Sad Christmas On Basswood Island
On Christmas Eve, 1893, a young mother lost her life in a blizzard on the ice of Lake Superior.
We don’t know too much about this woman, except for the events surrounding her death. We don’t even know her full name, since newspapers of the time referred to married women by their husband’s names: “Mrs. John Smith.”
What we do know is that she lived on Basswood Island, in the Apostles chain, with her husband and two small children. Her husband, Dan McCrea, was a quarryman- one of some thirty or so who worked on the island year-round. Originally from Canada, the family had lived on Basswood about a year. Most of the Bass Island Brownstone Company workers carried Irish names, and it’s a safe guess that Mrs. McCrea’s background was Irish as well.
Unidentified women at quarry
On the morning of December 24, 1893, Mrs. McCrea joined two of her neighbors from the little quarry village to walk across the ice to Bayfield. The goal of their trip: Christmas presents for the kids. But with Mr. McCrea at home to mind the children, the excursion must have been a welcome break in the island wife’s winter routine, too. Ever since the railroad came to Bayfield, the shops carried goods from all over; not only that, but there would be a chance to see some different faces and hear news from the outside world.
At three that afternoon, their shopping done, the trio started back toward Basswood. The trip should have gone quickly enough- it was only three miles- but the weather changed suddenly. A blinding blizzard enveloped the party, and they lost all trace of their route. Confused and pummeled by the blizzard, they wandered for hours on the frozen lake, getting nowhere. Finally, giving up hope of reaching the island, they scraped a makeshift shelter out of snow, then huddled on the ice to wait for a break in the storm.
Back at their cabin, Dan McCrea must have grown worried as darkness fell. Hours passed, and still no sign of his wife. He surely ached to go out and search for her, but could not leave the children. The older was just two, the baby only four months. Finally, taking a lantern and a compass, McCrea set out onto the lake.
Tragically, he missed the spot where his wife and neighbors waited. He walked all the way to Bayfield, hoping that he’d find her there, waiting out the storm. Receiving instead the unwelcome news that she’d left hours ago, he headed back toward the island. It was on the way back that McCrea found them. Cold and exhausted, the lost party was barely a mile from safety. His wife was in the worst condition of the three, too weak to walk. He picked her up and began carrying her homeward. Fate was cruel, though: before they reached Basswood’s shore, she died in his arms.
On the day after Christmas, Dan McCrea brought his wife to the mainland one last time. Leaving the baby with a neighbor, the widowed father and the two-year-old boarded a train, heading for a graveyard back home in Canada. Come spring they’d return, and Dan would get back to work.
If you live in the Midwest, there’s a good chance that your nearest Big City has an old courthouse, department store, or other public building made from Lake Superior brown sandstone. Next time you pass it by, take a moment and remember the men who worked in the quarries, cutting that stone, and the women and children who faced island life alongside them.
And if you ever spend a night at one of the National Park Service campsites on Basswood Island’s south end, look around in the brush and notice the low berms and shallow pits that still mark the foundations of the quarry workers’ cabins. Maybe some day the NPS will get around to marking these spots, but until such time, seek them out, and contemplate them with the reverence they merit.