Wreck of the Herman H. Hettler
By James Donahue
The wooden steam barge Herman H. Hettler was a tired 36-year-old vessel when it wrecked in a Lake
Superior storm on November 23, 1926.
Built in 1890 at the Davidson Shipyard in Bay City, Michigan, the 210-foot-long steamer was designed
as a workhorse. Made of heavy oak with steel arches for extra strength, the ship was designed with an extra thick bow for
breaking through ice. They said she had the capacity to carry a million board feet of lumber on a single trip.
She was launched as the Walter Vail. The ship was known by that name until 1913 when it was sold to
the Herman H. Hettler Lumber Co. in Chicago, and was given its final name.
The Hettler was steaming from Ludington to Duluth, under the command of Captain John M. Johnson, with
a cargo of 1,100 tons of bulk salt when it got caught in a severe November gale. As Johnson attempted to run to shelter in
Munising Harbor in the dark of night and in a blinding snow storm, the ship drove up on a rock reef off Trout Point, just
outside the east channel.
One report said the steamer struck so hard that the Hettler’s bow lifted about three feet out
of the water. The 16-man crew spent the night working the pumps and attempting to back the vessel back off the reef, but to
no avail. The next day the crew launched the life boats and got towed into Munising by a passing fishing tug.
When Johnson returned to his ship two days later, he said it had pounded so hard against the rocks
that her seams were open. The cargo hold was awash and the salt was dissolving. He said another storm would destroy the ship.
That storm came the next day. During that gale out of the northwest, the stern of the Hettler broke off and sank and her superstructure
was ripped away. After that, the ship was written off as a total loss and abandoned.