Ironsides Couldn’t Get Out Of The Storm


By James Donahue


When caught in a severe Lake Michigan gale during the early hours of Sept. 15, 1873, Capt. Harry Sweetman, master of the propeller Ironsides, was concerned. With the lights of Grand Haven, Mich. In sight, he was anxious to bring his command to shelter.


The gale was ravaging the nine-year-old wooden hulled vessel. With winds blowing hard from the southwest, the tempest was tossing seas over the stern and the ship was taking on water. Sweetman knew he had little time to waste.


The skipper stood with the wheelsman in the wheelhouse, using all of his skills as a lakes captain to guide the vessel into the channel entrance which now looked way too narrow. The action of the seas overpowered the 218-foot-long steamer, throwing it off course and forcing Sweetman to turn back into the lake and circle for a second try.


People on shore became aware of potential trouble as the steamer made a wide swing in the heavy seas and then made a second attempt at entering the channel. It failed on the second try and again was forced to turn and fight its way back into the lake against the churning, unrelenting seas.


Sweetman had little choice now but to turn the ship’s bow into the storm and attempt to ride it out while anchored about four miles offshore. But by then the vessel was taking on so much water the engine room flooded and the fires were extinguished. It was in this state that the seas ravaged the boat, sending it to the bottom at about 12:10 p.m.


Local reports said she “settled down stern first, her bow remaining in sight a full minute” before disappearing under the waves. It sank in 120 feet of water.


The crew of about 30 sailors and the ship’s 19 passengers attempted to escape in the Ironsides’ five lifeboats. Only two of the boats reached shore intact. The other three capsized in the surf.


Local residents formed human chains in the deadly surf in a gallant effort to sweep up survivors. Their work, coupled with that of the newly organized volunteer lifesaving service crew saved nine passengers and several crew members. But 21 lives were reportedly lost.


Captain Sweetman was among the casualties.


Sport divers who found the wreck in 1966 said there is evidence that the ship struck bottom on one of its efforts to enter port. It struck hard enough, they said, to have damaged six of the eight large propeller blades. This means the ship’s hull also was damaged enough to spell the fate of the Ironsides.


The ship was probably sinking under his feet as Captain Sweetman made his last stand against the storm.


The Ironsides was steaming across the lake from Milwaukee with a cargo of 13,000 bushels of wheat, 500 barrels of flour, 125 barrels of pork and assorted general merchandise.


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