Ships 2

Superior City

Ships 3

Superior City

Superior City Collision Killed 29

By James Donahue

The events following the collision of the freighters Superior City and Willis L. King in Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay happened so fast, the 29 sailors that perished had no chance to save themselves.

The Superior City was down bound with a cargo of iron ore, heading for the Sault Ste. Marie locks when the King, during a confusion of passing signals, rammed it amidships. The steel bow of the 580-foot King pierced the side of the smaller steamer flooding the engine room. The heated boilers exploded when the cold water hit them. The blast blew off the stern of the ship killing most of the crew members caught below decks instantly.

They said the steamer sank in about 200 feet of water within two minutes. The disaster occurred on August 20, 1920.

The only survivors were Captain Edward Sawyer, the second mate, a man named Lehue, wheelsman Peter Jacobson and boatswain Walter Richter.

A New York Times story said Captain Sawyer refused comment after the crash, but the skipper of the King charged that the Superior City crossed his boat’s bows after signaling it would pass in another direction.

Jacobson said he was acting as lookout at the time of the crash. He said it was a clear night and he could plainly see the approaching steamer. He said he reported to the bridge that the King was bearing down on them, and heard the customary passing signals given.

“I hoped she would pass by without striking ut sounded the alarm and struck out aft,” Jacobson said. He said the blast did not blow him away from the ship and he was caught in the suction and pulled deep into the water as the ship sank out from under him. He fought his way back to the surface and continued swimming for about twenty minutes before a boat from the King picked him up.

Richter was found floating on a hatch cover by a passing ship, the J. J. Turner, and brought to Sault Ste. Marie. He said he was in his bunk when the collision occurred. He ran aft with the other crew members, wearing only his underwear, when the alarm sounded. He was working with the others to launch a lifeboat when the vessel exploded and was thrown into the lake.

Richter said the alarm was sounded about two minutes before the crash, when it became evident that the two boats would not avoid a collision. “If we had had two minutes more no lives would have been lost. The crew kept their heads and all waited calmly for the boats to be launched but there wasn’t time. The boat I was attempting to launch was thrown overboard, carrying me with it.”

The 429-foot-long Superior City was launched at Lorain, Ohio in 1898.


The Launch