Magnetic Compass Lured Niagara To Its Destruction


By James Donahue


The 130-foot-long rafting tug Niagara met its end after 32 years of Great Lakes service because the pilot forgot how iron affects a magnetic compass. And there is lots of iron in the ground along the Lake Superior coast.


The tug was steaming from Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie to pick up a heavy tow of construction equipment on Lake Huron when it ran into some rough weather on the night of June 4, 1904.


As the story is told, the pilot ran the vessel off course because he believed the compass. It was in the breakers off Knife Island, Minnesota before the lookout had a visual sighting of the island. The engine was reversed but it was too late. The tug ran up on the rocks and there was broken up by the seas and the winds.


The Niagara’s distress signals were heard in a village at the mouth of Knife River. A telegraph signal was sent to Two Harbors where the tug Edna G. was dispatched. The Edna G arrived in time to remove the 11 crew members and two passengers before the wooden hulled vessel broke apart in the heavy seas.


The Niagara was built in Detroit in 1872 as a special class of large “outside harbor” tugs designed to tow large rafts of logs from the many lumber camps along the lakes to the mills. The tugs with their powerful engines also were used to tow lines of barges, mostly old converted schooners, filled with cargo.


Stories were told about various tugboat races and contests of power between the various big rafting tugs. The Niagara was often among the contenders.




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