The Wreck and Rescue of the Steamship L.C. Waldo in the Great Storm of 1913
Storms on the Great Lakes have always been legendary, particularly those that occur in November. In 1913 there was possibly the worst storm of them all. An early winter storm with the force of a hurricane swept across the Great Lakes between November 7 and the 9th. In those three days, 17 ships were destroyed, 11 with all hands and nearly 250 sailors were lost. Six ships were wrecked on Lake Superior. This is the story of one of them and a harrowing rescue attempt by the Life Saving Service, the wreck of the steamship, L.C. Waldo.
The steamship Waldo set sail on November 7 from Two Harbors, Minnesota, heading for Cleveland full of iron ore. The ship was approaching the Keweenaw Peninsula when it ran into the storm. Things got bad almost immediately, the heavily loaded ship began taking a beating. During the night, around midnight, monster waves struck the ship and tore away the pilot house. The captain, John Duddleson, was nearly killed, but was able to make it to the lower pilot house. The waves had damaged the steering gear and washed away their compass. The electrical system was also out.
Duddleson was determined to save his foundering ship. From the lower wheelhouse, he brought the ship under some control. Using a lifeboat compass lying on a stool, lit by a dim lantern, he attempted to bring the Waldo around to the lee side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. This seemed to be working and they sailed for about 4 hours all the while Lake Superior continued its pounding until it washed into the rear deckhouse. Most of the crew fled to the forward windlass room. The engine room crew were the only ones remaining.
Things were about to get much worse. At around 4 am on the 8th, they hit Gull Rock with the engine churning as hard as it could in the tremendous storm. Gull Rock is at the very tip of the Keweenaw near Manitou Island. The front end rode up on the large granite outcrop and lodged there. A crack appeared on the deck, indicating the possibility that the ship could crack in half sending the rear of the Waldo into the depths of Superior. One of the pipes that controlled the heat burst leaving the Waldo without heat. The storm had brought with it below freezing temperatures and now they were in danger of freezing to death. The engine room crew joined the rest in the Windlass Room.
The entire crew was now huddled together in one room, 22 men, 2 women and a dog. Their situation was dire. There was no food and their clothes were soaked. No one had grabbed any supplies in their haste to find safety. The Chief Engineer, Albert Lembke came up with an idea.
The crew wrestled a tub from the captain’s quarters into the windlass room. They turned it upside down and propped up an end. Then they took fire buckets, popped holes in the bottoms and created a crude stove pipe which they attached to the tub drain. After breaking up whatever they could find that would burn, the crew got a fire going. They all then rotated being near the warmth, staving off hypothermia. The captain had the crew not near the fire, exercise to keep body warmth until their turn at the heat. One of the members refused to help and changed his mind when he wasn’t allowed near the heat.
All the while the crew was trying to survive, the waves continued to pound the ship fueled by 70 mile an hour winds. The spray from the breaking waves was encasing the ship in a layer of ice. Over time the Waldo could become a large block of ice with a ship inside. The crew’s chances looked bleak at best.
Another steamer, the George Stephenson, spotted the Waldo during a break in the blinding snow and saw the Waldo’s distress flag. The Stephenson sailed on through the blinding storm and was able to reach Bete Gris. There they lowered a lifeboat and the first mate of the Stephenson went ashore. It wasn’t an easy task. Even “sheltered” as it was, the furious storm was still being felt. Rough as it was, he reached shore. The blizzard conditions continued as he hiked eight miles to the town of Delaware. From there he was able to find a phone. He then called the Eagle Harbor Light Keeper and told the keeper about the Waldo. The keeper signaled the life saving station which was across the harbor from the lighthouse.
Immediately the life saving crew went into action. The lifesavers had two surfboats at Eagle Harbor. The largest of the two was 36 feet long but it had been having engine trouble and it wasn’t fixed. It wouldn’t start so they went out in a smaller boat.
An onlooker who watched, Dave Kingston, was reported to have said, “Boys, you better wire Washington to send another crew. You’ll never see that one again. That little boat will never survive in this storm.”
It was 32 miles to the Waldo through the teeth of the storm. The wind, snow and spray from Lake Superior took its toll quickly. After 8 miles of brutal weather, they were forced to turn back. The surf boat was becoming a block of ice. Steering had become difficult and they were in danger of dying themselves. The man in charge, Captain Tucker, saw his men frozen to the seats of the boat. He gave the order to turn back. It grated on him, Lifesavers weren’t supposed to give up but he saw his chances of reaching the Waldo in the small boat were none. It was the only decision he could make.
When they got back to Eagle Harbor. The life saving crew needed to be chipped out of the ice to release them from the surf boat, their life jackets and their clothes. Everything had thick layers of ice on it. The trip had been torturous but they weren’t giving up.
