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 21, 2011

Still Missing: The Enduring Legacy of the Marquette & Bessemer #2

Marquette & Bessemer #2 docked at Port Stanley, Ontario
This is third and final installment of my series on the ill-fated car ferry Marquette & Bessemer #2. The 350-foot ship left Conneaut, Ohio, the morning of December 7 and sailed into the teeth of a mounting blizzard. She never reached her destination of Port Stanley, Ontario, some 60 miles away.

Historians point to two critical factors that likely led to the foundering of the M&B2. First was the lack of a stern gate, which we know from Captain McLeod himself had resulted in the near loss of the car ferry only a month before. In a following sea it is almost certain the M&B2 would have taken on water. And with water coming in it would only have been a matter of time before she filled enough to extinguish her boilers. At that point she would have been at the mercy of the wind and waves.

Stern of the M&B2, vulnerable to a following sea due to her lack of a stern gate
The second factor has to do with the rail cars she had on board. The weight of these cars was such that, should the cars break loose, the resulting imbalance would surely capsize the ship. The roughly 30 cars on the M&B2 (there is some dispute as to the precise number), which were carefully loaded to maintain this balance, were held secure by a rod or pin that was called "the key." It was widely acknowledged that, should the key fail, the rail cars would begin to move and the big ship would then certainly capsize.

Either one of these factors is a likely cause of the loss of the M&B2, but now that we know what may have sunk the car ferry, what about the more crucial question - where did she go down?

As we have seen, testimonies from observers on shore paint a conflicting story of the route of the M&B2 in the hours and days after she departed Conneaut. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, as we know, although the sheer number of reports from witnesses at Conneaut, coupled with those at Port Stanley, make a compelling case that Captain McLeod returned to his home port after attempting unsuccessfully to navigate into his Canadian destination.

There is speculation that, failing to enter Port Stanley, he turned west toward the safety Rondeau but there is no evidence that he did so. On the other hand there are numerous reports of his ship being seen and heard off the breakwater at Conneaut. Some have speculated -- and it is only speculation -- that McLeod, having gain the safety of a harbor on either the north or south shore of Lake Erie, turned his ship northeast in a last ditch effort to find shelter in the lee of Long Point, the 20-mile-long spit of land that juts out into Lake Erie on the Canadian side.

As compelling -- and intriguing -- as the eyewitness testimony may be, I believe there is a more reliable form of evidence available to us: debris and human bodies from the wreck. During the storm the winds were blowing from the southwest, and then gradually shifted to the south. As we have seen, on Friday, Dec. 12,  a full five days after the B&B#2 last sailed, the steamer William B Davoc passed through a debris field off Long Point that was most certainly wreckage from the ill-fated car ferry. Later that same day M&B2's Lifeboat No. 4 was sighted 15 miles off Erie. And in the coming days and months wreckage from the ship would come ashore along Long Point, along with the body of Captain McLeod.

All of this leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Marquette & Bessemer #2 went down in relatively deep water southwest of Long Point. Based on the meager evidence we have, I think that on the wild night of December 7th Captain McLeod desperately sought shelter on first the north and then the south side of the lake. Unable to find it, he turned his ship northeast toward the shelter of Long Point. Somewhere along the way, a handful of panicked crew members decided to leave the ship, believing their chances were better on the storm-tossed lake. I think its likely that the men in Lifeboat No. 4 engaged in some type of mutiny. It was a bad decision. The boat was severely damaged during launching. They rowed as long as they could but with only light clothing on their backs they all eventually succumbed to hypothermia.

The car ferry continued on toward Long Point in a futile attempt to find shelter there. She never made it. What most probably happened is that the waves from the following sea poured over her stern, slowly but inevitably filling her with water. Just as she had done a month before, she lost stability but this time she was able not to right herself. Perhaps the key holding the rail cars in place came loose and the cars shifted, causing her to capsize, although not necessarily. All we know for sure is that she went down.

There have been many false reports of her discovery over the years. Many have searched and continue to search for this century-old wreck. In addition to wreck divers, scientists have also taken up the search and even the Canadian Navy reportedly tried side-scan sonar and magnetometers to sense its metal hull in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet despite the many years of intensive searching, there have been no verified reports of her being found.

