Frank O'Connor


Frank O'Connor

Burning Of The Frank O’ Connor


By James Donahue


It was October 3, 1919, and the 27-year-old Frank O’Connor, among the last of the wooden hulled workhorses on the Great Lakes, was steaming from Buffalo to Milwaukee with 3,000 tons of coal in her holds.


The old steamer was making good time, putting a bone in her teeth as she sliced her way across Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac, then along Lake Michigan’s western shore southward toward Milwaukee.


Disaster struck at 4 p.m., as the O’Connor was off the east coast of the Door Peninsula. A fire of unknown origin was discovered in the ship’s bow, somewhere in the area of the oil room and paint locker.


Captain William Hayes, the son-in-law of the ship’s owner, James O’Connor, told his wheelsman to turn directly toward the Wisconsin shore. But the ship was 10 miles out and it was too far to go. Fire quickly swept the dry and paint-soaked woodwork under the feet of the men in the pilot house.


Within the hour the fire burned away the ropes in the steering gear, leaving the vessel helpless and adrift just off Cana Island. Captain Hayes ordered all hands to the lifeboats and they sat helpless in the lake that afternoon watching their ship burn to a total ruin.


Also watching the fire was Oscar Knudson, keeper of the Cana Island lighthouse. Knudson and his assistant, Louis Pecon, brought a power boat to the scene and took the lifeboats in tow.


Coast Guardsmen picked up the tow before the boats reached the coast and pulled the lifeboats with the crew members on into Baileys Harbor.


The O’Connor burned until it sank in about 60 feet of water.


The United States Steamboat Inspectors held a hearing on the incident in Milwaukee the following spring. It was reported that both the oil room and paint locker were housed in steel compartments making them an unlikely origin of the fire. A carelessly discarded cigarette or possibly a match was blamed.


The O’Connor had been carrying grain all that season and a lot of grain dust was packed in the corners of the hold. Thus the wooden ship was considered extremely flammable. In the end, the inspectors found Captain Hayes blameless for losing his ship.


The cargo of 3,000 tons of anthracite coal was valued at $30,000 in 1923 so the fact that it sank in relatively shallow water sparked several efforts to salvage the cargo. In August and September that year the Marine Salvage and Wrecking Co. of Milwaukee used centrifugal pumps to suck about 700 tons of coal from the site.


In 1935, Charles Innes and Chicago diver Frank Blair relocated the wreck and salvaged another 100 tons of coal.


The wreck was then forgotten until sports divers found it again in 1990.


The Frank O’Connor was originally built in 1892 as the City of Naples by the Davidson Shipyard in Bay City, Michigan. It was one of three 300-foot-long sister ships launched by the shipyard at about the same time.


The other vessels were the City of Venice and the City of Genoa. All were named for Italian cities.


While other shipbuilders were switching to steel hulled ships in 1892, Captain James Davidson, prompted by the abundance of fine oak still standing in the Saginaw Valley, continued building wooden hulled ships.


To reach the 300-foot length with his wooden bulk carriers, Davidson used innovative ways to strengthen the hulls with iron and steel strapping.


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