaw Bay is a prominent indentation on Lake Huron, ranging from Au Sable Point (north of the Tawases) to Pointe aux Barques (at the tip of the Thumb). The bay contains 1,143 square miles of water that averages less than 50 feet in depth. The relatively shallow water generates steeper waves than one would find on the open lake, making vessels more challenging to control in a storm. It is for this reason that so many ships have been wrecked there.
Saginaw Bay gained notoriety as the final resting place of "treasure" shipwrecks after Michigan author James Oliver Curwood published a book on Great Lakes vessels in 1909. He also dubbed it the bay with the "most lost ships on the lakes," hinting that many small tugs and schooners carried lumber camp payrolls to the bottom of Lake Huron. Curwood inaccurately depicted the cargoes of the steamers City of Detroit and R. G. Coburn as being filled with copper. The City of Detroit was found in 1998 north of Port Austin by diver David Trotter; it was loaded with barrels of congealed flour. The Coburn, lost in 1871 with 30 lives, has yet to be found. Newspaper accounts say the cargo included 6,000 bushels of wheat, but many still believe there are barrels of silver ore aboard.
Water Witch was also rumored to have a valuable copper cargo when it sank in 1863. This unique steamship had a walking-beam engine that ran across the deck. Just as rare were the India rubber linings that sealed a "watertight" oak bulkhead. The Detroit Free Press called the Water Witch one of the fastest steamers on the lakes, but it couldn't outrun a November storm. Twenty-eight lives were lost when the ship slipped beneath the waves on the bay. Her wreckage later washed ashore at Pointe aux Barques.
Historians argue about the worst storm to hit this region, but three are strong contenders. The first occurred in September 1872.
More than 60 lives were lost that month when winds swept over the Great Lakes, sinking vessels on every lake except Ontario. News accounts say that the schooner Neshoto, loaded with iron ore, foundered near Harrisville. Five crewmen were lost, with only the captain and a sailor saved.
Saginaw Bay seemed to be the epicenter for the blow. The brig Globe came ashore at the Tawases, the schooner Rebecca was beached with its plaster cargo at Alabaster, the barge Table Rock sunk with five lives lost near Tawas Point, and two sailors died aboard the stranded Summit near Fish Point. The crew of the Abraham Lincoln was saved after their ship ran ashore a mile below Au Sable Point. Captain Charles Green and five crew members had floated free of the tug Zouave near Pointe aux Barques. The ship then drifted in the gale for more than 40 miles, until it crashed into the shoreline near the mouth of the Au Sable River. The Bay City Daily Journal reported that the captain went "crazy" from exposure. But it was the plight of the crews of the Corsair and the aptly named White Squall that would make the most headlines.
Corsair and its crew of seven had left Marquette with 575 tons of iron ore destined for Erie, Pennsylvania. As the ship traveled down Lake Huron, the winds shifted from southeast to northeast, pushing towering waves of water at the vessel as it sought shelter in Tawas Bay. The Buffalo Courier and Republic edition of October 1 noted that the Corsairs bilge pumps couldn't keep up with the volume; it wasn't long before four feet of water had flooded the hold. Second Mate Thomas Grady relieved the wheelsman so the fellow could put on his heavy-weather gear. Tons of cargo were then jettisoned into the lake in an attempt to save the ship.
Captain G.H. Snow ordered the yawl (lifeboat) to be launched, but it was smashed as the crew tried to release it. At 4:15 a.m., the ship lurched, and then finally slipped beneath the waves. The second mate found a plank and floated to a section of the cabin. He and Seaman Thomas Foley lashed themselves to a part of the quarterdeck with a scarf. Thirty-six hours later, Grady used that same scarf to signal a passing freighter. The men had drifted northward to a location about 20 miles off Sturgeon Point.
Grady later explained to newspaper reporters that his legs were like "chunks of ice" upon rescue, barely warming up until the steamer City of Boston brought them to Cleveland.
Fifteen miles off Tawas Point, the 147-foot tug Redmond Prindiville was towing the barges white squall and Libbie Nau. The two barges collided in the confused seas, and the Squads crew took to their yawl to save themselves. After a three-hour trip, the yawl capsized in the breakers, with only a single seaman surviving to tell what happened.
Fifteen years later, a wooden anchor was found about seven miles off Sturgeon Point. Divers believed it was associated with the White Squall.
Twenty-one survivors of the 1872 gale were brought to Bay City aboard the tug Sandusky.
They had barely escaped with their lives when the barge Hunter and steamer Detroit went ashore near Greenbush. The crew of the Sandusky also reported one man clinging to the rigging of the barge Table Rock off Tawas Point, with more afloat on part of its lumber cargo. The only survivor of Table Rock's crew of six saw Captain James McAuley, his wife, and the first mate drift away on the barge's cabin.
In the center of the bay, on Charity Island, the scow Emily went aground. James Carroll, captain of the barge McCullough, told newspaper reporters that he had never seen such a blow in his 40 years of seafaring life. Carroll's crew emerged safe from the storm, but their barge had to be pumped out and repaired.
An infamous November gale rocked the region 17 years later. At the mouth of Saginaw Bay, two barges--the W.L. Peck and the Wesley--were driven ashore at Whitestone Point. The Hodge was beached near Alabaster. The boiler house of the propeller Wilhelm was stove in, and that ship lost its deck load: about 200,000 feet of lumber.
