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

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Real Black Friday

The lumber hooker Marshall F. Butters, wrecked on 'Black Friday', 1916. (author's collection)
The term "Black Friday" usually brings to mind the day following Thanksgiving, when shoppers set out on a single-minded quest to find the deal of the century. The worst thing that happens is that an over-eager shopper will shove another out of the way to get what they want or, as happened the other day, the pepper-straying of a group of shoppers.

But there's another date that bears the name Black Friday and it is associated with death and destruction. That day - October 20, 1916 - will forever be remembered as perhaps the worst day in the history of Lake Erie shipping. Four large ships were caught out on the lake that day in winds that exceeded 70 miles per hour and before the day was over some fifty sailors had lost their lives.

This storm was somewhat unique among lake storms in that the damage was limited almost entirely to Lake Erie. Other storms - the 1905 blow and the great storm of 1913 - tore their path of destruction over a wide swath, destroying ships and men on several Great Lakes. The Black Friday storm was a true Lake Erie storm.

The Marshall F. Butters left Midland, Ontario on October the 18th, bound for Cleveland with Captain Charles McClure in command. Launched at Milwaukee in 1882, the wooden hulled ship was 164 feet long, 30 feet wide, and was capable of carrying 400,000 feet of lumber. She entered Lake Erie early Friday morning and by 11:15am had reached the Southeast Shoal Lightship. The winds changed direction from southeast to southwest and blew for ten minutes at a velocity of 75mph - hurricane force.  Then they steadied to between 60 and 65mph for the next 24 hours.

The second engineer, Herman Schmock, tells what happened next:
Everything was OK until 1:30 when I heard a sound and noticed the boat making water from forward. I immediately put on the bilge pumps and two siphons, then notified the chief engineer, who in turn notified the captain to turn about and try to lighten the cargo. Then the water came over our cranks and I knew then that our ship was doomed if our cargo wasn’t lightened.

Meantime, the chief engineer, mate, wheelsman, steward and fireman were on deck putting the lumber overboard.

At 1:50 the fireman on watch reported the ash pan full of water. We tried to make a fake furnace, that is, to have a draught and fireplace in place of fire only.

We started and the water came up to our wrists and put the fires out. There was then nothing for us to do, for our end was out of commission. The captain tried to dump the deckload by getting in the trough of the sea, but it wouldn’t let go. Then our orders were to take to the boats.

I left the engine room, for the water was about a foot from the dynamo floor. We went up to the lifeboat deck, and saw two steamers headed for us, and although the seas were at least 18 feet high, I didn’t think there was any danger for help was near.

I went to my room, changed my clothes and filled my pockets with valuables. The sea washed into my room but I wanted to get a ring and watch fob that a lady friend had given me and for which I had rather go down than leave.

After the boat was lowered on the starboard side ready to start anytime, I waded down the deck to the engine room after my pipe. I than enjoyed ‘Sam,’ but rather in a nervous state.

The Steamer Billings came around a number of times and then the Steamer Hartwell came, and the captain ordered us to come ahead.

We reached the Hartwell after an exciting trip, the lifeboat nearly going on the steamer’s deck the first thing. Our intentions were to go back after the rest of the crew, but our boat was crushed before we got out.

In the meantime the Billings spread storm oil, which quieted the water. The steward, wheelsman and one fireman leaped overboard instead of waiting. That left the captain and one fireman aboard.

By going down to take a last look, the captain got caught in the lumber and was pulled out by the Indian fireman.

Our mascot, a scotch collie, Schuster, was lost. He belonged to the fireman, and he mourns him. He has our sympathy, for he died a brave sailor.”
The Marshall F. Butters went to the bottom but her crew of 13 was saved, thanks to the fortuitous arrival of the steamers Frank R. Billings and F. G. Hartwell. Three other ships were not so lucky on that fateful day. The 308-foot whaleback steamer, James B. Colgate, sank with her captain Walter Grashaw being the lone survivor of a 22-man crew. Another 23 men perished when the 360-foot Steamer Merida foundered in the middle of the lake. Also lost in this most horrible storm was the 157 foot barge D.L. Filer and six of her seven man crew. Like the Colgate, her lone survivor was the captain of the ship, in this case Captain John Mattison. He survived by clinging to the aft mast of the Filer.

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