Facing winds gusting to 70 mph and mountainous waves, the crew of the storm-tossed freighter Mataafa had battled Lake Superior for hours when they finally caught sight of Duluth.
Lining up the bow of the 430-foot-long vessel with the narrow Duluth ship canal, the captain aimed to thread the needle to reach safe harbor. Duluth residents - already aware of other freighters in distress on western Lake Superior - gathered in Canal Park to watch the attempt.
It was just after 2 p.m. on Nov. 28, 1905 - 110 years ago Saturday. What happened next was described by the next day’s News Tribune as “spectacular, thrilling, heart-rending ... incidents (that) will haunt the memory of those who bore them witness” - and it would have consequences that remain visible in the Northland to this day.
Calm between the storms
Bob Abrahamson of Superior has spent years researching the Mataafa and that mammoth 1905 storm, which came to be known as the "Mataafa Blow." His book, “Luck of the Draw - the Mataafa Story,” was published last year.
He said that on the morning of Nov. 27, 1905, forecasters in Duluth raised warnings about an approaching storm. There were about 15 freighters in the harbor, loaded and ready to sail after a storm had swept through just a few days earlier.
“They looked up at the storm flag and said, ‘Nope, it’s going to be a good day because we just had a storm last week,’” Abrahamson said. “The lore on the lakes was, if you have a storm you’re good for seven to 10 days.
”Among the ships to leave Duluth that day was the 6-year-old Mataafa, towing the schooner-barge James Nasmyth and carrying a load of iron ore. The vessels that left found themselves out on the lake that evening when the predictions of a storm came true, with howling northeast winds and snow.
“Telephone, telegraph and street car communication was interrupted ... and scores of persons were unable to get home,” the News Tribune reported the next morning. “It is claimed by some of the old time lake men that the waves in the harbor were the highest seen in years and this would indicate trouble for the boats caught en passage.
”By the time Duluthians read those words on the morning of the 28th, ships and lives already had been lost along the North Shore.
North Shore wrecks
The storm’s full fury struck the North Shore first, Julius Wolff Jr. - a Duluth native, shipwreck expert and longtime University of Minnesota Duluth professor - wrote in his book “Lake Superior Shipwrecks.”
In the vicinity of what’s now Taconite Harbor, after 10 hours anchored amid the howling winds, the scow George Herbert broke free and washed ashore about 1 a.m. on the 28th. Two men leaped to shore but three others died when the wooden vessel “was splintered to kindling in a matter of minutes,” Wolff wrote.
At about the same time and just a few miles to the southwest, the freighter George Spencer and barge Amboy were blown onto the rocks near the fishing village of Thomasville. The 22 people on the two vessels stayed aboard until daybreak, when fishermen and loggers on shore helped secure lines to bring the crew to safety as the ships broke apart.
Then the big freighter Crescent City - which had been heading to Two Harbors and was blown off-course - wound up on the rocks near the Lakewood Pumping Station, just northeast of Duluth, about 4 a.m.
“With a crash we struck, and the vessel lurched broadside on the rocks so that I thought she would never right herself,” wheelsman Charles Abram told the News Tribune later that day. “A huge wave rolled clear over her, drenching every man to the skin and it was nothing short of a miracle that no one was carried over.”
A ladder was extended to a rocky ledge alongside the ship, allowing the crew to escape. Months later, the ship was salvaged and repaired.
Farther up the North Shore, about an hour later, four more ships - all part of U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh Steamship Co. fleet, as were the Crescent City and the Mataafa - were pushed on the rocks.
The freighter Lafayette and barge Manila were bound for Superior but found themselves lost in the storm. The captain of the Lafayette “had no idea where he was until breakers were heard off the starboard bow,” Wolff wrote. The ships crashed ashore northeast of Two Harbors at a cliff now known as Lafayette Bluff - location of one of the two modern-day tunnels on state Highway 61.
The Lafayette quickly broke into pieces, with all but one of its crew rescued by the crew of the less-damaged Manila.
The combined crews had to wait more than a day for rescue. Dillon Wright, captain of the Lafayette, later told the News Tribune that the crew got back aboard the Manila the morning of the 29th - a day after the wreck - "and demolished the Thanksgiving turkey ahead of time” (the holiday that year was on the 30th).
Meanwhile, the freighter William Edenborn had been towing the barge Madeira when the towline broke in the early morning hours of the 28th. The Edenborn went aground about 5 a.m. at the mouth of the Split Rock River, where the crew was able to stay safely aboard.
The Madeira, however, drifted blindly in the storm until crashing against the cliffs at Gold Rock Point - in sight of the cliff where Split Rock Lighthouse later was built.
“With the force of a cannon shot the forward end repeatedly struck the almost-perpendicular cliff. ... A towering wall of rock confronted the desperate men whose minds became active with the realization of impending death,” the News Tribune reported two days later.
One of the nine crewmen managed to leap from the bow to catch hold of rocks and trees, and haul a rope to the top of the cliff. Seven others followed and eventually reached safety, but one man was washed overboard and drowned. The Madeira was torn to pieces and its sunken remains are now a draw for divers.
Drama in Duluth
As morning gave way to afternoon on the 28th, the freighter Ira H. Owen was spotted in distress by another vessel northeast of the Apostle Islands; aside from some wreckage and life-rings found later, the Owen and its crew of 19 were never seen again.
