2018-10-06 / Columnists

A Look at History

History of Gales of October Blowing Over Straits of Mackinac
BY FRANK STRAUS

October Gales

October is the final month of the “summer season” on Mackinac Island and the Straits of Mackinac. It is now that visitors start wearing jackets and see signs in the stores that say “Fall Sale.” By Halloween, the ghosts will chase away the sun, and summer facilities like the Island’s Grand Hotel will close for the winter.

In the old years before the invention of weather science, satellites, and radar, October could be a dangerous month on the Upper Great Lakes. In the days of the late 1800s, gales could blow up without warning, forcing mariners and their vessels into fights against wind and water. This was especially true in the 1870s and 1880s as railroads were just getting built here in northern Michigan. Passengers in those years routinely traveled from point to point on steamboats. For some of these passengers, the “Iron Horse” had not yet come to their port on the Great Lakes shoreline. Others bought boat tickets because they were in the habit of doing so: Boats had steamed up and down the upper Great Lakes since 1819. Some passengers enjoyed the steamboat experience, which on a pleasant cruise could include tiny luxuries that no train trip could offer. By 1887, many passengers in northern Michigan waters were able to afford such things; the U.S. Midwest was enjoying record prosperity. The 1880s were the decade that many new cottages were being built on Mackinac Island. Steamboats could not offer a luxury dining room like the table spread by Mackinac Island’s new “Grand Hotel,” which had opened in July 1887; but even small passenger ves- sels carried a galley kitchen, a cook, and a steward or cabin boy to serve meals that would be much more tasty than the “junk food” offered on most U.S. trains at that time.

On October 3, 1887, however, few of the passengers aboard the passenger steamboat California were of a mood to want to eat anything. Tossed by gales as it passed Beaver Island downbound for Detroit, the 900-ton steamboat was sluggishly answering its helm. Hoping that his boat’s performance was being hampered by its cargo, Captain J.V. Trowell ordered that 300 casks of Chicago salt pork be rolled topsides and thrown overboard. This was done, but the order may have been a mistake. The half-empty cargo hold was no longer able to provide a stable ballast point to maintain the metacentric stability of the ship. Furthermore, the remaining cargo in the now-half-empty cargo hold could now shift and roll about. The captain later confessed that he had neglected to set up weatherboards inside the cargo hold to discourage the shifting of cargo. At any rate, as the California passed White Shoal – where the barber-pole-striped lighthouse would go up in 1910 – the storm continued and the endangered boat wallowed to and fro. Passengers were given life preservers to tie around their waists, but there was nothing else the boat’s crew could do.

Gangways were in place to roll casks of cargo to and from the cargo hold. These vital passageways into the boat’s interior were guarded by sea gates. As the California neared St. Helena Island in the Straits of Mackinac off the coast of the Upper Peninsula, one of these barriers splintered and collapsed. A wall of water promptly rushed down the gangway into the interior of the vessel, catching and drowning the engine room firebox. With a final “hiss,” the boat’s sole source of power was irretrievably extinguished. The helpless California now fell into the troughs of the Lake Michigan seas. The doomed boat was pushed down with every curve of the wild water and could not rise when the waves around it were blowing peaks. The remaining cargo, mostly Illinois field corn, piled up on the portside of the cargo hold, pushing the passenger boat over onto its side. The vessel’s upper works disintegrated and most of the officers, crew, and survivors were thrown into the water.

One small group of men, however, had not undergone this traumatic event. It was later learned that first mate Peter Legault, who had understood the implications of the rising storm waters and the vessel’s ominous loss of stability, had prudently lowered one of the vessel’s only two usable lifeboats. With several seamen, he had made no effort to save passengers from the doomed steamboat and had struck out for quieter water. Captain Trowell commanded the other lifeboat; the press reported that he was able to save four people, including cabin passenger Bridget Connerton. Mrs. Connerton mourned the loss, however, of her son and fellow passenger Cornelius. The wretched survivors headed for St. Helena Island.

The morning of October 4, 1887, saw a wild scene on the island’s shores and the nearby beaches of Mackinac County. A reporter later claimed that flotsam from the lost steamboat littered a five-mile stretch of shoreline. A Detroit paper identified Cornelius Connerton as an exceedingly rich man who had been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold. Beachcombers combed the shoreline west of St. Ignace with hopes of finding something interesting. Some of the vessel’s casked pork, tightly sealed in staunch wooden barrels, could be salvaged. One by one, bodies from the wreck came ashore and were examined by the county coroner.

When the California went down, it had been only 14 years old as a vessel – young, by Great Lakes standards. It had sunk in the cold but shallow waters off St. Helena Island, and a reporter who observed the wreck site shortly after the disaster reported that fragments of the overturned vessel’s upper works could be seen, standing on end and poking above the water’s surface. An aggressive salvager, Captain Edward S. Pease, hired a work crew to recover the vessel’s hull. This was done. No longer fit for carrying passengers, the shaken vessel was reclassified as a “steam barge” and renamed the E.S. Pease. She could be fitted out with a tiny crew, loaded with cargo, and towed up and down the Upper Great Lakes.

The E.S. Pease thus embarked in 1888 upon its second and final career as a barge with a small engine. As such it appears to have been a hard-luck vessel. Superstitious seamen may well have concluded that some sort of curse had descended upon the luckless boat when, in the wild late hours of October 3, 1887, it had been deserted by its faithless first mate. Incident reports indicate that the Pease sank once, ran aground “at least” four times, and suffered three vessel fires before its second life came to a merciful end. The California/Pease no longer exists above water, but marine historian Ric Mixter says that its hull can be seen by snorkelers to this day. The remains of the 19th century vessel, deliberately sunk as part of a breakwall, can be found on the opposite side of Lake Huron from Mackinac, underwater near Colpoys Bay off the coast of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

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