N. J. Nessen


Nessen On The Rocks

The Cook was Singing “It Ain’t Gonna Rain….”


By James Donahue


When Ontario lifesavers scrambled aboard the broken wooden decks of the stranded 50-year-old freighter N. J. Nessen, they had a surprise awaiting them.


There, amidst the 13-member crew huddled in the pilot house, was Alice Humphreys of Port Huron, singing her own version of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”


Mrs. Humphreys, who was aboard as the ship’s cook, was a plucky woman who kept busy cheering her shipmates while they awaited rescue. Some of the sailors later said she kept morale up even though nobody was sure they would survive the storm that wrecked their ship.


The date was Oct. 23, 1929, and the Nessen was one of a fleet of lake carriers sunk or grounded during a monster storm. The gale packed 50-mile-per-hour winds and seas “higher than a tall man’s head” from Duluth south to Chicago and as far east as Buffalo.


The Nessen, under the command of Capt. Bernard A. Benson of Marine City, was among the last of the older wooden-hulled boats still plying the lakes.


The ship was hauling scrap iron between Detroit and Cleveland when the gale blew it off course and into a sand bar near Leamington, Ont. The steamer hit so hard it broke its keel.


Water flooded the broken hull, put out the ship’s fires, and forced the crew to the upper decks where everybody huddled together to keep warm.


Capt. James Grubb, head of Ontario’s Point Pelee Life Saving Station, said the Nessen was broken in two parts and the seas were sweeping the decks as he mustered a crew to take a life boat out into the raging storm.


It was a superhuman effort, but the life savers successfully beat their way against the wind and waves to reach the Nessen. They did it not just once, but twice, before all of the crew members were safely removed.


Capt. Benson, in the time-honored tradition of the sea, was the last to leave the ship. When the lifeboat arrived with Benson aboard, a gathering crowd cheered and clapped.


Also rescued were Chief Engineer M. J. Ladly, first mate Oswald Emig, second engineer William Webber, and sailors John Halpin and Fred Kuhn, all of Marine City, and Lew Gotch, Edward Doherty, James Flanagan, Sam Makriski, Nicholas Nagy and Max H. Hurr, all of Detroit.


The cargo and boilers were later salvaged, but the Nessen remained on the sand bar to slowly disintegrate. Remains of the boat, including the ship’s brass bell, were removed during the construction of a marina at the site in 1984. The bell is on permanent exhibit in Leamington.


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