The focus and fury of the storm then turned to Duluth. In his book, Wolff called it “the worst two hours in the history of shipping in Duluth.
”First, the freighter R.W. England tried to enter the ship canal just after noon. In 1905, ships had only the outer and inner lights on the south pier with which to line up their approach; there was no lighthouse on the north side of the canal.
The captain of the England saw he was going to miss the canal and tried to turn back out to the open lake, Wolff wrote. Instead, the ship beached down on Park Point - and drew the attention of Duluth’s U.S. Life-Saving Service crew.
An hour later, the Isaac L. Ellwood made a dash through the canal but ricocheted off the piers as it passed under the almost-new Aerial Ferry Bridge - now known as the Aerial Lift Bridge. It started taking on water and grounded just inside the harbor.
An hour after that, with crowds now gathered in Canal Park, the Mataafa approached the canal for its attempt to reach safe harbor. Captain Richard Humble had decided to turn back to Duluth on the morning of the 28th, after battling the storm all night with the barge Nasmyth in tow.
Offshore from Duluth just after 2 p.m. on the 28th, the freighter cut the Nasmyth loose - there was no hope of towing the barge into the harbor at that point - and aimed for the canal.
“They get up to the piers, and the captain asks for full power - now there’s no turning back,” Abrahamson said. “Just as they were about to enter the canal a huge following wave hit them and drove them into the bottom of the lake. … They popped up and hit the north pier.
”Waves turned the Mataafa sideways so that it “T-boned” on the north pier, its bow facing Park Point. It lost power and steering as further waves turned it 180 degrees so that its bow faced downtown Duluth; the ship came to rest about 600 feet from shore, with its stern about 100 feet from the north pier.
Twelve of the Mataafa’s crew were at the stern and 12 at the bow when the ship grounded, with waves crashing over the deck. The interior of the ship at the stern started flooding and there was no other protection from the wind and waves at that end.
With crowds on shore alternately cheering and gasping, four men at the stern made attempts to cross the icy, wave-swept deck to reach the relative safety of the pilot house and captain’s cabin at the bow. Three of the men made it; one turned back. Another crew member at the stern appeared ready to swim to the north pier, but was swept away. The Mataafa eventually split in the middle, sealing the fate of the men at the stern.
The life-saving crew was summoned from the wreck of the R.W. England to come help the men of the Mataafa, finally arriving late in the afternoon. Attempts to shoot rescue lines to the Mataafa that evening were not successful, as Captain Humble futilely tried to shout messages to shore via megaphone. Onlookers built bonfires on the rocks to illuminate the scene.
The men of the Mataafa were left to fend for themselves that night - those at the stern almost certainly already dead; those at the bow lighting lamps and fires to stay warm and stay alive.
By daybreak on the 29th, the storm had subsided and the life-saving crew was able to rescue the 15 men from the bow of the Mataafa; the News Tribune reported that thousands of people on shore cheered their arrival. The rescue crew then turned to the stern - where none of the nine men survived; some of their bodies were found encased in ice. An “awful silence” fell upon the onlookers as victims were brought back to shore. Some bodies were never found.
A board of inquiry after the wreck “came to the conclusion that it was the luck of the draw - what happened, happened; it was nobody’s fault,” Abrahamson said.
The hulk of the wrecked Mataafa remained offshore from Duluth all winter and into spring 1906, becoming something of a tourist attraction as crowds walked out on the ice to see it. Eventually it was refloated and brought in for repairs - and the Mataafa continued sailing the Great Lakes until being scrapped in 1965.
The Nasmyth, the barge cut loose by the Mataafa, weathered the storm “with barely a scratch,” Abrahamson said.
Aftermath of the storm
The November 1905 wrecks along the North Shore spurred calls for a lighthouse to be built in the gap that then existed between Two Harbors and Grand Marais.
Lee Radzak, historic site manager at Split Rock Lighthouse, said backers of a new lighthouse pointed out the heightened dangers of sailing along the North Shore - including variations in compass readings and the general lack of safe harbors.
Congress approved money for the new lighthouse and fog signal in 1907, and Split Rock Lighthouse began operation in 1910. Freighters heading toward Duluth would leave the landmarks and lighthouses of the Apostle Islands, and then be able to spot Split Rock Lighthouse to indicate how far they were from the North Shore.
“The lighthouse pretty much directly owes its existence to that storm, and those wrecks happening so close to here,” Radzak said.
In Duluth, the troubles that ships had entering the canal in the November 1905 storm renewed calls for a lighthouse on the north pier, Abrahamson said, to make it easier to aim for the entrance. The North Pier Light began operation in 1910.
The two lighthouses stand today as memorials, of sort, to the ships and three dozen lives lost on Lake Superior in the November 1905 storm.
“There has been no storm before nor since that caused such widespread plundering of Lake Superior shipping,” Wolff wrote.
There’s also a plaque on the Lakewalk in Duluth telling the story of the Mataafa.
"We take for granted these ships that go in and out,” Abrahamson said, reflecting on his research into the wreck that riveted the Twin Ports on this day in 1905. “Each of these ships have crews - there's men and women on there with families and loved ones and relatives. ... When you hear about those guys out there (in the storm) - I don't want people to forget. We should be grateful every time they make it through the canal, especially during the gales of November."
To learn more
Bob Abrahamson will give a free presentation about the Mataafa at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Superior Public Library. Copies of his book, “Luck of the Draw - the Mataafa Story” are available in local bookstores.