Onoko From Port

Entering Harbor

Sudden Foundering Of The Onoko


By James Donahue


The iron-hulled freighter Onoko literally sank from under its crew on Sept. 15, 1915, shortly after leaving Duluth harbor with 110,000 bushels of wheat in its holds.


The 33-year-old steamer, under the command of Capt. W. R. Dunn, gave no warning of its approaching demise. The vessel departed Duluth harbor at 10:30 a.m. and had traveled no more than about 16 miles on a clear day and calm seas when engineer J. J. Higgins reported water gushing into the engine room.


The leak developed so fast and was so bad that the ship’s pumps could not keep up. The crew barely had time to launch the life boats and get away before the vessel settled before their eyes.


The Onoko sank in about 35 minutes in 220 feet of water off Lake Superior’s Knife Island. They said the stern went down first, the ship’s bow lifted briefly out of the water, and it quietly slid into the lake.


The tanker Renown had followed the Onoko out of the harbor and watched the vessel sink. The 16 crew members and one woman passenger were picked up by the taker within a few minutes and taken back to Duluth where their story was told.


The Duluth Herald issued a special edition that day telling about the disaster.


It was theorized that an iron plate on the hull opened up. They said the vessel grounded at Duluth on a prior trip, which might have damaged the hull more than the owners and operators first believed.


When it sank, the Onoko carried a piece of Great Lakes history to the bottom of Lake Superior with it. Launched at Cleveland in 1882, it was the first iron-hulled, iron-screw steam freighter built for the Great Lakes.


The Onoko also held the honor of being the largest ship on the lakes until steel hulled freighters were introduced about ten years later. It measured 302 feet in length and was registered at 2,164.42 gross tons, 1,933.20 net tons. They said it was so successful it became the prototype for all modern bulk freighters.


The Onoko was originally constructed with four masts, all schooner-rigged. Two of the masts do not appear in later photos of the ship, and they appear to have been removed.



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