Tucker ordered one of his surfmen, Anthony Glaza, to go to work on the large surfboat engine. After a few hours he had it working. The Eagle Harbor Lifesavers were going to try it again. They launched the boat into the raging water of Lake Superior and set out for the Waldo.
Meanwhile, when the first mate from the Stephenson called the Eagle Harbor Lifesaving Station, he also called the Portage Lifesaving Station, the next one down the line, west of Houghton. The crew would have 60 miles to reach the Waldo in the same kind of impossible surf that the Eagle Harbor crew ran into. They decided to try a different route, one that was safer, but would add 20 long miles to the journey, 80 miles total. It was decided to try the longer route.
The captain of the Portage crew, Thomas McCormick, was able to enlist the aid of a tug, the Daniel L. Hebard and had the tug tow the lifeboat with the lifesaving crew aboard. They were towed through the Portage Canal and then into the Keweenaw Bay and up the lee side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The trip was rough. Though they were on the leeside, the waves and wind still pounded them.
The ice built up on the lifeboat and was heavy enough the boat was listing. Waves washed over them and the pumps froze up. The crew had been blowing out the water that the waves were depositing in the boat, but now they stopped. They had to chip out the ice to get it running again all the while being tossed about by the hurricane force winds. It took them 14 hours to reach the tip of the Keweenaw where the Waldo was stuck. The life boat was released and the tug Hebard chugged into Keystone Bay and waited.
It had been 92 hours since the Waldo had wrecked and the storm still raged. One of the crew members wrote: “We saw a grotesque ghostly shape top a wave, poise on its crest for a moment, then sink out of sight. As the wave slipped under it and it went racing on, the object again came into view, it was nearer and the mystery was explained, and with understanding the watchers felt warming blood leap into their chilled veins.”
It was an ice covered boat with a life saving service emblem still visible on the bow. The crew of the Waldo had nearly froze and starved. They had resigned themselves that the Waldo would be their tomb. Now, suddenly, they had been handed hope.
The lifesavers ahoyed the Waldo. The ice encased crew responded that the life savers should stand by while the Waldo crew chipped themselves out of the ice encasing the ship. While the Portage Lifesavers were standing by, the Eagle Harbor Life Savers arrived. Also covered with ice, they had endured the unendurable. But they still had a job to do.
Though the storm was abating, the Waldo laid out in the open and Lake Superior was still pounding at her. Since the Waldo was on Gull Rock, she was surrounded by rocks which the lifesavers would have to navigate. A John Beck of the Eagle Harbor crew put his life at risk and jumped onto the ice covered Waldo. He was then able to secure a line to the lifeboat.
Finally the crew chipped their way out and the Portage life boat made a run at the Waldo through the crashing waves. A rope or rope ladder, (accounts vary on this point) hung from the side of the Waldo. The life boat rose in the swells and when the boat rose on a swell, a man would come aboard either by ladder or jumping in the water and then pulled aboard. They picked up ten men. When they were through, the Eagle harbor boat came aside and did the same thing. They took aboard the rest of the crew, 12 men, two women and the dog. The crew of the Waldo was off the ship.
Of the Waldo Crew, Surfman A.F Glaza commented, “Some had towels wrapped around their heads. And some were wearing socks for mittens. The majority had neither. We put our mackinaws and caps on them until we could get them to the tug. The women cried for joy when we wrapped them in warm blankets and when we put them on the tug they offered up a prayer of thanks giving and asked the blessing of heaven upon our captain and his crew.”
Both boats made a run for the bay where the tug Hebard was waiting. The tug had food and heat. They headed back to Houghton. The Eagle Harbor lifesavers began the long haul back again battling the remnants of one of the biggest storms to ever hit the Great Lakes. They would even encounter another wreck on their way back, but the crew had managed to get to shore by themselves. Their boat would make it but by the time they were back it was leaking badly. They had traveled 70 miles in the worst storm known to man.
The Portage Crew was again towed behind the tug as the crew was returned to Houghton. They had made a run 160 miles total, rescued the crew of the Waldo and suffered no casualties. It was nothing short of a miracle.
For their heroism, both life saving crews would be awarded a medal of honor by the Treasury Department. It took nearly a year, but the Waldo would be pulled off from Gull Rock and be salvaged, eventually repaired and returned to service in the Great Lakes as a ship called the Riverton.
The Houghton Mining Gazette had this to say about the rescue: “Every member of the crew praises the work of Captain Tucker and Captain McCormick and their life saving crews. They all say that it was the dangerous sort of attempt to come up to the Waldo in the terrific sea that was running and they praise the coolness and skill of the life savers in getting the crew into the lifeboats without a mishap.”
For more information on the Eagle Harbor Life Saving Service go here: Eagle Harbor Lifesaving Station (keweenawhistory.org)