News and views, and history and humor, about the lake I love.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost." ~ James Taylor, Millworker

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lake Erie's Greatest Mystery: The Tragedy of the Marquette & Bessemer #2

December 7th is remembered as -- in the immoral words of FDR -- "a day which will live in infamy" because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hawaii. The death toll from that sad day reached 2,403, including 68 civilians, and 1,178 injured.

But another tragedy occurred on December 7th, 1909 and, although decidedly less well known than the attack on pearl harbor, it still rings clear in the minds of those who lost ancestors that day, as well as to those who regard it as Lake Erie's greatest mystery.

Without question Lake Erie holds many secrets. Her shallow bottom is littered with thousands of shipwrecks; so many that Erie is said to have a higher concentration of wrecks than anywhere else on earth. Although hundreds of these wrecks have been located and identified, there are hundred, perhaps thousands, more waiting to be discovered. And the single most sought-after shipwreck, the one considered the "holy grail" of shipwrecks by Lake Erie wreck divers, is the Marquette & Bessemer #2.

The loss of the car ferry Marquette & Bessemer #2 in a violent storm in December 1909 has mystified historians, divers, and next-of-kin for more than a century. Not that such a large ship could suffer such a fate, but that a 350-foot vessel could remain undiscovered for so long. Of the five Great Lakes, Erie is the second smallest and the shallowest by far. Only about 210 feet deep at her deepest point, her average depth is only 62 feet. And yet, despite intensive searching, using state-of-the-art techniques and technology such as side-scan sonar, the ship has never been found. Where could she be?

In this and successive posts I will explore the mystery of the M&B2.

Two well-known Lake Erie wreck divers who have discovered many wrecks and explored many more love to talk about shipwrecks. But mention the M&B2 and their eyes positively light up. "Everyone is searching for that wreck," one of them told me recently. Indeed, some have claimed to have found her but are supposedly keep the secret close at hand. More on that later.

The M&B2 was a steel twin-screw car ferry 350 feet long overall, with a beam of 54 feet. On December 7th, 1909 at 10:43 am the Steamship Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 set sail from Conneaut, Ohio for Port Stanley Ontario, Canada. The four-year-old ship had on board 31 crew and one passenger, and a cargo consisting of 30 rail cars, 26 of which were loaded with coal, three contained steel, and another with castings, as well as some additional structural steel in her hold. She was on her regular daily run, which normally took a little over 5 hours. However, this was to be no normal run.

She was under the command of Robert Rowan McLeod, by all accounts a capable skipper who prior to this had commanded four other car ferries. His older brother, John, was first mate.

Shortly after her departure a massive storm bore down on Lake Erie, with winds to 70 knots and temperatures that dropped from 40°F to 10° F in less than 24 hours. The mighty M&B2 was never seen again. On December 12th a lifeboat containing the frozen bodies of nine of her crew, was found 15 miles off Erie, Pennsylvania.

In a post later this week I will the story of the search for the M&B2.


  1. Agree! Great post! I look forward to reading about the search :-)
    (have tried twice to post this so if it shows up multiple times I'm sorry! :-)

  2. Thank you, Michele. Look for Part 2 today!

  3. I am currently researching this topic, and if it's possible does anyone know in what order were the life boats placed?

    I found news paper stories of the period from Erie and Buffalo, about the life boat find, and also in 1910 when bodies were found from the wreck, floating ashore.

    I'm researching a possible screen play of the incident

  4. I can be reached at

  5. I live near Lake Erie between Buffalo Ny and Cleveland Ohio. Since I became disabled some ten years ago I have hardly gone to Lake Erie. I wonder what the current status is on zebra mussles. Are they still epidemic?

    1. Zebra mussels continue to be a major concern for Lake Erie and the entire Great Lakes ecosystem. They have few natural predators here.