Wreck of the S.S. Myron – Trial and Tragedy

Wreck of the S.S. Myron – Trial and Tragedy

Historical photo of S.S. Myron before the wreck.

The Myron is seen fully loaded with sheets of veneer. It was loaded similarly when it sank.

November Victims

The Trial and Tragedy of The Steamer Myron

By Mikel B. Classen

True Tales: The Forgotten HIstory of Michigan's Upper Peninsula - audiobook coverYou can listen to this story on the audio slider below.  This story and many other great ones like it are available on my audiobook True Tales: The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula available from Audible.com and iTunes (no subscription required!)

There have been many tragedies across the Great Lakes over the years, especially in the month of November, but few have as strange and grim a story as that of the “Myron.” One of the reasons for this is there were witnesses and a survivor.  Few accounts are as complete and controversial as this one. From a November gale, to a ship in distress, a rescue effort that failed and a maritime hearing for “Criminal Behavior” on the parts of would-be rescuers, this stands in the annals of shipwreck history as one the most unusual.

On November 22, 1919, the small steamer Myron set out from Munising, Michigan on its way to Buffalo, NY with a load of lumber. In tow was a schooner barge named the Miztec. Many of the old schooners had been refitted as barges and towing them behind a lead ship was common practice. These “barges” required a small crew and this one was no exception, there were 7 men aboard and 17 crewed the Myron. The Captain of the Myron was a seasoned veteran named Walter R. Neal.

About two hours out a nasty November Gale blew up. The waves built and began to pound on the two ships mercilessly. Captain Neal steamed his ship as hard as he could eastward battling the ever-rising surf. The beating slowly caused the seams in the hull to begin separating and she started taking on water.  She became heavier and unable to crest the waves. Then it started to snow.

The temperature began to fall. It was quickly becoming the deadliest of situations. Ice began to build up on both ships, changing their center of gravity making them unstable.

Not far away was a ship named the Adriatic. Captain McRae had been watching the smaller ships and realized they were in obvious trouble. He brought his 420-foot ship around, steamed in close and attempted to shield the Myron and Miztec.  He paced them trying to keep them in the lee of the wind and surf.

Historical photo of the schooner Miztec before it sank the S.S. Myron.

The Schooner Miztec before it collided with the S.S. Myron. The wreck was near Whitefish Point.

At Vermillion Point, Captain Neal made a decision. If they were ever going to reach Whitefish Point, they would have to do it without the Miztec. This was a good sound decision. Now the Miztec would be free to weather the storm on its own without being tethered to the Myron. Captain Neal ordered the tow rope released and continued on without her. The Miztec dropped anchor, put its bow to the waves and miraculously survived the storm.

The Myron pushed on with the Adriatic still shadowing it. A lookout at the Vermillion Life Saving Station spotted the two ships and sounded the alarm. The life-saving crew scrambled and launched their motor-powered surf boats into the teeth of the November gale. It was what they do. None of them believed the Myron would ever make Whitefish Point. None of them believed the crew could survive Lake Superior’s wrath. They chased the Myron in a desperate race to save the crew’s lives. The Coast Guardsmen didn’t make it in time.

About a mile and a half from Whitefish Point water reached the Myron’s boilers and she lost all power. The powerless, swamped ship dropped onto a deep trough of water releasing the cargo of lumber into the water. Everyone knew this was the end for the Myron. The crew scrambled to the lifeboats and were successful in releasing and launching them just before the doomed ship went under. Captain Neal stayed on board.

Floating around the lifeboats  was an immense field of wreckage from the steamer and its cargo. The crewmen worked to get away from it but they were completely surrounded. The lifeboats were trapped within. Darkness was fast closing in and so was hypothermia.

Captain McRae moved the Adriatic towards the lifeboats. The ship rose and fell in the troughs of the Lake Superior waves. Beneath his feet, the Captain felt the Adriatic hit bottom. Then she hit again. McRae turned the ship about and refused to make another attempt in fear his ship would run aground.

In the distance, another ship had been watching the unfolding disaster. The H.P. McIntosh, an even bigger ship than the Adriatic, saw the Adriatic fail and decided they might be able to make it. Through the rough seas it plowed and pushed its way through the wreckage. The Myron‘s crew watched with hope as Captain Lawrence maneuvered his ship close enough to throw ropes out to the freezing crewmen. Cold and numb they reached out for the lines. They couldn’t hang on to them. Their limbs were too cold and the effort failed. Also fearing for his ship Captain Lawrence withdrew and headed for open water.

The Vermillion Coast Guard Life Savers had now caught up with the Myron and attempted to reach the survivors. The floating mass of spars and lumber churning in the gale driven surf kept them too far away. They too could not complete a rescue. The two lifeboats of half frozen men was left to their fate. They all died!

The bodies of the crew were found frozen in lifejackets. They were covered in ice and in horrible grotesque shapes. The ones recovered immediately were sent to the Soo and a funereal home where they had to thaw the bodies out by a fire. The next spring, eight of them were discovered frozen into shore ice at Salt Point north of Bay Mills. They were chipped out of the ice and buried at Mission Hill Cemetery in Bay Mills.

Two days after the Myron sank, near Parisienne Island, a survivor was discovered. The H.C Franz was sailing Whitefish Bay looking for bodies when they came across the Myron‘s Pilot House still floating. Clinging to it was Captain Neal. As the Myron sank the pilot house tore loose and Neal had been able to climb through one of the windows and had been floating ever since. Nearly frozen, but still alive, his hands had swelled so bad, two rings he was wearing were no longer visible on his fingers, he was rescued and brought back to the Soo.

When he had recovered, he accused the Captains of the Adriatic and the H.P. McIntosh of criminal behavior over their failures to rescue his crew. A hearing was held by the Steamboat Inspection Service to look into the accusations.

In the hearing Captain Neal testified about his own experience. “I was clinging to the roof of the pilot house when the McIntosh hailed me shortly after the Myron went down from under me. The McIntosh drew alongside me, not more than 16 feet away. Although it was dusk, the ship was so close that I had no difficulty in making out her name. I talked to the Captain and expected that he would put out a yawl and pick me up. He did not do so, nor attempt in any way to help me. ‘I will have a boat sent for you,’ the Captain of the McIntosh called. And he drew away. I have never seen him since, nor do I ever want to see him, by the great hokey pokey.”

Captain Neal’s accusations stuck and the Steamboat Inspection Service revoked the licenses of both captains for life for “failure to render aid and assistance.”   Many felt this penalty was too stiff because of the efforts that were made, but it appears there was never an appeal. Captain Neal would sail again.

In a strange coincidence, the Miztec, the schooner barge that survived the ordeal, would sink two years later in nearly the same location as that of the Myron

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.

The grave of a shipwreck crew near Lake Superior.

This is the grave of the crew of the S.S. Myron at Mission Hill in Bay Mills. Those that were found washed ashore are buried here.

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