The Day The Ships Went Down

Originally published in
, July-August, 2007



For the love of God, don't leave us!

The cry rang out from the deck of the freighter Sevona, split in half and sinking on a shoal in the early morning hours of Sept 2, 1905... a day when two great ships foundered among Lake Superior's Apostle Islands, with the loss of twelve lives.

Two lighthouse keepers watched these ships go down, each from his own tower. One battled raging surf to save five sailors, but the other?

We'll probably never know just what he did.



The Sevona, shortly before its loss


The Sevona

The weather forecast had been fair when the Sevona left the Allouez ore docks, near Superior, the previous evening. Headed for Erie, Pennsylvania, the steel-hulled steamship carried 6,000 tons of iron ore, as well as a handful of passengers. All told, there were twenty-four souls aboard, including four women.

Built in 1890, the Sevona was one of the largest ships on the lake at the time of her launching, at exactly 300 feet, but nonetheless, in the competitive Great Lakes shipping environment, pressure grew to carry more and more cargo. In early 1905, the Sevona entered drydock, to be cut in half and lengthened by 72 feet.

Her master, Capt. Donald MacDonald, had many years of experience on salt water and fresh. He also had every reason to be prudent: he'd been shipwrecked himself, long ago, off the coast of Ireland; only he and one other man survived.


Schooner on the rocks


The Pretoria

Among the other ships to leave the Allouez docks that day were a tandem pair, the Venezuela and the Pretoria. The Venezuela was a steamship; her consort, Pretoria, was a wooden-hulled "schooner barge" designed primarily to be towed by a steamer, but carrying enough sail that she could manage on her own when necessary. Her owner and designer, James Davidson, was well-known as a master of wooden boat construction; at a time when other shipwrights were turning to steel, Davidson's work in wood still inspired awe.

To many observers, the Pretoria was Davidson's masterpiece. She was gigantic, by the standards of the day, one of the largest wooden vessels ever to sail Lake Superior. A newspaper account of her launch in 1900 actually described her as the largest wooden boat ever built. Though this claim is subject to dispute, it is undeniable that that at 338 feet, the Pretoria was actually larger than the steel Sevona had been when built. Her master, Capt. Charles Smart, had such faith in the vessel that he declared he'd rather sail her on her own through any storm, rather than rely on a tow.

Lake Superior would soon give Capt. Smart an opportunity to test that claim.


Off Sand Island

The weather began to worsen a few hours after the Sevona set out. As midnight passed, a full gale was blowing; seas grew rapidly, and waves crashed across the freighter's bow. At 2 am, some 70 miles out of Superior, Capt. MacDonald changed course to turn for the shelter of the Apostle Islands. That decision, though prudent, would doom his ship.

Slowing to half-speed, the Sevona made its way blindly through the rain and wind. No radar in those days, no GPS, no depth sounders. Not even a lighthouse might be seen in these conditions. Captain Macdonald would have to rely on his years of experience and his knowledge of the lake to keep his ship safe; away from the rocks and shoals of the Apostle Islands.

His skills would fail him.



Home | About Bob | Writing | Blog | Newfoundland Dogs | Speaking Schedule | Resources Stetson

All content copyright Bob Mackreth 1988-2013, unless otherwise noted.