Collision in a blinding snowstorm
By James Donahue
The skippers of the Canadian grain freighters Northern
Queen and Lake Erie worried that their last trip of the 1881 season from Chicago to Collingwood, Ont., would be difficult.
It was late in November and the lakes already were getting
swept by harsh winter storms. Before leaving Chicago on Nov.
22, the captains agreed to travel together for safety. Their pact, however, was a mistake. Two nights later the boats collided
during a blinding snow storm at the north end of Lake Michigan.
The Lake Erie sank and
the Northern Queen wrecked trying to find refuge in Manistique harbor.
William Forbes, a deck hand on the Erie, died from burns received when the crash broke a steam pipe in the engine room. He was
the only casualty.
Capt. J. M. Johnson, master of the Erie,
said the Northern Queen was a faster boat, so the captain agreed to keep his speed in check and follow behind the Lake Erie.
Chicago on the evening of Nov. 22 after the utmost precaution
had been taken," he said. "The wind was blowing hard from the southwest and we kept under the lee of the west shore. When
off Twin River Point on Wednesday night it began to snow and a northwest gale prevailed."
That night the crews of both boats were blinded by the
storm. They spent the night battling the elements and worrying about the location of each other's vessel. At about 5 a.m.
the two steamers came together with a resounding crash.
"The Lake Erie was struck 12 feet forward of the aft gangway," Johnson said. "I sounded the water forward
and found four inches but aft it had crept above the fire hold of the floor. Five minutes later the fires were out. An examination
showed that the steam pipe was broken. The machinery was useless and we were at the mercy of the waves.
a tremendous sea on, but the Queen came alongside and took us on board. There was not even time to get our personal effects.
We tried to get a line out to the Erie and tow her into shallow
water, but the sea would not permit. The ship kept rapidly filling until all of a sudden it rose on her keel, the main mast
crashing down, and sank out of sight stern first."
Johnson said the Northern Queen also was severely damaged
and taking on water. Forbes was still alive but in extreme pain from his burns. Because of the urgency for medical care, and
the leaking hull, the Queen steamed north through the storm toward Michigan's Upper Peninsula shore in an effort to make port.
at an unknown place two miles south of Manistique. We laid there during Thursday, but the man died before the physician arrived,"
the captain said.
He said the wind shifted to the south and the Queen began
taking on so much water the master gave the order to steam for Manistique
With safety in sight bad luck again struck. The vessel
struck a sand bar at the entrance to the harbor. Before working free the Queen's stern swung around and rammed the pier.
dashed over her side and she was pounding to pieces, so the captain scuttled her to save at least a remnant. The sea broke
in her windows and carried away her cabins."
Johnson said a harbor tug could not get close enough to
take off the crew, so the sailors launched a yawl. The boat was immediately caught by the surf and almost capsized. The sailors
were saved when someone from the nearby tug tossed a line to the yawl and pulled them in.
The crew was left stranded in Manistique without money
and only the clothes they wore when they left the wreck.
To get home, Johnson said they took a sleigh for part
of a 65-mile trip through the snow and then walked the rest of the way to reach the nearest railroad.