Ships 2

Albany & Philadelphia

Ships 3


Philadelphia And Albany Collision Mystery

By James Donahue

There has remained an unsolved mystery behind the deaths of 24 sailors following the collision and sinking of the steamers Albany and Philadelphia on fog-shrouded Lake Huron.

It happened during the early morning hours of November 7, 1893 after the two iron ships came together in collision about twenty miles off Pointe aux Barques, Michigan.

All of the lost sailors were crowded into one of two lifeboats launched from the Philadelphia that morning. The overturned yawl was found the next day by men from the Pointe aux Barques lifesaving station. The body of one man recovered a few hours later indicated that something violent happened. The man’s skull was crushed.

Was the frail lifeboat unknowingly struck by a passing ship in the foggy darkness? Two other vessels, the City of Concord and the Cuba were known to have passed through the area that morning. There also was speculation that the craft was hit by the still churning propeller of the sinking Philadelphia. But if either was true, why wasn’t the lifeboat damaged? And why didn’t the bodies of more of the victims show signs of injury?

As it was, all the men were wearing life jackets. All were recovered by the life savers within twelve hours of the sinking. Eleven bodies were picked up at daybreak, only a few hours after the sinking. The water is cold in November, but sailors have been known to survive for many hours in the water if they are properly dressed. Why weren’t some of them still alive to tell the story of what happened to their boat?

Captain A. E. Huff, master of the Philadelphia, told a board of inquiry at Tawas that he personally shoved the ill-fated lifeboat from the side of his sinking steamer before he got away in the second lifeboat. He said everyone was all right when he last saw them. Two sailors interviewed by a Port Huron Daily Times reporter the day after the disaster told the same story. They said both lifeboats were successfully launched from the Philadelphia, one with twenty-three sailors and the other with twenty-four aboard. They said Huff was the last man to get off the steamer.

The men called to one another for a while in the fog. Later on they said they did not hear from the other lifeboat any more. There was not a heavy sea running that day, and the survivors said they did not hear anything unusual or get an indication that there was trouble on the other boat.

The collision occurred about 2 a.m. The Philadelphia was northbound with a load of coal and general merchandise bound for Chicago. The Albany, commanded by Captain Angus McDonald, was steaming south with a load of grain. Sailors said the Philadelphia was running “under check,” which meant the speed was reduced and the crew was on alert because of the fog. “At about two o’clock we heard the whistle of a steamer dead ahead,” one man said. “At the time we were blowing for signals, and it was only a few minutes before the Albany was in sight.”

The captain of the Albany apparently spotted the Philadelphia at the same time. The wheelsmen on both vessels put their helms hard to port but it was too late. The bow of the twenty-five-year-old Philadelphia sliced deep into the side of the Albany. Everybody knew right away that the Albany would sink.

“At the time we struck the Albany our engines were backing strong and we soon commenced to back away. We then turned around and ran alongside of the Albany, taking off the crew and baggage,” one sailor testified.

Captain Huff said he was in his cabin and didn’t know anything was wrong until he heard the whistles. He said he didn’t reach the deck before the crash. Huff said he first thought the Philadelphia wasn’t seriously damaged. He ordered a towline hooked to the stricken Albany and began towing the already listing steamer toward shallow water in hopes of saving it.

After running about thirty minutes with the Albany in tow, the Philadelphia’s collision bulkhead collapsed and that steamer began flooding. Not both ships were sinking. Huff ordered the Albany cast adrift and proceeded to run his ship at full steam toward shore. But the Philadelphia was settling quickly by the head, and the rising waters below deck there threatening to put out the ship’s fires. Huff gave up trying to save his ship and ordered the two lifeboats lowered. The lone lifeboat with twenty-three survivors made it safely to shore at Pointe aux Barques at about 7:30 a.m.

The two vessels lie about twelve miles offshore, and within two miles of each other. Both vessels are in about one hundred twenty-five feet of water and are popular haunts for sport divers.