Samuel P. Ely


Samuel P. Ely

The Wreck Of The Samuel P. Ely


By James Donahue


From the day in 1869 that the three-mast schooner Samuel P. Ely was launched at the J. P. Clark Shipyard near Detroit, the vessel was admired by Great Lakes area writers and lake boat watchers as one of the sturdiest wooden vessels built for fresh water service.


Built for the Winslow fleet as an ore carrier, the Ely and a second schooner Pathfinder, were built to carry 1,200 tons, large cargoes for sailing ships of the period. The Ely measured 200 feet in length and 31 feet wide at the beam.


Old photographs show that the ship had four or five cargo hatches on the deck with a low deck-house at the stern sunk about three to four feet into the deck and projecting about as high again above deck level.


It was said the Ely’s builders went beyond the normal standard for framing and bracing the hull. Those that saw its inner construction said the vessel boasted extra vertical hold stanchions, hold beams and heavy knees.


That extra sturdy hull kept the Ely in service, hauling mostly iron ore and coal, for 28 good years, first for the Winslow fleet, and later the Bradley fleet. The vessel survived a severe storm on Lake Erie and one other accident before it was wrecked in an 1896 gale that smashed and sank it against the Two Harbors breakwater in Agate Bay, on Lake Superior.


Even there, the hull remained intact. It remains at work today now partially embedded in the rubble mound supporting that breakwater.


In the early years the Ely operated under its own sails but later, under the Bradley ownership and after it began aging, the top masts were removed and the schooner was converted for use as a tow barge.


The Ely’s last voyage began at the end of October, 1896. The Ely was laden with limestone from Kelley’s Island, Ohio, in tow with the Negaunee behind the steam barge Hesper, which was laden with coal. The three boats called at Duluth on Oct. 27 where the Hesper discharged its cargo of coal then loaded wheat for a return trip to Buffallo. The two barges unloaded the limestone and stood by for a two to Two Harbors to take on loads of ore.


Together, the three vessels departed Duluth on the morning of Oct. 29 bound north for the 29-mile trip to Two Harbors to load ore. Within a few hours a gale developed on Lake Superior with winds gusting to 50-miles-per-hour out of the north. The Hesper battled against the storm, reaching Two Harbors hours behind its estimated arrival time at about 8 p.m. that night.


The high seas prevented an easy entrance to the harbor. The Hesper dropped the tow lines to its two consorts so it could steam to safety in the harbor and tugs were summoned to bring in the two schooners.


The Ely’s crew dropped anchors to wait for a tug, but the anchors dragged from the force of the storm. By midnight when a tug reached it, the Ely was hard against the breakwater and getting pounded so hard it was in grave danger of going to pieces.


A line was passed to the schooner but as soon as the tug began pulling, it parted. By then a second vessel, a scow, also was driven against the same breakwater by the storm. All efforts to save the two boats were abandoned for the night. The crew of the scow moved into the Ely to get out of the storm.


The Ely sank at the breakwater at about 3 a.m. and the crew scrambled into the rigging to get out of the water. They remained there, battered by high winds and the spray of a driving rain and a cold sea.


By dawn, people of the community were standing along the shore, looking helplessly at the sailors from the two battered vessels, hanging in the rigging and numbed from the cold. The storm continued to rage and it was determined that any attempt to move a tug up to save the sailors would only dash another vessel against that breakwater.


The captain of the tug Ella G. Stone made an effort anyway. He steamed out into the lake, anchored safely off the breakwater, and cast out a 200-foot-long line with a small boat attached. The boat was allowed to drift up to the wreck. A few men got into the boat and it was pulled back to the tug successfully.


It took three trips, but eventually all 10 crew members from the Ely and the two men from the scow were rescued.



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