More than any other Lake Erie wreck, the M&B2 has spawned various ghost stories and legends. Some claim that late at night, especially in December, the ferry's distress whistle can still be heard. The Rev. Robin Swope, of Erie, claims on his blog The Paranormal Pastor that some have seen the image of a distant ship resembling the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 on the Lake Erie horizon.

And James Donahue, on his page Ghost Ship Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, claims that on clear days the wreck has been sighted from the air about eight miles northeast of Conneaut, and yet no one has located it by boat.

As major shipwrecks often do, the wreck of the Marquette & Bessemer #2 bought about some positive changes. After the loss all car ferries were equipped with wireless, allowing them to communicate with those on shore. (Side note: In 1909, the year the Bessemer went down, Guglielmo Marconi won the Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the wireless.)

The owners of the #2 immediately began building a replacement ship that was nearly identical in every way, but this time she was given a stern gate. Ironically, she was also named the Marquette & Bessemer #2.

It is only a matter of time before she is found. A ship the size of a football football field cannot remain hidden forever. Perhaps then we will finally have answers to some of the mysteries surrounding the wreck of the Marquette & Bessemer #2.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Port Clinton to Acquire Old West Pier Lighthouse

The Port Clinton West Pier Head Light, as seen in an old postcard
I'm happy to announce that after spending almost fifty years tucked away in a marina along the Portage River, Port Clinton’s old pier-head light will soon become city property and once again be given a prominent place in this waterfront town’s landscape.

I was on hand Tuesday night as the PC Parks and Recreation Committee, after hearing a briefing on the proposal, recommended transfer of the old Port Clinton lighthouse from Brands' Marina to the city. It will be up to the the full City Council to approve the city but I anticipate they will do so without controversy when they meet in January.

In anticipation of the transfer, a committee of volunteers has been fleshing out plans to move the lighthouse to the Waterworks Park near the end of the proposed Adams Street extension and eventually restore the structure. The light will not operate but instead serve as a local attraction and beacon for tourism.

Standing twenty feet high, the peppermill style, pyramid-sided wood structure was erected in 1896 at the end of the west pier. Though records are sketchy, it is believed the light operated until 1927. In the mid 1950s, the lighthouse was removed from the pier and moved to Jeremy's Marina, now Brands’ Marina, on Lakeshore Drive about a half mile up The Portage River.

The lighthouse committee is hopeful that, once moved to such a highly visible location, the lighthouse will draw tourists to the downtown district and serve as a wonderful asset to the city overall.

The relocation and restoration of the lighthouse will be funded through a combination of private and corporate sponsors, and federal and state grants. Volunteers will be called upon to complete much of the work. The lighthouse committee envisions the formation of a non-profit preservation society to spearhead the effort.

Members of the committee include Committee Chair Peggy Debien, outgoing Mayor Hymore-Tester, CDR Gerald Nauert and LT Andy Frye with the U.S. Coast Guard, Darrell Brand, Bill Moon, Debbie Rossman, Doug Garrett, Kathy Jo Schweitzer, John Smothers, Bob Reynolds, Kim Boyle, Bob Butcher, Kathy Mehl, Chuck Grindstaff and Sam Halstead, and yours truly.

Once the lighthouse is transferred to the city and an assessment of the structure’s stability completed, the move itself could take place as early as next spring. Once moved, a more thorough restoration will commence.

This will be a huge and much-needed tourist for the city. The nearby Marblehead Lighthouse receives more than one million visitors annually. I will reporting regularly on this effort but please help spread the word. I would like to see a big community effort to fund this exciting and worthwhile project.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lake Erie's Greatest Mystery Part 2: The Search for the M&B2

Captain Robert Rowan McLeod circa 1895
When the Marquette & Bessemer #2 sailed out of Conneaut Harbor the morning of December 7, 1909, the thought of her failing reach Port Stanley, Ontario, 60 miles across the lake seemed unimaginable. Her steel moulded hull was only four years old. She had been built to withstand the rigors of the Great Lakes.

