The Light Keeper Hero of Passage Island Lighthouse and the Wreck of the Monarch
By Mikel B. Classen
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In the early days of settling the Lake Superior frontier, life was a constant battle with danger, a life-and-death situation could arise in the flash of a moment. This was particularly true when sailing the moody water of Lake Superior. Late-season travel was the most dangerous of all. From October through November, shipwrecks were common, loss of life, not unusual. It is during these situations that heroes show themselves.
In December of 1906, a passenger steamer named the Monarch left Port Arthur, Canada during what was beginning to be a blinding snowstorm. The ship carried 41 passengers bound for Sarnia, Ontario, which was on the southern tip of Lake Huron. The snow was thick and blinding. Visibility was only a few feet. The Captain of the ship, Edward Robertson, a 35 year veteran of the lakes, had been sailing on a compass heading as the surf began to build and the winds turned to a gale. Unsure of his position, the Captain ordered a check on what was known as the “log,” a cylinder that trailed behind the ship recording mileage.
Visibility was near zero, but a break in the blizzard showed a light in the distance. The mate on watch reported to the Captain that he had spotted the Passage Island Light. That simply couldn’t be. In the Captain’s estimation, there was no conceivable way that they had traveled that far. It was simply too soon. What was the light then?
The Monarch kept churning its way through the darkness and blinding snow. The propellers were churning hard, the Captain had hoped to outrun the storm front or at least break out of the blizzard. The Monarch was sailing at full speed when it hit the rocks. Water poured into the stern as seams broke from the impact.
Captain Robertson immediately assessed the desperate situation of his ship. He had to keep it afloat. If not and she slipped off the rocks, there was a good chance everyone would drown. He ordered the engines to be kept running at all costs. Water was pouring into the engine room, but the boilers were still fired and the crew did their best. With the propeller turning, the force kept the bow against the rocks.
It was now early morning and in the dim light, the Captain and crew could make out Blake’s Point on Isle Royale. They now knew their location and they could see the treacherous rock shoreline. The only way off the ship would be to run a line from the ship to the rocks on the shore. One of the crew, Watchman J. Jacques, volunteered to take one of the small lifeboats ashore to string a line. The lowered the boat and the surf was rough. It churned and tossed the boat but Jacques valiantly rowed to the rock shore. The waves rose and tossed slamming the little boat down on the rocks breaking it to splinters. Watchman Jacques was thrown into the water. Struggling was futile. He was Lake Superior’s now.
The crew and passengers watched as their companion was drowned. But there was no time to dwell on the loss. Time was running out and they still had to get off. A new plan was formed. Using a long rope and another volunteer, a deckhand, different sources give different names for who exactly it was, the volunteer would be tied to the rope, lowered to just above the surf and then swung to shore, hopefully close enough to grab onto one of the rocks and pull himself to shore.
Like a giant pendulum he was swung back and forth and when they thought he was close enough, he was released and they missed. He fell into the surf, only to be pulled back to the ship and out of the water. Again the swinging and again the release. Another miss.
He was hauled up for a third attempt and they started swinging again. Out the rope stretched, and it broke! The momentum carried the man towards the shore and by his fingertips, he was able to catch onto a rock. He pulled himself up, wet and cold. At least he was on the shore.
The crew on the ship, using a long ladder, ran a new line across and the deckhand had to then climb to the top of the rocky cliff that made up the shore. When he reached the top, he tied the rope to a tree and it was pulled tight. Now the passengers and crew had a way to safety as long as the ship stayed afloat.
The stern had submerged, but the bow clung to the rocks. The crew and passengers now had to go one at a time, hand over hand, above the rolling churning surf to the rocks on the shore. Each one made the dramatic crossing including one elderly woman.
One man, a watchman, grabbed the wrong line and went into the water. Quickly, Lake Superior claimed his life.
The rest made it successfully with the Captain waiting to be the last off his ship. The cold wet group huddled around each other at the top of the rocks. The group watched as the bow of the Monarch rose to a 50 degree angle and the unmanned engines finally quit. The stern broke and sank into the lake. The bow stayed where it was, the waves battering it mercilessly.
Now there were more pressing matters, staying alive. They began collecting driftwood for a fire. One of the passengers was carrying matches that were still usable. It wasn’t long and they had one started. The Captain hoped that the fire would signal any passing ships, though he knew that every day that passed, that hope would get slimmer. Theirs had been the last run of the season for the Monarch, few other ships would be passing this late in the year. Their situation was desperate.
A few miles away stood the Passage Island Lighthouse. The head light keeper, Mr. Shaw, could see the smoke of the fire from the light tower. He called his Assistant Light keeper, Klass Hamringa to help take bearings and to keep a watch on the smoke column to determine if it was stationary or moving. They came to the conclusion that it was stationary and probably a fire of some stranded fishermen.
They decided to keep watch on it. Lake Superior was still rough and the winds were still blowing a gale. The pair decided that when the lake calmed, one of them would go take a look.
The survivors of the Monarch were actively working to keep themselves alive. They gathered brush and branches and made a makeshift windbreak. Some flour and frozen salmon washed ashore from the wreck and they managed to get it ashore. The little food helped. They were in a dire situation. It was cold enough that a few feet away from the fire, fingers and ears could freeze. 41 people huddled around a fire trying to keep from freezing.
