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, 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? 


  1. Another excellent post! I'm really enjoying learning about these wrecks--Can't wait to read part 3 :-) (You do such a great job presenting historical facts... I bet your novel is quite a page-turner!)

  2. Thanks again. And to anyone else reading these comments: No, I did not pay her to say that!