According to the November 30 edition of The Bay City Times, the Wilhelm also lost both of its barges--the Midnight and the Meats--near Tawas Point. During the tempest, the Midnight's crew escaped to the Meats, which was determined to be in better shape to ride out the gale. First Mate Elijah Powers broke his leg escaping the disaster, but Seaman David Mowat suffered a worse fate. After shedding his oilskin clothes to attempt a swim to shore, he died from exposure.
Survivors were rescued by surfmen from the local lifesaving station. The Mears later broke up and was a total loss.
The gale that ravaged the Great Lakes from November 7 to 10, 1913 was dubbed the "King of Storms" for good reason. A dozen ships were lost during that period, most with their entire crews. Estimates say some 250 sailors perished while battling waves that towered over their vessels.
Wheelsman Ed Kanaby was an eyewitness to the bay's fury on November 9. H.B. Hawgood Captain Arthur May had ordered Kanaby to reverse the steamer's course in the gale, to escape the huge waves that were reported near the tip of the Thumb. The ship made the turn and attempted a run south to Port Huron. Along the way, Kanaby saw several ships that would later be lost, including the Wexford, Charles Price, Isaac M. Scott, and Regina. When May ordered the Hawgood to be turned around again, Kanaby instead put it on the beach at Point Edward, Ontario. "I threw the ship out of control--on purpose," he later explained, "and saved the crew."
Captain William Hagan on the steel freighter Howard Hanna Jr. found those same waves as he headed upbound from Lorain, Ohio with a cargo of soft coal. Storms were expected, so the ship was loaded in a manner to withstand the rolling seas.
All things movable were secured, and each hatch had been battened down with tarpaulins and hatch bars. Snow flurries and shifting wind direction greeted the crew as they rounded the Thumb. The winds picked up as they passed Pointe aux Barques, and the snow increased until the shoreline was obscured. It was about that time that the waves started pounding the Hanna, bashing in part of the after cabin and breaking all of the pilothouse windows. The waves eventually ripped the roof off the pilothouse, and caused the propeller to thrash out of control.
The Hanna lost steerage near the Port Austin lighthouse. Hagan ordered the anchors dropped before the ship approached the deadly rocks ahead of it. At 10:00 p.m., the Hanna drifted broadside into a reef, with the lighthouse just to its southwest. The ship filled with water right to the hatches, which were slowly relenting to the waves washing over them. The uppermost deck on the Hanna provided refuge I for the forward crew, while the engineers and cooks all gathered in the messroom and galley. The entire crew would eventually make their way aft when the storm abated, and many of the men took to the port-side lifeboat to get ashore. It was about that time that a lifesaving crew made it out to the Hanna. The storm had caused their delay, burying the rescue skiff at Port Austin and destroying the boathouse at Pointe aux Barques.
What the rescuers found on the Hanna surprised them. The ship was ripped at the number seven hatch, and the smokestack was missing. The life rafts and starboard lifeboat were washed away, as was the starboard side of the aft cabins. The captain thought the Hanna would be a total loss, but it was eventually pulled off the reef and rebuilt at Collingwood, Ontario.
Though 1920 wasn't a record year for storms on Saginaw Bay, it was a bad year for a barge named Goshawk. Leaving its home port of Bay City in mid-June, it sailed down to Port Huron to pick up a load of salt for eventual delivery in Duluth. With the steamer P.J. Ralph towing it north, the Goshawk made it only halfway up Lake Huron when a big blow hit. Goshawk--then the oldest ship on the Great Lakes, at age 54--sprung a leak, forcing the captain and his crew to escape to the Ralph in their lifeboat. The barge then settled in about 45 feet of water near Tawas Point.
The wreck was located by A&T Recovery divers in 1990, and was the subject of an underwater survey in 1994. It is one of the few Saginaw Bay wrecks that is regularly visited by SCUBA divers.
Ric Mixter is a documentary producer who tours the Great Lakes region lecturing on maritime and aviation history.
THE TERRIBLE TIP OF THE THUMB
Saginaw Bay may be treacherous because of its shallow depth. But the area around Pointe aux Barques, at the tip of the Thumb, combines that hazard with others, prompting marine historian David Swayze to label it "the most dangerous spot on the lakes."
In his book "Shipwreck," Swayze notes that at least 80 vessels have sunk within 20 miles of the point. Currents that sweep in from the open lake and up the coast of Saginaw Bay deposit sand in random ways, leaving ankle-deep shallows. Additionally, "parts of the bottom are extremely rocky and studded with pinnacles and boulders," he explains.
Weatherwise, the point poses problems, too. The warm, shallow water of the bay meets the cool, deep water of the lake at this location, producing fog in the spring and fall. Upbound ships may also experience extreme wind conditions, especially during westerly storms, as they emerge from the lee of the Thumb.
The most famous shipwreck in the region got caught in one of those storms. The Daniel J. Morrell was on its way up to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota on November 29, 1966. After passing Pointe aux Barques, the freighter was buffeted by a gale, with winds exceeding 65 miles per hour and swells that topped the height of the ship.
In the early morning hours, the Morrell broke in two; its stern continued sailing for five more miles. (A Coast Guard investigation blamed the breakup on the brittle steel used in its construction.) Of the 29 men aboard, only one--Watchman Dennis Hale--survived. He was discovered on a raft 40 hours later, surrounded by the bodies of three fellow crewmen who had died of exposure.