Every year, I revisit the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10th. I do this because I remember the ferocity of the winds on the day of the wreck vividly from my childhood, because as a Michigander Lightfoot’s song is probably coded in my DNA by now, and also because it’s very popular with readers. Nonetheless, the feature Should musicians decide the shipwrecks we know? from IPR News Radio by Peter Payette & Morgan Springer definitely struck a chord. There are thousands of ships that have gone down the world’s eighth sea, and so many families that have felt the loss when a sailor doesn’t return from one of the most dangerous jobs there is. We’d do well to remember some of the others as well!
On this day in 1958, my vote for the most devastating Great Lakes shipwreck of the modern era took place. 33 of 35 crew members perished in the wreck, and 23 of them were from the town of Rogers City that boasted a population of less than 4000 people. The Presque Isle County Historical Museum’s website for the Steamer Carl D. Bradley tells the tale of the wreck of the Bradley:
The steamer was 638 feet long overall, with a 65-foot beam, a depth of 33 feet and a cargo capacity of 14,000 tons of crushed stone. The unloading boom was 160 feet long. The engineering and propulsion plant on the Carl D. Bradley was similar to that on the T.W. Robinson which was built two years before the Carl D. Bradley.
…The Carl D. Bradley, traveling light departed Buffington, Indiana around 9:30 pm, Monday, November 17, and headed up Lake Michigan bound for the Port of Calcite. Roland Bryan, a sailor since age fourteen, was the master. This trip was the last for the season and the steamer was going home. The Bradley never made it. In less than 24 hours the Carl D. Bradley was on the bottom of Lake Michigan and 33 of the 35-man crew were dead or missing.
When the vessel left Buffington, the winds were blowing up to 35 miles per hour from the south. The storm that was about to engulf the Bradley was developing over the plains when a cold front from the north met a warm front over the plains. The temperature in Chicago had dropped about 20 degrees that day. The forecast warned of gale winds. The crew prepared for severe weather by securing the unloading boom and the hatches. The steamer followed the route up the Wisconsin shore to Cana Island then changed course and cut across Lake Michigan toward Lansing Shoal. As the wind velocity increased, the crew filled the ballast tanks to maximum practical condition. By 4:00 pm of the next day, the 18th, the winds had reached 65 miles per hour. Even though the lake was rough and the winds high, the boat rode the heavy seas with no hint of the laboring.
Captain Bryan had asked the cooks to serve an early dinner. He knew the turn from Lake Michigan toward Lake Huron would put heavy weather broadside of the vessel. He wanted to give the mess crew the opportunity to clean up and secure before turning. The mess room was full of crewmembers anticipating going home.
About 5:30 pm First Mate Elmer Flemming radioed Calcite that the Bradley would arrive at 2:00 am. Then a “loud thud” was heard. In the pilothouse Captain Bryan and Flemming looked aft and saw the stern sag. Flemming immediately sent a distress signal over the radio. “Mayday! Mayday! This is the Carl D. Bradley. Our position is approximately twelve miles southwest of Gull Island. We are in serious trouble! We’re breaking up!” Captain Bryan sounded the general alarm, signaled the engine room to stop the ship, and blew the whistle to abandon ship. The power system failed and the lights in the bow section went out. The Bradley heaved upward near amidships and broke in two. The forward section rolled over and sank. The stern end plunged to the bottom. Within a few minutes the Carl D. Bradley was gone.
Read on for much more including theories of how the ship sank and the story of how deckhand Frank Mays & Elmer Flemming survived the wreck. At the website you’ll also find some cool old photos of the ship, newspaper clippings and photos of the crewmen lost at sea. The Wikipedia entry for the Carl D Bradley is particularly good as well with a lot more details!
This trailer for November Requiem, a DVD about the Carl D Bradley, the impact on Rogers City and the dive to the Bradley:
PS: I added a new category that I somehow didn’t have already: Michigan shipwrecks – enjoy!
PPS: Apparently great minds this alike – check this out from today’s Interlochen Public Radio!