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.


  1. Excellent conclusion! Look forward to reading your next post and learning more about Lake Erie. Have a wonderful holiday Richard!

  2. Great article! Hope that I'm still around when someone actually admits finding it.

  3. Rich, Great artical, ive been doing a fair bit of (very amature) research too and find the M&B2 fascinating, I offer another idea for you, google the C.B. Lockwood a freighter slightly smaller that sank 7 years earlier a little west of where you believe the M&B2 to be, though her position of sinking was well known, no one could find her untill recently, turns out she sank, then sank deep into the lake bed, I propose the possibility the M&B2 couldve suffered the same fate over time?

    1. Caleb, that is certainly possible. The lake bottom is constantly shifting. Many wrecks have been covered over with sand or silt, making detection difficult of not impossible. Thanks for reading for for your comments.