Amboy/George Spencer


George Spencer


Loss Of The George Spencer And Consort Amboy


By James Donahue


It was known as the Mataafa Storm of Nov. 28, 1905 because of the dramatic disaster at Duluth that claimed the ship and crew members of the steamship Mataafa in plain view of the residents of the city.


But there were other wrecks on Lake Superior in that same storm. Among them were the steamer George Spencer and her consort, the schooner Amboy, both bound for Duluth with cargos of coal.


The vessels lost their bearings in the heavy snow and got driven aground near Sugar Loaf Landing, at the Little Marais, along the Minnesota coast. During the fury of the storm, Capt. Frank Conland, master of the Spencer, cut the barge loose in an effort to escape grounding on the coast, but the boat hit anyway.


The six-member crew of the Amboy, Capt. Fred Watson, hoisted sails and battled the storm for a day before their craft also was driven aground near Thomasville, Ontario.


Both crews escaped alive, although the rescue of the George Spencer’s crew involved a dramatic rescue effort by local fishermen using a breech’s buoy to safely hoist the others to dry land. One story said the fishermen waded into the surf almost up to their necks to grab ropes and set up the buoy apparatus that made the rescue possible.


Little is known how the crew of the Amboy escaped. What is known is that the old timbers of the 31-year-old schooner-barge quickly broke up after the boat went aground.


The Amboy was originally launched as the schooner Helena in 1874 for the Cleveland Transportation Company. While fully rigged, the vessel spent most of its life as a towed consort behind the steamer Havana, hauling iron ore from Marquette to Cleveland. The company operated four pair of steamers and consorts, all known in their day as the Black Boats.


The Helena was sunk after a collision in the St. Marys River with the steel steamer Mariska in July, 1891. The hull was salvaged, rebuilt as the Amboy, and sold to the Tonawanda Iron & Steel Co of Tonawanda, New York. That was when it came under tow behind the Spencer.  


The Spencer, a 213-foot-long wooden steamship, was not a newcomer on the lakes either. She was built in 1884, so saw a career of 21 years on the lakes before meeting its end in the 1905 storm.


Reports at the time suggested that the Spencer did not break up in the storm. But the hull apparently sustained extensive damage. The boat’s machinery was removed and the wreck remained in place. Wreckage remains there to this day.


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