Ships 2

Howard S. Gerken

Ships 3

Howard S. Gerken

Sunk Sandsucker Howard S. Gerken

By James Donahue

When we first heard the report of the 1926 sinking of the steamship Howard S. Gerken on Lake Erie, our first question was: What ship is this? That may because this modest 241-foot vessel was a literal chameleon during the brief years it spent on North American waters.

When launched at Quebec in 1910 the steamer was designed for use as a riverboat on Manitoba’s Red River. She was given the name Rosamund Billete. Sometime before 1918 the vessel apparently was sold to new owners and given the name City of Winnipeg.

According to lakes historian Dave Swayze’s shipwreck data, the steel-hulled steamer was dismantled in 1918, shipped to Quebec, and there rebuilt as a new vessel named T. P. Phelen. The one blurred photo we could find of the Phelen shows it to be working as a small coastal freight hauler.

The ship was sold to United States owners in 1920, moved to Buffalo and put to work as a sandsucker with its final name: Howard S. Gerken.

The Gerken was had been busy removing silt at the entrance to the harbor at Erie, Pennsylvania and was steaming for Buffalo on August 21, 1926, when it was caught in a fierce late summer gale packing 50-mile-per-hour winds. Because it is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, sailors say Lake Erie can be quickly worked into a frenzy during storms.

That day the Gerkin, under command of J.B. Gamble, began taking on water. Because its holds were heavy with wet mud sucked from the lake bottom, the boat was already riding low in the water. The steamer sank so fast the 20-member crew launched three lifeboats and abandoned ship before the Gerkin foundered about eight miles from Erie.

The captain and 15 other members of the ship’s crew were rescued after the car ferry Maitland saw emergency flares and successfully found two of the life boats. The Maitland remained at the scene throughout the night and into the following day, looking for the missing boat with four more men on it. They were never found.

Listed as lost were George McMinn, mate; Richard Freeman, watchman, Herman Wageman, fireman and William Logan, derrick engineer.

Sports divers reported finding the Gerkin using a sonar device in 2009.