The Chicora Disaster
By James Donahue
After just two successful seasons the passenger and cargo steamship Chicora was in its winter moorings at St. Joseph,
Michigan in January, 1895 when its owners, the Graham & Morton Transportation Company, received a request to deliver a
large shipment of late winter flour from Milwaukee.
Although she had a wooden hull, the 209-foot-long Chicora was designed for winter trips between Wisconsin and Southern
Michigan so a January run between Milwaukee and St. Joseph was not out of the ordinary. So it was that Captain Edward C. Stines
called out his crew and readied the vessel for a mid-winter trip.
Since the Chicora was preparing for the special trip, her owners put the word out that the winter voyage was planned
and available for freight and passenger delivery. Before it sailed on January 19 a freight train from Kalamazoo arrived with
cases of patent bitters, dry goods, newsprint rolls and six passengers bound for Milwaukee.
The steamer arrived in Milwaukee later that day without incident. Then the cargo of 100-pound sacks of flour were unloaded
from standing rail cars and rolled into the ship’s cargo hold. The flour was destined for mills in Kalamazoo, Battle
Creek and bakeries across Michigan.
One passenger boarded for the return trip. He was Joseph F. Pearl of St. Joseph.
With the ship loaded and prepared for the trip, Captain Stines ordered the engines fired and the steamer
left its moorings, bound for the return trip to St. Joseph at 5 a.m. The weather was calm and clear that morning and Stines
had no idea that a storm was brewing. Had he waited another ten minutes, he would have received a telegram from John Graham
warning him not to sail because the barometer was falling fast at Benton Harbor.
The gale was believed to have struck when the Chicora was about halfway across the lake. The steamer never made port.
It disappeared with its entire crew of 22 men and passenger Pearl.
After the storm, men from Saugatuck found a line of wreckage frozen in the ice. The line stretched from Saugatuck to
South Haven, about three quarters of a mile from shore. The debris included a part of the wooden deck, some oars and two masts.
No bodies were ever recovered.
Two bottles with messages washed ashore in April. One read: “All is lost, could see land if not snowed and blowed.
Engine gave out, drifting to shore in ice. Captain and clerk are swept off. We have a hard time of it. 10:15 o’clock.”
The second message signed by Chief Engineer Robert McClure, read: “Chicora engines broke. Drifted into trough
of sea. We have lost all hope. She has gone to pieces. Good bye.”
To this date, in 2011, divers have not located the wreck of the Chicora. It remains one of the mysteries of Lake Michigan.