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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

MARITIME DISASTERS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

MARITIME DISASTERS were recorded in Lake Erie waters off Cleveland when the first explorers entered the area. The high rocky shore from just east of Cleveland west to Cedar Pt. combines with shallow water and sudden squalls to create one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the Great Lakes. However, not all wrecks have been due to natural causes; poor seamanship and mechanical failure have also claimed their toll. Over 60 major wrecks littered the approaches to Cleveland before improvements in navigational aids and safety equipment were effected in the 20th century.

The North American Indians were fully aware of the dangerous southern shore of Lake Erie, and generally they would traverse the lake along the Canadian coast. In 1764 a British fleet commanded by Col. John Bradstreet met a sudden squall somewhere near ROCKY RIVER on its return from the siege of Ft. Detroit by Pontiac and his Indian allies. Damage to the boats forced part of the expedition to return to Ft. Niagara on foot. It should be noted that during the previous year, a fleet under Maj. John Wilkins' command was also thought to have foundered off Rocky River, however, it is now believed that it met disaster along the lake's Canadian coastline. In 1771 the British also lost the schooner Beaver between BAY VILLAGE and Lorain.

The early years of American settlement along the lake generated comparatively little lake traffic. There were 2 notable sinkings. In 1806 LORENZO CARTER† rescued a fugitive slave named BEN from a schooner off Cleveland. In 1808 Cleveland's first fishing boat, captained by Joseph Plumb of Newburgh and crewed by AMOS SPAFFORD†'s son, Adolphus, foundered in a storm off Bay Village. New settlement and technological innovations, including the canal and the steamboat, created a transportation industry that centered on Cleveland as a hub. However, these changes represented new dangers to the ships on the lake. Collision, fire, and explosion were added to weather as major hazards and quickly took their toll. The year 1850 proved to be particularly horrendous. On 23 Mar., off Cleveland, and 18 Apr., off Vermilion, the boilers of the Troy and the Anthony Wayne burst, killing 22 and 40. Then, on 17 June, paint stored near the firebox of the G. P. Griffith burst into a terrifying fire. Seven miles out from Willoughby, the captain ordered a desperate race for shore. Half a mile out, the Griffith struck a shoal. Hard aground, the wooden ship burned to the water and 250 died. These disasters inspired new safely legislation that made lake navigation somewhat safer.

It proved, however, impossible to legislate good seamanship. On the morning of 21 June 1868, the steamer Morning Star and the schooner Courtland collided off Lorain. The Morning Star sank, with 23 aboard. It was later determined that the Courtland was running without lights, while its lamps were being refueled. There were wrecks in the intervening years, of course, but the pace set after 1890 was remarkable. Rapidly expanding fleets of freighters and passenger steamers confronted the old hazards. Only the introduction of modern navigational aids and radio would give the sailors the advantage. Gales remained the most common cause for sinkings. Typical was the storm of 10-11 Aug. 1890. The schooners Two Fannies and Fanny L. Jones sank a short distance apart just west of Cleveland. On 28 June 1899, the steamer Margaret Olwill foundered in a wild squall near Lorain, taking the captain and his wife. Another storm, on 10 Sept. 1900, claimed the steamer John B. Lyon and the schooner Dundee and damaged 3 others. The steamer Alex Nimick arrived in Cleveland minus its wheelhouse. Surprisingly, neither of the Great Storms, 20-22 Nov. 1905 and 9-13 Nov. 1913, sank any ships near Cleveland, despite the staggering losses elsewhere. However, by this time a network of weather stations and early radio receivers were warning captains of approaching bad weather. Forewarned, ships could put in to harbor. Also, the ships had grown larger and stronger and were better able to face the storms. Nevertheless, bad weather accounted for most of the major losses. The last two notable sinkings, the sandsucker Sand Merchant on 16 Oct. 1936 and the tug Admiral and the barge Cleveco on 3 Dec. 1942, were both due to squalls.

However, foul weather was not the sole cause of catastrophe. From the early years, incompetence on the part of crews played a significant part. Typical was the schooner Wahnapitae, which piled up on the Cleveland breakwall on 26 Oct. 1890. An unsecured deck cargo shifted when the steamer Saint Magnus was struck by the wake of a passing vessel in the CUYAHOGA RIVER on 7 June 1895. The vessel rolled over into the channel, blocking traffic until it could be raised. Fire remained a hazard, despite steel-hulled construction. The C&B Lines passenger steamer City of Buffalo burned at the E. 9th St. pier on 20 Mar. 1938. Sometimes mere happenstance would send a ship to the bottom, as when the sandsucker Hydro was holed by an unseen object in the river channel on 12 Sept. 1939. One other aspect of disaster on the lakes should be noted. Many ships built and operated by Cleveland companies and crewed by Clevelanders have been written off the registers in waters far from home. The steamer Idaho sank in a gale at the eastern end of the lake on 6 Nov. 1897. Two of its crew were rescued from the top of its mast, following a terror-filled night. Several of the ships lost in the Great Storms of 1905 and 1913 were out of Cleveland. Finally, the Edmund Fitzgerald, the most recent wreck on the lakes, on 10 Nov. 1975, operated by the OGLEBAY NORTON CO., carried a load of iron ore for J&L Steel, and was largely crewed by Cleveland-area seamen.


Marsalek, Daniel E. "The Wilkins Expedition Disaster Site Debate," Inland Seas Magazine (1983).

Webster, J. C. Life of John Montresor (1928).

Last Modified: 18 Jul 1997 03:11:19 PM

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