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Captain recounts tale of house that fell through the ice

Not even the most foolhardy would place much trust in Lake Superior's ice these days, after an unseasonably warm March. But even when ice conditions would seem to inspire confidence, the greatest of the Great Lakes demands respect. Earlier this w...

Getting ready
This seven-room, fully equipped house prepares to begin its journey across the ice from Bayfield to La Pointe on March 2, 1977. (Photo courtesy of Sherman Edwards)
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Not even the most foolhardy would place much trust in Lake Superior's ice these days, after an unseasonably warm March.

But even when ice conditions would seem to inspire confidence, the greatest of the Great Lakes demands respect.

Earlier this week, Capt. Sherman Edwards, operator of the Madeline Island Ferry Line, shared the cautionary tale of an ill-fated attempt to haul a fully furnished, seven-room house from Bayfield's Port Superior Marina to the community of La Pointe on Madeline Island. Thirty-three years later, locals still are chuckling and shaking their heads, as were members of the International Ship Masters Association, Lodge No. 12, Monday night, when Edwards retold the story.

On the fateful morning of March 2, 1977, a six-wheel-drive truck set out across the ice, bearing a two-story house on a set of dollies. A Minneapolis firm specializing in big lifts had been brought in to tackle the job, and a picture from Edwards' collection shows the side of the vehicle emblazoned with the words: "Dale Movers: The Best in Heavy Lifting."

"There were four houses they planned to move across the ice to Madeline Island," Edwards recalled. "This was the first ... and the last."

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Rocky Barker, who was then a reporter for the Washburn-Bayfield County Times, recounted moving man Lyle Rhine's pre-journey words: "I wouldn't try it if I didn't think I could make it."

For a bit of added security, Rhines enlisted the services of Harvey Nourse, a Bayfield local, well-acquainted with the waters of Superior, to ride along.

Don Albrecht, who was then Barker's editor, recalls the house move occurred without fanfare.

"There wasn't a lot of publicity," he said. "I heard about it at the last minute and told Rocky it might make for an interesting story."

Albrecht's instincts were on the money.

The house made it three miles across the ice and was less than a mile from its destination when the endeavor went horribly awry.

"One of the back wheels broke through the ice," said Edwards. The driver gunned the engine in an effort to yank the house forward, but it wouldn't budge.

Sensing the danger about to unfold, Rhines and Nourse both leapt from the truck's cab.

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"They say the truck was still running and the wheels were still spinning when it went through," Edwards said.

The movers had said the move should be safe so long as the ice was at least 10 inches thick, according to Edwards, who noted that subsequent measurements showed the ice to be about 16 inches thick where the truck's wheels first broke through.

Although the truck quickly slid through the ice, the now-cockeyed house came to rest, where it froze fast in place but continued to inch downward into the lake day by day.

"It took about a month to sink," Edwards said. "It seemed like every time I looked out the window, it was down a little bit further."

Albrecht said the slowly sinking home became a bit of a local attraction. "People skied and snowmobiled out to see the house. It was a fun curiosity."

Albrecht said he suspects there was some wagering as to when the house finally would sink through the ice, but he didn't participate.

When Lake Superior inevitably swallowed the house, Edwards and a friend scuba dove the house, now some 90 feet below water. He described an eerie sense that he was entering a home that had been unexpectedly abandoned. There were even dishes in the dishwasher, one of which Edwards kept as a souvenir.

With ice finally off the lake, a salvage effort was mounted in May 1977. Ed Erickson, the owner of a barge called Outer Island, first went out to retrieve the truck. Divers fastened cables to the vehicle and a crane was used to raise it.

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Next up was the house, which was ultimately retrieved in useless damaged pieces.

Edwards said the vehicle fared better. It was successfully returned to service in short order and saw several years of local use.

But the truck never again attempted to transport a house across the ice to Madeline Island.

The three other houses that successfully made the island journey did so by way of a barge crossing open water. Wise choice.

Related Topics: BAYFIELDMADELINE ISLAND
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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