And she had an able captain. Robert McLeod was one of seven brothers, six of whom had chosen a seafaring life. He was the son of Donald and Isabelle (Rowan) McLeod, and was born October 3, 1862, at Kincardine, Ontario. His parents were natives of Scotland. His brothers Hugh and Duncan were both ship captains. Stuart had become a first mate. Angus gave up the sailor's life after a few years. His brother John turned down the chance to captain other ships, choosing instead to remain as his brother's first mate on the M&B2.

As Captain McLeod steamed into a monstrous storm that Tuesday morning there were troubling signs that she was not as safe as was commonly believed. She was fitted with four tracks capable of holding up to 32 rail cars. The ship had been designed so that her cargo of rail cars were loaded directly onto the stern of the ship. Consequently her stern was "open" to the wind and waves. In their infinite wisdom the owners had decided that the big ship did not require a stern gate. They reasoned that in a storm the captain could turn his high-bowed ship into the wind and ride it out. Of course there is often a huge gap between theory and actual practice.

That sobering lesson was brought home to Captain McLeod in a big way just one month prior to her last trip. Caught in a bad November storm, the captain kept his ship headed directly into the massive waves, as instructed, but he soon discovered that as the ship plunged into the troughs between the waves massive amounts of water rushed in through the open stern. She filled with water and at one point listed so badly that her upper rails were under water. Shaken by the experience, Robert later confided to his brother Hugh, "I damn near lost her." Upon his return to port he complained bitterly, eliciting a promise from the owners that a stern gate would be installed at season's end.

Of course safety equipment that today we take for granted was nonexistent in 1909. There was no radar, no LORAN, no GPS. And worst of all, no communications. Although wireless had been in use for some years, few Great Lakes vessels at that time were equipped with it. Captain McLeod had no means of receiving weather information or transmitting his situation or location. All he had was a compass. He could get his bearings IF he could see a fixed landmark. But what if he lost visibility?

The car ferry was ready to sail at 8am but another ship had broken its lines and had to be secured by tugs. This caused a delay of two hours. Finally the ship finally began pulling away from the dock when an irritated Captain McLeod was hailed from shore. It seems that a Mr. A.J. Weiss, the vessel sole paid passenger, had arrived late and desired to board. Treasurer for the Keystone Fish Company in Erie, Pennsylvania, Weiss was en-route to Port Stanley to purchase the Port Stanley Fish Company for the owners of Keystone Fish. In his possession was a leather briefcase filled with -- so legend has it -- $25,000 to $50,000 in cash. McLeod at last eased his vessel out into the stormy lake at about 10:25am.

If the M&B2 had sailed on time at 8am, would she have made Port Stanley safely? Of course we'll never know. She never made Port Stanley. Under normal conditions she would have reached the Canadian port by about 4pm, but these were not normal conditions.

The first known sighting of the M&B2 came from a Canadian customs officer, a Mr. Wheeler, who was sure he saw the car ferry laboring in high seas and trying to make the harbor at about 5pm Tuesday. According to Wheeler the captain was unwilling to chance entering the narrow harbor entrance in the storm and turned west in an apparent attempt to seek shelter at Rondeau.

That night reports started coming in from the American side of the lake, the first from a Finnish woman who lived east of Conneaut. She was adamant that she heard the car ferry's whistle and saw its lights offshore Tuesday night. Then other reports filtered in. The captain and chief engineer of the steamer Black, at anchor outside the Conneaut break wall, claimed to have seen the profile of the M&B2 headed east at about midnight. At 1am Tuesday night William Rice, an ore unloader operator at Conneaut harbor heard a vessel blowing distress signals. He said he recognized it as the M&B2's whistle. Two other men confirmed his story. If these witnesses did see or hear the car ferry, that means she had failed to enter the harbor at Port Stanley and returned to Conneaut to seek shelter. If so, these efforts were in vain.

At 3am on Wednesday, Wheeler, the customs official at Port Stanley, said he again heard the M&B2's whistle off the harbor entrance. Two others corroborated his story. Of course if this was true, the vessel could not have been seen and heard at Conneaut only a few hours before. But as concerns mounted for the crew of the car ferry, conflicting reports became the order of the day.

