Ships 2


Ships 3


Infamous Freighter Mataafa

By James Donahue

The Great Lakes ore carrier Mataafa may have been the only vessel to have had a November storm named after it. The fierce gale that swept the Great Lakes on November 27 and 28, 1905, sunk or grounded some 23 ships, but the most spectacular of the wrecks was that of the Mataafa, which claimed nine lives while residents of Duluth watched the vessel pounded to pieces at the end of the city’s piers.

The 430-foot steamer, under the command of Captain Robert Humble, had the barge James Nasmyth in tow when they left Duluth harbor at 4 p.m., both laden with ore. The storm developed just before midnight, blowing hurricane force winds out of the northeast.

The two vessels battled in high seas off Two Harbors until dawn, then turned back and ran before the wind back to Duluth. When he saw the massive breakers sweeping the piers, Humble knew he had little chance of getting both vessels safely into the harbor. He ordered the towline to the Nasmyth dropped and tried to bring the Mataafa into harbor on its own.

The barge dropped anchor and safely rode out the storm. But the high seas and tricky current pushed the steamer off course. It rammed the end of the North Pier and came to an abrupt stop. Captain Humble ordered the engines in reverse, but the movement astern and the currents swung the ship’s bow around. The Mataafa grounded in shallow water on the outside of the North Pier. There it was hammered by the high seas and 80 mile-per-hour winds.

It was a winter gale and the temperature dropped to near zero and the ship was pelted by snow and ice. As citizens from Duluth watched in horror the steamer broke into three pieces. Of the 12 sailors caught on the stern, only three worked their way forward to the shelter of the cabin area with the other crew members. The other nine perished from exposure.

It was not until the storm abated on the morning of November 19 that the crew could be rescued.

The storm was not the end of the Mataafa. The steamer was raised, repaired and put back into service. It was in a collision that sank the Sacramento at Duluth three years later and slammed into another pier at Superior, Wisconsin, in 1914.

Built in 1899, the Mataafa operated for 65 years until it was scrapped in 1964.


Wrecked at Duluth