Wreck Of The Sevona


By James Donahue


The 300-foot-long steel carrier Sevona was among many ships lost in a series of severe storms that swept the Great Lakes during the autumn of 1905.


Built in 1890 as the Emily P. Weed at the old F. W. Wheeler & Co. shipyard at Bay City, the Sevona was among the largest freighters navigating the lakes in its day.


The vessel began its last voyage, under the command of Capt. Donald Sutherland McDonald, on the evening of Sept. 1. It steamed away from the Allouez docks at West Superior, Wisconsin, laden with 6,000 tons of iron ore bound for Erie, Pennsylvania. In addition to McDonald, the ship carried a crew of 24, including four women.


Heavy seas were already building as the Sevona entered the open waters of Lake Superior. Within a few hours the swells developed into a full force nor'easter. Seas were now breaking over the ship's bow and running over its deck.


At about 2 a.m., when the ship was about 70 miles from Superior, Wisconsin, McDonald gave the order to turn southwest toward the Apostle Islands. He obviously had thoughts of seeking shelter. He did not count on blinding rain, fog and mist that night. At 5:45 a.m. the Sevona met its fate on Sand Island Shoals.


Kate Spencer, a passenger on the boat, later told her story to the Ashland Daily Press:


"At about 6 a.m. came the terrible crash which broke the vessel in two," she said. "We got into the lifeboats at that time, but the captain and the other men could not come aft owing to the break. He hailed us through the megaphone: 'Hang on as long as you can.'


"We did so but the sea was pounding us so hard that Chief Engineer Phillipi finally directed us out of the small boat and into the large vessel again, all congregating into the dining room which was still intact.


"The big boat was pounding and tossing. Now a piece of the deck would go and then a portion of the dining room. During all this time the men could not get to us," Spencer said.


"They blew the ship's whistle and launched signal rockets, but there was no life-saving station or vessel nearby to help. The captain and six men were stranded on the forward part of the ship with no lifeboats, so they began building a raft from wooden hatch covers and doors.


By 11 a.m. the aft section was breaking up, so the crew launched the two aft lifeboats. One carried 11 of the crew members, while the other carried six.


"Everything seemed to be breaking up at once, and by order of the Chief Engineer we took to the small boat again. One by one we piled into the boat leaving six men behind us. I never heard such a heart rending cry as came from those six. 'For God's sake, don't leave us!' they cried. So two of our men got out and helped the six pull the port boat over to the starboard side and launch it. Then we both set out. It was a terrible fight to keep the small boat afloat," Spencer said. Both lifeboats made it safely to land.


The boat supervised by Engineer Phillipi made a daring but unsuccessful attempt to rescue the forward crew. The people in that boat spent six terrifying hours at sea before reaching land at Little Sand Bay. They were given shelter by a farmer who lived in the area.


Captain McDonald, two mates, two wheelsmen and two watchmen, all caught at the bow of the broken vessel, perished trying to ride their make-shift raft to Sand Island. Normally, the Sevona would have had a forward lifeboat, but it had been removed during a refitting and not replaced.


Sand Island light station keeper Emmanuell Luick watched the disaster through his binoculars but was unable to help. He told in his journal how he was the Sevona hit the reef and heard its distress signals. Then he said he watched the boat's bow begin to list and saw Captain McDonald and his six men launch their raft.


He watched as they clung to it in the high seas, then saw the breakers tear the frail raft to pieces. He said he attempted to wade out into the surf and help, but nobody came ashore alive.


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