A north shore resident living seven miles east of Port Stanley at Bruce reported being awakened at 5am by a whistle blowing just offshore. He could hear her plain as day but couldn't see her because of the snow. This is the last report I can find of someone hearing or seeing the lost ship.

A flotilla of steamer, fishing boats, and tugs joined in a growing search for the missing car ferry over the next two days. Among the ship search was the M&B2's sister ship, the Marquette & Bessemer #1. She searched both sides of the lake, to no avail.

Meanwhile, around the various ports, relatives and friends of crew members fearfully awaited word of the fate of their loved ones. For Sarah Clancy in Erie, Pa., sister of wheelsman John Clancy, a nightmare was coming true -- literally. The night the M&B2 sailed she had experienced a vivid dream of a ship sinking in a terrible storm. In the dream she heard the voice of her brother John calling out. The following morning her sisters had laughed off her fears.

On Friday, Dec. 12, the steamer William B Davoc, westbound off Long Point, passed through a quantity of wreckage in the water, including a green lifeboat. The M&B2's lifeboats were painted green. Later that same day a grisly discovery 15 miles off Erie put to rest any remaining doubts as to the fate of the missing car ferry. This contemporary clipping tells the story:
Marquette Car Ferry's Boat is towed Into Erie Harbor.
Erie, Pa. Dec. 13. - The last doubt concerning the fate of the BESSEMER and MARQUETTE car Ferry No. 2, was removed when the State Fish Tug COMMODORE PERRY towed the car ferry's lifeboat No. 4, containing nine dead bodies, into the port at Erie at 4:20 p. m. yesterday.
Some sitting on the seats and others huddled up in the bottom of the craft, were all frozen stiff.
No. 4 lifeboat from the lost Marquette & Bessemer #2
The tug Commodore Perry, its flag at half mast, towed its grisly cargo into Erie. The lifeboat was badly battered and half filled with water. All of the victims were clad in light work clothes, with no coats or blankets befitting the weather, indicating that they had abandoned ship quickly. All had obviously succumbed to the effects of hypothermia. One of the men, the smallest of the group, lay in the bottom with some of the others huddled around him in a fruitless effort to keep him warm. The faces of some of the men were bruised and cut. There may have been a tenth occupant of the lifeboat, as a set of clothing was found frozen at one end of the boat. (It is common, in the last stages of hypothermia, for the victim to feel unusually warm and remove clothing.) Had that person gone made and jumped overboard?

And there was something else -- something odd. There were two long kitchen knives and a meat cleaver tucked below the gunwale near the frozen upright figure of George Smith, the ship's steward. Why had he taken knives with him into the lifeboat but not bothered to bring warm clothes?

With the discovery of the lifeboat, more search vessels struck out in hopes of finding survivors or at least wreckage, but the general feeling was that the M&B2 had gone down with all hands. At Conneaut, home to a majority of the lost crew, including seven of the nine lifeboat occupants, 900 residents crowded into the new high school and sang "Rock of Ages" and "Jesus, Lover of My Soul."

And so the ship was deemed lost, the search officially over. Wreckage was reported found at various locations -- oddly, on both sides of the lake, but a good portion of it came ashore along Long Point. And then, in the months that followed, more bodies. 

First mate John McLeod's body was pulled from the Niagara River in April 1910 and on May 2nd a report out of Port Colborne, Ontario, stated that a farmer living about a mile east of town discovered the body of a man floating in the water near the shore. Still wearing an M&B2 life preserver, the body was identified as that of Gene Woods (some sources give it as Wood), the car ferry's engineer.

A body found in September 1910 was suspected to be that of John Clancy, the watchman who was the subject of his sister's prophetic dream, after the shoes on the corpse were traced to an Erie department store; however, the identity of the body was never confirmed. 
Captain McLeod's final resting place in Conneaut City Cemetary (courtesy The Main Street Wizards)
Finally, in October, 10 months after the ship sailed on her final voyage, the bodies of Captain Robert McLeod and Wheelsman William Wilson were recovered about six miles west of the tip of Long Point. Captain McLeod's body bore what appeared to be deep slash wounds. Suddenly the discovery of knives in lifeboat No. 4 took on added significance. Had the slashes been made by a member of his own crew? In the terrible panic that must have ensued as the M&B2 frantically searched for shelter during that hellish storm, had there been a deadly confrontation?

