Killer Fog Claims the Norman


By James Donahue


When the thick blanket of fog settled down over Lake Huron near Middle Island on the night of May 31, 1895, it blinded the crews of a literal fleet of vessels in passing.


Some masters dropped anchor and waited for the fog to clear. Other skippers kept going but ordered their boats to travel "in check," which means they slowed down, blew their horns and posted extra lookouts. The night air was alive with the sound of steam whistles.


Even with the extra precautions, accidents began to happen. An unknown vessel passed between the steamer M. Sicken and a schooner it had in tow, cutting the tow line and narrowly missing the two moving boats.


Minutes later the new Canadian freighter Jack collided with the steamer Norman, sending the Norman to the bottom so quickly that three members of the crew went down with the ship. The Jack sank to its decks, but remained buoyed up by its cargo of lumber long enough for it to be towed to False Presque Isle by the tug Frank W. There it sank in shallow water.


Capt. Stratton, master of the Norman, said he watched the Jack for about 20 minutes before the accident. He said he knew the Jack was very close but he was confident that the two boats would pass each other safely. Then the fog thickened and he couldn't see the Jack.


"When I sighted her again she was very close, and I again gave her one blast. This time she answered with two whistles. I put the Norman hard aport, and thought the Jack would pass all right. All at once she loomed up close under our port bow, showing her green light. I heard her captain give the order to put her hard astarboard but it was too late. She struck us amidships with a terrible crash.


"I knew by the force of the collision that the Norman must be cut almost in two, and gave orders to awaken the men and lower away the boats. As the Jack backed away from us, the Norman rolled over on her port side.


"The mate and myself got one boat lowered and got into it. The Norman was rapidly settling, and I called to the men to jump. Five of them did so and we picked them up. By this time the first officer had succeeded in lowering the life raft, and eight of the crew got into it with him. The suction made by the Norman as she sank began to make itself felt, and we were forced to pull away and leave the rest of the crew on board. The Norman sank in less than three minutes."


Killed in the accident were the cook, identified as Mrs. Reynolds of Bay City; Nels Bernstine, a watchman from Norway; and a deck hand identified only as Tony.


Captain Simmons, master of the Jack, said nobody on his boat saw the lights of the Norman until moments before the crash.


"All at once she loomed up right ahead, crossing our bows and showing her red light. I gave the signal to stop and back strong. I also gave orders to the wheelman to port his helm, but the boats came together with a heavy crash. I did not think that the Norman was injured, but felt that the Jack was settling, and called to the captain of the Norman not to desert us. The steamer drifted away in the darkness.


"I thought the Jack would go down, and when the boats from the steamer Sicken came alongside, I gave my crew permission to go. The mate, engineer and myself remained aboard."


It was the first trip for the Jack, and it had been an especially unlucky passage. The vessel struck and caused extensive damage to one of the locks on the Welland Canal only a day or two before the crash on Lake Huron.


More Ship Stories


Return to The Mind of James Donahue

Great And Lost Ships Of The World