Four of the men knew of a hunting camp that was at Tobin Harbor, some 12 miles away. The four decided to strike out hoping to recover some food from the camp and maybe, if they were lucky, someone might be there to help. It was a long hard trek and when they got there, they found it deserted and by all appearances, it had been for a while. They did find some left behind provisions, but not many. They hiked back to the survivor camp and added the food to the community stores.
After two days, Lake Superior began to calm. The gale winds had abated some. The light keepers at Passage Island were still watching the smoke from the fire of the survivors. The pair decided that Lake Superior was calm enough that one of them could go to investigate thinking that some fishermen had gotten in trouble. It was against the rules of the Lighthouse Service to abandon the lighthouse completely so only one could go. Assistant Keeper Hamringa was the logical choice.
He readied the lighthouse’s rowboat and set out towards the smoke. Lake Superior was still rough and there was the sharp icy cold of winter still in the wind. He had packed himself some lunch and had the foresight to pack some wool blankets. He also insured himself that he had dry matches along. Hamringa knew in the back of his mind that there was the possibility that he himself could become shipwrecked.
Hamringa had been shipwrecked twice before. Once off the banks of Newfoundland and once while rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Now, he was always prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. He continued to row hard against the rolling waves. Snow squalls would still pass over obscuring his view and forcing him to keep the shore in sight. It was a four-mile row that took several hours to complete, but finally as he rowed around the rocks of Blake’s Point, he saw what was left of the Monarch.
The bow was still wedged between the rocks, covered with a layer of snow. Hamringa rowed the boat over where the stern should have been, the drop was so deep, he could see nothing of it. He moved his rowboat towards the shore. There was nowhere he could land due to the steep cliffs, so he kept the boat offshore. He shouted. There was no response, but he knew someone had kept a fire going for several days. He shouted again. There was movement on the rock bluff above.
The stranded passengers and crew of the Monarch weren’t expecting help. They were huddled together around a smoky fire. They had constructed a crude shelter out of spruce and balsam branches and they were beginning to suffer frostbite. Though the weather had subsided, it didn’t help their situation. Then they heard the shouts from light keeper Hamringa.
They ran to the top of the ridge yelling and waving handkerchiefs and hats. Hamringa responded yelling and waving back. He didn’t have room to take every one. He shouted up to them, “Is there one of you than can row a boat? We’ll go back to the lighthouse and bring back help!”
The group talked amongst themselves and the purser of the Monarch, Mr. Beaumont, volunteered. There are two differing stories about how the purser got to Hamringa. The first was that Beaumont was lowered down the ice-covered face of the rock by the survivors above. He waited until he was within jumping distance of the rowboat and was able to land inside.
The other version has Beaumont jumping into the water and swimming to the side of the rowboat while Hamringa pulled him in.
However he got there, light keeper Hamringa was able to get him wrapped in blankets and they began the long row back to the Passage Island Light. Beaumont was given the lunch that Hamringa had packed. Several hours later, they made it back.
Mr. Shaw, the head light keeper spotted a steamer named the Edmonton which had just left Port Arthur and was able to signal it with the fog signal. The Edmonton hove to and Shaw and Hamringa took Beaumont out to it. The captain listened to Beaumont’s tale of the shipwreck and explained how many people were still left out there.
Realizing that a ship of that size wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the wreck site, the captain turned his ship back towards Port Arthur to get help. Shaw and Hamringa went back to their lighthouse, Beaumont went with the Edmonton.
Arri ving back in Port Arthur, the captain of a tug named the James Whalen, was roused from his bed. He was sick, but when he heard of the predicament of the Monarch survivors, he jumped to the emergency. Loading extra coal, 20 tons; blankets, food, medical supplies, and two doctors the tug was loaded for rescue.
The sail to Isle Royale was long and rough but as the day passed, the weather was favorable.
The James Whalen was a large stable tug that was frequently used as an ice breaker. As they pulled into the rocky site of the Monarch wreck, the tossing surf forced the captain to hold the tug offshore. Seeing no one the Whalen sounded its whistle four times.
At the top of the ridge, figures could be seen floundering in the snow above as the passengers and crew of the Monarch ran towards the sound of the whistle. As the survivors watched, the tug moved around to the lee side of Blake’s Point and lowed its lifeboats, landing a party on the shore. They hiked from there to the survivors who were rapidly making their way to them, slipping through the snow and tumbling over the deadfalls.
They were taken on board and fed hot food and were covered with blankets. The doctors went around treating frostbite in several of the survivor’s feet and hands. They had all survived, including the elderly lady that had been a passenger. She was complimented as the “best man of the party.” Several passengers expressed regret that they hadn’t saved their one and only axe that had kept the 41 people alive through the harsh weather. It would have made an interesting souvenir. They had been stranded on Isle Royale for 4 brutal long days. If they hadn’t been rescued when they were, there would have been much more loss of life and certainly the frostbite would have led to loss of limbs.
Klaus Hamringa, the light keeper that rowed to the party was given a commendation for valor from the Lighthouse Service. His heroism did not go unnoticed. He would again be instrumental in saving survivors of another shipwreck several years later when he was transferred to Au Sable Point Lighthouse.
When the need arises, heroes show themselves. They rise up unknowing to themselves and do what has to be done, regardless of their own safety and well-being. Heroes, they surround us today as they have in our past, and every day, another is revealed.
If you enjoyed reading this story, you’ll find plenty of others just as compelling in my book True Tales: The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is available in paperback, hardcover, eBook, and audiobook editions.