More than one hundred years later these mysteries remain unsolved. Despite massive search efforts over a period of many decades, the relative shallowness of Lake Erie, and even with state-of-the-art technologies such as side-scan sonar, the M&B2 eludes discovery.

In Part 3 we'll look at some of the efforts over the years to locate the wreck and explore the question so many have been asking for so many years: What happened to the Marquette & Bessemer #2? 

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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

State officials to testify about algae bloom

A tall glass of bad Ju-Ju (photo courtesy the

As reported in the Port Clinton News-Herald today, there will be a subcommittee field hearing of the House of Representatives Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee on the health of Lake Erie from 10 a.m. to noon Friday at the Lake Erie Islands Regional Welcome Center, 770 S.E. Catawba Road. The hearing is being held by Ohio Reps. Dennis Murray, D-Sandusky, and Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green.

State officials and environmental experts will be testifying to a panel of state legislators. Among those expected to testify is the newly appointed director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Jim Zehringer, who previously served as the Director of the Department of Agriculture. Ohio Rep. David Hall, R-Millersburg, chairman of the committee, will lead the discussion.

Quoting the News-Herald, "Record-setting size and density of toxic algae blooms over the last two summers have drawn a new focus on the health and future of Lake Erie. Warmer summers in the already warm and shallow lake along with increased phosphorous and other nutrients from farm fertilizer runoff and municipal sewage allow the toxic algae to thrive, but the details of exactly what is to blame or how to fix it remains a challenge for government officials."

The hearing will be open to the public.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Let's not leave the fate of Lake Erie to the politicians

NASA image
When I first saw the NASA satellite photo, I was reminded of all those creepy photos of the lungs of cigarette smokers. If this were an X-ray the doctor would be telling his patient, "I'm afraid we've got some decisions to make."

Indeed we do. Clearly the patient has been ill for a very long time, but like a cancer patient who doesn't want to hear bad news, sometimes the symptoms must first become painfully obvious before the patient -- or in this case the patient's caregivers -- seek treatment.

One very big symptom reared its ugly head this past summer in the form of a massive algae bloom that fanned out across much of the western half of the lake. Suddenly folks who depend on the lake for their livelihood were saying, "Whoa, where did this crap come from?" And then it was all over the news.

And there were less visible though just as ominous symptoms. The dead zones in the central part of the lake may be getting bigger. These are large areas of the lake that are devoid of oxygen, hence nothing can live there. Other serious problems include increased runoff due to bigger rainfalls that put more waste into the lake, and invasive species.

To quote a recent editorial at, something is going very wrong in Lake Erie.

So what do we do? Continuing with the medical analogy, we shouldn't just trust the doctors -- or the politicians -- to make everything better. Groups have been meeting and discussing options for controlling the algae bloom situation. On the invasive species front the EPA has proposed stricter rules for ship ballast water.

That's all well and good, but we as citizens have a roll to play, too, and one group has stepped forward to do just that. was formed "to raise public awareness, rally support and educate residents on how they can help save Lake Erie on a person level at home." I blogged about their site a while back and, due to the sparsity of content on their site, asked, rhetorically, whether it might be someone's idea of a joke. Well just the other day I received an email from Todd at who told me,
No, this is not our idea of a joke. A cursory analysis of all the websites for water, Great Lakes & Lake Erie groups were all dry, boring, dated and not exciting. With the current economic woes, people have bigger problems like saving their home let alone saving Lake Erie. It’s a huge challenge getting people to not only pay attention but care. We are a team of world class social media, viral marketing and branding professionals who are taking a different approach to get people’s attention and raise awareness. Most of all to educate and let people know there ARE things they can do to help, on a personal level and at home. We have more videos up and more on the way.
Thanks, Todd. You guys have got some great content up now including some fun videos and, most important, a practical list of 10 things you can do to save Lake Erie. Great stuff. I encourage everyone to check out their website, fan them on Facebook and spread the word about those ten things.

We can't leave it to the politicians to save our lake.