Bad Luck for the Appomattox


By James Donahue


The 319-foot-long wooden hulled freighter Appomattox was said to have been the largest wooden steam bulk freighter ever to ply the Great Lakes. Built by Bay City shipbuilder James Davidson in 1896, the vessel marked a period of profound change in shipbuilding from wood to steel-hulled ships. Thus it was an anomaly of its time.


While manufactured of wood, the Appomattox competed successfully with larger steel ships of the period. It carried industrial commodities including iron ore and coal from one end of the Great Lakes to the other for nine consecutive years.


The Appomattox ended its years of service abruptly on Nov. 2, 1905 when it stranded on Lake Michigan’s North Point, just off Milwaukee, while attempting to approach the harbor in heavy fog and smoke, apparently blowing out over the lake from Wisconsin forest fires.


The steamer’s consort, the barge Santiago, also drifted aground, as did two other vessels on the same day. All of the other vessels were quickly pulled free but the Appomattox struck so hard she tore a hole in her bottom. The crew worked with lighters to lighten the ship’s load, and salvagers used steam pumps to attempt to float the vessel free, but to no avail.


The vessel’s fate was sealed when the storms began pounding it on Nov. 13. A major gale on November 29 left the steamer a complete wreck. The Bay City Evening Times said the ship was broken into three pieces. It was written off as a total wreck.


The wreck, and the fact that three other vessels grounded on the same spot on the same day, prompted a call for a lighthouse to be constructed at the site.


The remains of the Appomattox can still be found by sport divers about 150 yards off shore in about 20 feet of water.



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