John Pridgeon


John Pridgeon

Collision on Lake Michigan


By James Donahue


Nobody accepted blame for the mistakes that led to the 1886 collision that sank the steamer Sarah Chamberlin and killed five members of her crew.


Details of the accident might have been lost except for the sailor who defied the orders of his employers and leaked a report to the Chicago Inter Ocean.


It was Oct. 13 and the Chamberlin, under the command of a Captain Greenley, and its barge in tow, the schooner Fayette Brown, was bound from Milwaukee to Escanaba to pick up a cargo of iron ore. There was fog on the lake that evening and the two vessels were dealing with a stiff southerly wind that was building heavy seas off the stern.


Meanwhile, the iron freighter John Pridgeon Jr., with Capt. D. N. Sherwood at the helm, was on a final leg of a long trip from Ogdensburg, N. Y., to Milwaukee. She was carrying general merchandise.


The two boats collided in the fog.


The Pridgeon hit the Chamberlin amidships, a few miles off Sheboygan, at about 8:30 p.m., sending it quickly to the bottom. The two captains refused to talk about the accident and ordered their crews to secrecy.


But the mate of the Pridgeon, identified only as Mr. Hodge, gave his version of the story to the newspaper the next day.


Hodge said the Pridgeon was battling a strong head wind and fog. He said Captain Sherwood ordered a lookout stationed on the forward deck, and was sounding a fog signal every 30 seconds.


No one realized that another boat was in the area until the crew heard the blast of a horn off the port quarter. The signal was misleading because it apparently came from the Brown, which was in tow behind the Chamberlin.


Sherwood did not think a second ship was operating in front of the Brown. He directed the wheelman to turn to starboard, away from the signal, and mistakenly turned his vessel right into the side of the nearby steamer.


Had the Pridgeon continued on its course, it might have slipped between the Chamberlin and the Brown, only breaking the tow line.


The boats separated after the collision. The crew of the Chamberlin got away in lifeboats. Five sailors drowned when one of the boats broke away from its davit, spilling them into the lake.


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