The Unexplained Loss of
Pere Marquette No. 18
By James Donahue
The sinking of the railroad
car ferry Pere Marquette No. 18 on September 19, 1910, remains one of Lake Michigan’s unsolved mysteries. The vessel
took twenty-nine passengers and crew members to the bottom with her and caused the deaths of two sailors from another vessel
that fell from an overturned lifeboat to drown during rescue operations. Miraculously, another thirty-three of the sixty-two
souls aboard the doomed ferry were pulled alive from the water.
The cause of the sinking
had marine specialists scratching their heads. The seas were running high but the weather was fair. The vessel was not overloaded.
Her engines and machinery were working. The vessel was making a first run for the ferry service after spending the summer
operating as an excursion liner between Chicago and Waukegan. It passed a government inspection at Ludington the day before
it sank. How, then, could it have happened?
Capt. Peter Kilty of Ludington
probably knew what claimed his command, as did many of the officers. But Kilty and the officers who knew were all lost with
the ship. The survivors were unable to explain. There was a theory that some of the plates on the hull were damaged during
the summer months while the steamer was operating as an excursion liner. Then, after taking on ballast and twenty-nine rail
cars, the ferry was riding low in the water, so the damaged hull leaked. Another theory was that a sea cock was accidentally
left open during the conversion from passenger to ferry service.
The steamer was discovered
taking on water around 3:00 AM when about midway across Lake Michigan, on a run from Ludington to Milwaukee. A wheelman on
the bridge complained that the vessel was not steering well, at about the same time an oiler, who went aft from the engine
room to oil the propeller shaft bearings, discovered seven feet of water in the stern.
Coal passer Thomas Shields
said he was first aware of trouble when he saw water pouring into the boat through a porthole. “I saw the mate, Joe
Brezenski, and one of the wheelmen come and try to fix the glass and the brass that holds the port in. Then Captain Kilty
comes, and they push clothes and rags into the hole, and the captain orders the pumps to be put on. Then Captain Kilty tells
us we’ve got to shove the cars off so as to lighten the ship.”
He said they pushed all
twenty-nine railroad cars overboard that night. Shields said the men were ordered to drop the port side lifeboats, which were
on the lee side of the boat, although they were not put all the way into the water. Some of the deck hands got in and kept
them from slamming against the side of the steamer. “We loosened all the life rafts so they would float off when the
boat sank,” Shields said.
Kilty ordered the Pere
Marquette headed due west at full steam, hoping to come to shoal water near Sheboygan, and directed wireless operator S. F.
Sczepanek to send what is believed to have been the first ship-to-shore radio distress signal in history. The international
SOS code was not in place in 1910, so Sczepanek sent: CQD, “for God’s sake, send help.” A similar message
was sent from the Titanic on the North Atlantic two years later.
Company officers at Ludington
picked up the signal and redirected Pere Marquette No. 17, which was steaming from Milwaukee to Ludington, to the scene. Her
captain, a man named Russell, later was criticized for not acting fast enough to save the sailors on the sinking ship. Russell
defended himself. He said Captain Kilty asked him to stand by when No. 17 arrived on the scene.
Russell said Pere Marquette
No. 18 was still under way, which made it difficult to pull his boat alongside.
The outspoken Tom Shields and a porter, Stanley Chubb, said they thought everyone could have been saved if Russell had done
his job. They said they heard second mate W. H. Brown plead with No. 17 to come alongside only minutes before the steamer
went down. They said he shouted: “For God’s sake, what are you doing?”
Russell said he was maneuvering
No. 17 around to the lee side of the stricken steamer so that he would be in position to take people aboard when No. 18 sank
without warning. He said the bow rose high in the air and the vessel slid stern first into the water. As it went down, air
pressure building in the bow caused the hull to explode. The explosion may have killed many of the men still on the ferry.
Seymour E. Cochraine, who was on the boat with a crew of scrubbers and carpet layers to remodel some of the staterooms, said
he had time to tie a purse with a thousand dollars in gold coins to the rail. He floated on a cabin door until he was rescued
by lifeboats from No. 17.
The dead included Kilty
and Brezenski of Manitowoc; Brown of Ludington; Sczepanek of Worcester, Massachusetts; chief engineer E. R. Leedham of Ludington;
assistant engineer Chalmer Rosencranz of Northport, Michigan; second assistant engineer Paul Rennere of Ludington; passenger
N. L. Bertrand of Ludington; fireman Michael Haythaler of Forestville, Michigan; fireman W. Parker of Marine City, Michigan;
cabin maid Mrs. Marion Turner of Ludington; watchman Peter Hire of Ludington; wheelman Ole Bakken of Ludington; scrubber Joseph
Marion of Ludington; oiler Charles Jensen of Ludington; and two stowaways, Tom Kelley and an unnamed brother, both from Detroit.
Watchman Joe Peterson and
scrubber Jacob Jacobson, crew members from Pete Marquette No. 17, drowned when
their boat accidentally smashed against the side of the steamer and they tumbled into the lake. The wreck lies about twenty
miles off Sheboygan.