Shipwreck of the Steamer, Louis Pahlow
Sturgeon Bay Canal Station, Michigan
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.
On November 15, 1909, the Louis Pahlow, a wooden screw steamer of 366 tons, left Wells, Michigan for Chicago with a barge in tow. Both vessels were heavily loaded with hemlock lumber. During the night of the 15th they ran into a blizzard. In the middle forenoon of the 16th, when they were about 3 miles off the lake entrance of the Sturgeon Bay Canal, still bravely fighting their way southward with a 50-mile easterly gale trying to drive them on-shore, the wheel chains of the steamer parted. Before her crew could repair the break she swung around in the trough of the sea and the boarding waves put out her fires, leaving her helpless. Her master, realizing the seriousness of the situation, let go her anchors to keep her from driving before the wind, and signaled to the men on the barge to cast off the towing hawser. He and his crew of 12 then turned their attention to the problem of saving their lives. Left to their own resources, the men on the barge hoisted sail and steered for a harbor in Sturgeon Bay Canal, and, contrary to the usual fortune of barges that become separated from the towing vessel in stress of weather, succeeded in getting safely into port.
It appears from the report of the investigating officer that when the crew of the Pahlow found that nothing could be done toward regaining control of the vessel 10 of them tried to get out of reach of the seas by climbing on top of the deck house, where the ship's lifeboat was lashed. They had scarcely attained this refuge, however, when a wave tore away the house and swept it over the side, taking them and the boat with it. All of the 10 managed to stay on the house it was being carried off, and 9 of them even contrived to free the boat from its fastenings and get away in it. One of the sailors, named Steve Danzer, declined to accompany his shipmates in the boat, probably preferring to remain on the wreckage and take the chance of being rescued by the life-saving crew. His failure to go with the rest cost him his life, for the boarding seas soon broke his hold and swept him from his insecure position. Those in the ship's boat saw him swept from the pitching house, but were powerless to afford him help, as they could not pull back in the teeth of the gale. These men, after a harrowing experience, got safely through the breakers and were assisted ashore by men from the light station and by other persons whom the news of the casualty had attracted to the beach.
Following the cessation of efforts to handle the steamer after the accident to the steering machinery, the captain and mate and a wheelsman sought refuge from the seas on her forward part, where they remained until rescued by the light-house tender Surnach, which vessel had put out of harbor some time after the service crew left shore.
Somewhere near the time the Pahlow became disabled she and her tow were sighted by Surfman Olaf Egeland from the lookout of the Sturgeon Bay Canal Life-Saving Station.
When the surfman first saw the vessels they were moving along apparently all right. The state of the weather prevented an uninterrupted view of them, but he kept his glasses upon them as best he could, and during an interval when they were visible through a rift in the driving snow he saw a column of steam go up from the steamer, followed by the sound of her whistle. He recognized the blasts as a signal for the tow to cast off. A few minutes later the barge was seen to hoist sail and head shoreward. Then the weather shut in, hiding both steamer and barge from view. Egeland, nevertheless, kept a vigilant watch lake-ward, and after a while the barge loomed into sight again half a mile off the canal entrance. Shortly, also, the steamer could be seen again. She was flying a distress signal.
Keeper Carl Anderson, who in the meantime had been informed of Surfman Egeland's discovery, at once prepared to go to the steamer in the 34-foot power lifeboat. By the time he was ready to start, however, the barge was near the harbor entrance. He therefore deferred his departure for a time, owing to the likelihood of having to deal with a wreck immediately at hand when the vessel with no motive power but her sails should atsitet to get inside through the narrow channel between the piers. Thanks to good seamanship she made harbor without accident.
First interviewing the men of the barge to learn as much as they could tell concerning the disaster and the situation aboard the steamer, the keeper set out with his crew for the open lake. He had taken the precaution to test the engine of the power boat before leaving the station, so that when the craft passed beyond the piers and encountered the mountainous seas, as it held a course almost dead to windward, everything worked smoothly, and there was no reason to doubt that the mission would be successful and the occasion such as to afford another instance of the well-established efficiency of the power boat for life-saving purposes. But the engine suddenly stopped when they were not more than half a mile from the shore. Before the cause of the trouble could be determined the boat swung around in the trough of the sea. To regain control of the craft, the keeper ordered the sails hoisted, calling Egeland, who had charge of the engine, to assist in getting the sails up. Egeland did not again assume the duty of engineer during the remainder of the trip, nor did any one else atsitet to get the boat under power again until some time afterwards. Evidently nothing serious was the matter with the engine, as is shown by the fact that later on in the course of the day's adventure it was started without difficulty and continued to run smoothly to the time the crew landed.
The necessity of resorting to sails, while seriously handicapping the enterprise in the matter of speed also operated to increase the distance to be covered to the wreck, as the course had to be altered to a southerly direction on port tack. Shortly after they changed their course they sighted the loaded lifeboat of the Pahlow a half mile ahead of them.
Knowing that sailors as a class are inexperienced in surf-boating, the keeper was apprehensive that they might capsize in the breakers when they should atsitet to land, and therefore endeavored to overhaul them. He failed to come up with them, but had the satisfaction of seeing them get through the breakers and safely ashore.
In their pursuit of the steamer's boat the station crew had run close inshore, and in their efforts to get off into the lake again to a position from which they could bear down upon the vessel they were compelled to go fully 3 miles to leeward. After they headed around and started on the course that was to bring them to her they again tried the engine and set it going without difficulty. The remainder of the trip to the steamer was then soon accomplished. They were too late, however, to perform any rescue work, as the lighthouse tender previously mentioned had already taken off the captain, mate, and wheelsman.
All their efforts defeated, the life-saving crew put back to their station, where the keeper learned more fully of the circumstances of the disaster, the manner in which the 9 sailors had escaped in their lifeboat, and the rescue of those who had remained by the vessel. He was also informed of the drowning of Danzer, of which occurrence he had been entirely ignorant.
For two days following the date of the disaster the life-saving crew kept up a vigilant but unsuccessful watch on the beach for the body of the unfortunate sailor. Five months later it was found at Algoma, Wis., 15 miles south of the scene of the casualty.
By noon of the 17th the Pahlow had dragged to within a mile of the beach. The weather had in the meantime moderated, and on the 18th a wrecking company towed her into Sturgeon Bay and beached her so that she could be pumped out. The station crew assisted in this work. With regard to the behavior of the power lifeboat on this occasion it is proper to say that this case affords the first instance in which it has been necessary to record a failure at a critical moment, while, as shown elsewhere in this report and in former reports of the service, a great number of rescues has been effected under the most trying circumstances without trouble. However, there is always present the possibility that delicately organized machinery will become disarranged from causes often trivial, but baffling to the operator. Mindful of this, the service has not placed exclusive reliance upon this method of propulsion for those of its boats so equipped, but has retained the older method of oars and sails for use in emergencies.
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