Oil On Troubled Waters
By James Donahue
It was known as the Black Friday Storm and is still remembered
as the worst marine disaster in Lake Erie's history of shipping.
On October 20, 1916, the lumber hooker Marshall F. Butters,
the Canadian steamer Merida, the whaleback freighter James
B. Colgate and the schooner D. L. Filer all sank in a gale that whipped 70 mile-per-hour winds across that lake. A total of
54 sailors died.
Of those ships, the 13-member crew of the Butters was
the only one to survive. It was said they were rescued even as the ship was slipping under just 13 miles from the Southeast
Shoals. Thus the number 13 was a lucky one for them.
A poor snapshot of the Butters in a sinking condition
may be the only known surviving picture of that vessel. It was taken by a crew member of one of the two rescue vessels, either
the freighter F. G. Harwell or the Frank R. Billings. The skipper of the Billings,
identified as Captain Cody, maneuvered his ship in a circle around the Butters, dropping storm oil to calm the seas and make
the rescue possible.
The Butters, a 164-foot-long steamer, was laden with shingles
and cut lumber bound from a Michigan port to Cleveland.
The storm developed after the Butters, commanded by a Captain McClure, left the Detroit
River and steamed out into the western end of Lake Erie.
The boat got in trouble when the cargo shifted in the
heavy seas. The Butters took on a list that got worse as the vessel's hull began to flood. As the story was told, the crew
scrambled to trim the cargo even as the steamer settled deeper and deeper into the raging waters.
McClure, knowing his command was sinking, began sounding
distress signals before the boiler fires went out. Ten crew members managed to lower a life boat and get away, but McClure
and two other sailors decided to stay with the ship.
Luck was with the crew of the Butters that day. Both the
Harwell and the Billings came on the sinking steamer. Captain
Cody said the gale made it impossible for him to hear the Butter's steam whistle, but he noticed the white puffs of smoke
coming out of the whistle and knew the boat was in distress.
Because oil was successfully spread over the water around
the Butters, the Billings was able to pull alongside the boat
and remove McClure and the two other crew members before the Butters slipped to the bottom.
The Harwell picked up the rest of the crew in the nearby
The Butters was built in 1882 in Milwaukee so had a history of 34 years on the lakes at the time it was lost.