Saving the Crew of the New York
By James Donahue
Fifteen sailors owed their lives to the plucky crew of the Canadian schooner Nemesis when their vessel, the propeller New York, was lost in a Lake
Huron gale on October 15, 1876. Only one man died when the storm swamped the New York,
sending it to the bottom off Forestville, Michigan. Fireman William Sparks of Buffalo fell overboard attempting to climb from
a tossing lifeboat to the deck of the Nemesis. They said Sparks was exhausted from
the five hours he spent in the open boat and lost his grip.
Capt. Michael Galvin was in command of the New York on a trip from Cove Island, on
Georgian Bay, to Buffalo with the lumber barges Nellie McGilura and R. J. Carney, and schooner Butcher Boy in tow, when the four boats
got caught in the storm. The vessels were holding their own until the afternoon when the towline to the barges parted. Galvin
turned the steamer around tried to get a new line to the drifting barges, but the seas prevented him from having any success.
As the New York turned and twisted against the rollers, her wooden seams broke
open and the vessel began taking on water.
The barges and the schooner all set sail, with the Butcher Boy taking the lead in the string. They ran with their towlines still connecting them to one another,
sailing south before the gale to Port Huron. They made it, although the holds of both barges were filled with water and the
McGilura’s forecastle was swept away. All were wooden ships laden with lumber,
which kept them afloat.
The New York did not fare as well. The
leak got worse as the storm grew in intensity. Galvin steered for the shore, hoping to beach his command before it sank. But
he was too late. The water rose too fast in the engine room, put out the fires and the steamer went adrift without power.
The crew scrambled into the rigging and raised sail, only to see the old canvas,
rotted after years of storage, torn to shreds before the wind. Thus the old propeller was at the mercy of the storm. Massive
seas crashed over her deck and she rolled in the trough of the waves. Time was running out. Galvin ordered the yawl boat launched
and the crew abandoned ship. Twenty minutes after the boat pulled away the old steamer turned on its side and disappeared
under the water.
The crew spent a terrible night in the open boat, battling the wind, waves and intense
cold. Snow squalls buffeted them and the heavy seas kept everyone drenched. Constant bailing was necessary to keep the yawl
The sails of the Nemesis were sighted
just after dawn. The little schooner, with Captain Shurse and three other sailors manning it, spotted the boat and came to
the rescue. It took some skillful seamanship to bring the sailing vessel around to pick up the survivors.
Handling a schooner in high wind and seas is task enough, but turning around to save
someone in the water is next to impossible under such conditions. Many a tale has been told by masters of schooners who helplessly
watched another vessel founder and said they were unable to bring their boat around and against the wind to save the crew.
Shurse not only did it once, he did it twelve times. He swing wide, tacking his vessel
carefully into the winds, which, even though diminished, were still packing a punch. The first try bringing the Nemesis alongside the bouncing little lifeboat failed, so Shurse sailed on past and turned for a second, then
third and fourth try.
In the meantime, the seas washed away the schooner’s deck load of tanbark.
The loss of his cargo didn’t discourage Shurse. The lives of those sixteen souls in that tossing lifeboat were more
important. Perhaps he could picture himself someday in an open boat praying for someone to come along and deliver him from
It was not until the twelfth try that the Nemesis
succeeded in putting the little boat snugly up against the lee side of the schooner without running over it. A rope was tossed,
someone caught it, and the rescue was underway. The tragedy of the story is that Bill Sparks was lost anyway. The Nemesis arrived in Port Huron with her human cargo of fourteen men and one woman just ahead of the barges.
The steamer was built at Buffalo was a passenger ship in 1856. After taking heavy
damage in 1874 it was converted for use as a steam barge in the lumber trade.
The remains of the New York were found
by Michigan sport divers in May, 1988. This wreck, and other known wrecks lie in an area off Sanilac County, Michigan, now
marked by the state as an underwater preserve.