Surviving The Wocoken Sinking
By James Donahue
The story of the wreck of the Wocoken is a paradox. The ship was lost because the gale that swept Lake Erie on the
night of October 14, 1893 quickly whipped the shallow lake waters into a tempest that tore the vessel apart. Yet the three
sailors that survived the wreck lived because the ship sank upright in shallow water leaving its masts and rigging suspended
above the water line.
Second mate J. P. Saph of Marine City, Michigan; wheelman J. H. Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, and seaman Robert Browning
of Delaware were still alive the next morning when Ontario lifesavers arrived from Port Rowan.
The Wocoken was one of an estimated 40 vessels left wrecked or stranded after that storm finished its dirty work. At
least 60 sailors died. The Wocoken, commanded by Capt. Albert Meswald of Marine City, was steaming from Ashtabula, New York
for Milwaukee with 1800 tons of coal. The boat had stopped at Erie to pick up the barge Joseph Paige and the two boats were
heading west across Lake Erie, bound for the Detroit River.
The storm blew up while the two boats were somewhere in the middle of the lake. It came up fast and blew so hard that Meswald decided to steer north and try to get to the lee side of Long Point,
a natural projection of land extending into Lake Erie from the Canadian coast. But the Wocoken did not weather the storm well.
The waves pounded the ship with such force the windows were smashed, the railings were turn away and even the heavy wooden
hatches started to work loose.
Meswald knew the ship was in serious trouble. He ordered the Paige cut free so the steamer could use all of its power
to fight the storm. The Paige hoisted sail and scampered before the wind to the
west end of Long Point where it anchored and rode out the gale. The Wocoken didn’t make it. When some of the hatches
were torn away by the wind the seas quickly flooded the open holds and the steamer was sinking.
Meswald gave the order to abandone ship at about 10 p.m. The crew was launching lifeboats when the ship was struck
by a great wave that swept Meswald, his wife Sarah, and 12 other sailors overboard. The same wave sank the ship in the same
powerful stroke. The three survivors clawed their way into the rigging and hung there until help arrived.
The Wocoken sank about two miles off the tip of Long Point in 48 feet of water. The fish tug Bacon later found four
lifeboats with the name Wocoken painted on them plus the bodies of two sailors who had life preservers on. The boats and bodies
were strewn amidst miles of wreckage that was washing ashore.
The Wocoken was a 251-foot-long wooden hulled vessel launched in 1880 at Cleveland. Thus she was a tired, 13-year-old
workhorse on the day the storm claimed it.