Raising The City of St. Catharines
By James Donahue
When the steamer
City of St. Catharines sank following a collision off White Rock, south
of Harbor Beach, Michigan, in 1880, the accident set in motion a spectacular story of salvage unlike anything ever tried before
The St. Catharines,
a Canadian vessel under the command of a Captain McMaugh, was steaming from Montreal to Chicago with passengers and freight when it collided with the George
H. Morse, a down-bound steam barge, during the early morning hours of July 12.
Each crew blamed the other. Captain Hart, master of the
Morse, said it was a clear night and the crews of both vessels had a good view of each other as they approached.
Hart said the wheelsman on the City of St. Catharines
made an unexpected turn to port and ran the boat directly into the path of the Morse.
The first officer of the St. Catharines charged that the wheelsman on the Morse unexpectedly turned
that ship hard to starboard, driving it into the side of the St. Catherines.
The fact is that the Morse hit the St. Catharines on the port side, near the forward gangway.
The hull split "like an egg shell" and the ship sank in 15 minutes.
Some of the passengers and crew members on the St. Catharines jumped aboard the Morse during the
few minutes that the two boats were together. Others had just enough time to launch lifeboats or jump overboard.
The steamer David W. Rust came on the scene with
the schooners D. K. Clint and I. C. Butts in tow. The three vessels stopped to help rescue people in the
water. Because Hart feared the Morse also was sinking, he transferred passengers and crew members from the St. Catharines to the Rust.
The Rust then towed the damaged Morse
to Port Huron.
The City of St.
Catharines sank in 90 feet of water. The ship's cabins and wheelhouse broke away and drifted ashore
near White Rock.
The cargo, which included hundreds of cases of valuable
wines and liquors, prompted several salvage efforts. Divers worked most of the summer of 1882 trying to raise the hull. The
job involved getting heavy cable or chains under the wreck and attaching them to giant ballast tanks.
The newspapers speculated about the plan. That September,
after weeks of waiting, the big day arrived. The salvagers pumped air into the ballast tanks and raised the ship only a few
feet from the bottom of the lake. It did not come to the surface.
The wreck was buoyant, however, so tugs carefully pulled
it north into Harbor Beach
harbor. There, under the protection of a newly completed breakwater, the steamer was finally raised. A temporary patch
was made to the hull and the water was pumped out.
From there the St. Catharines
was towed to Detroit where it went into dry dock. It was rebuilt
and refitted there for commercial lake trade as the propeller Otego. That boat made its first trip in May 1883 to
Bay City as a lumber barge.
The Otego remained in service for another 12
years before burning to a total loss at Green Bay, Wisconsin.