Kiowa’s Captain Dies Fleeing His Stricken Ship


By James Donahue


Among the sad stories of the Great Lakes is that of the freighter Kiowa that got caught in a Lake Superior winter storm, iced over, and drifted helplessly for days before the wind.


The steel hulled vessel was steaming from Duluth to Chicago with a cargo of flax seed when the storm caught it in Lake Superior on Nov. 30, 1929. The freezing rain and snow quickly coated the hull with several inches of ice. Also in the midst of the storm, the cargo shifted, causing the steamer to list. Water poured through the submerged deck openings, put out the fires, and the Kiowa drifted helplessly in the trough of the seas.


Captain Alex T. Young apparently believed his command was lost. When he saw the Au Sable Light in the southeast, Young and ten other members of his crew attempted to launch a lifeboat. News stories suggested that he tried to leave the rest of his 21-member crew behind to fend for themselves.


The lifeboat did not launch properly, however. One of the supporting lines snapped, upending the boat and spilling the men into the lake. One sailor managed to get back into the lifeboat where he later froze to death, and six others were pulled back aboard the steamer. The others, including Captain Young, drowned.


In the meantime, the Kiowa, driven by a strong wind out of the northwest, drifted toward the Michigan coast until it went aground on Au Sable Point.


There it was spotted by the keeper of the Au Sable Light, who began sounding blasts of the fog horn to summon the Coast Guard Station at nearby Grand Marais. It also was seen by hunters, Richard Chilson and his son, Charles, and Earl Howay who were caught near the point at Hurricane River and were waiting out the storm with their small gas powered motor boat pulled up on the beach.


The Howay and Charles Chilson braved the storm in that small boat, making two successful trips to the steamer and were in the process of bringing crew members to the lighthouse dock by the time the Coast Guard arrived.


In the end, 16 members of the Kiowa’s crew were rescued and one body, that of Max Westerberg, found frozen to death in the floating lifeboat.


The wrecked steamer remained on the reef until World War II, when much of it was salvaged for scrap steel.


It was said that for years after the wreck, the whitefish population in the Grand Marais area exploded and local fishermen profited from the fish they shipped to Chicago markets. The joke was that while the fish thrived on the flax seed oils, the meat tasted like linseed oil.




The Mind of James Donahue

Great And Lost Ships Of The World