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The Wreck of the S.S. Milwaukee

When Lake Michigan storms claimed the Cream City ship

Feb. 16, 2014
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The Milwaukee Journal called the wicked northerly gale that pounded Lake Michigan on Oct. 22 1929, “The greatest freshwater blow in sixteen years.” The winds topped 50 miles per hour, lashing across miles of open lake, driving waves up to 20 feet and churning Milwaukee Bay into a frigid and terrible froth. As snow and hail pelted the city, crews quickly loaded the train ferry S.S. Milwaukee at her dock at the north end of the Kinnickinnic River.

The Milwaukee, captained by Robert “Bad Weather Bob” McKay, had just come through the storm, arriving earlier in the day from Grand Haven, Mich. After being loaded in Milwaukee, it was to head back to Grand Haven, but the weather had fouled considerably since the vessel’s morning arrival. At the dockworkers union headquarters on Milwaukee’s South Side, two crewmembers did not even bother to make their way to the dock. There was no chance, they thought, that Captain McKay would go out in such dangerous conditions.

But just past 3 p.m., to the amazement of her crew, the Milwaukee’s departure whistle sounded and the lumbering vessel slowly pushed away from its dock. Aboard were 52 crewmembers and more than $100,000 worth of cargo. The Milwaukee carried 27 fully loaded train cars in her hold, packed with everything from automobiles to bathtubs and cheese. As the ship headed through the outer harbor and past the confines of the breakwater walls, a group of men watched from the windows of the 10-story Elks Club building on Wisconsin Avenue. They saw the great ship tossed violently, nearly disappearing when it fell into the trough of the huge waves the storm had produced. One of the men asked another what chances he felt the boat had of surviving. “Fifty-fifty,” he replied.

The man’s assessment would prove to be optimistic. Three miles off shore, the Milwaukee passed a U.S. Coast Guard light ship, which later reported the boat to be pitching and rolling badly. Meanwhile, back at the port, the storm had so badly battered the breakwater wall that nearly 800 of the concrete barriers crumbled and sank to the lakebed. At about 3:45 p.m., the Milwaukee disappeared into the storm and was never seen again.

The next morning, all corners of Lake Michigan were assessing the brutal storm’s toll. Millions of dollars in damage were reported from across the region. Five ships were immediately known to be lost, with several more badly damaged or grounded. In Milwaukee, the breakwater was ruined and the clubhouse of the South Shore Yacht club was leveled. Ships long ago due in the city finally limped into port, hours behind schedule with crew and passengers grateful to have survived. 

The morning papers breathlessly reported on the damage wrought, but hardly mentioned the Milwaukee. The commander of the Grand Trunk Railroad fleet, owners of the Milwaukee, proclaimed his utter faith in McKay, citing his 50 years experience on the lake. “Capt. McKay is familiar with every nook and cove on Lake Michigan and he very likely has found one in which to ride out the storm,” he said.

But worries grew as the hours ticked by. By Oct. 24, as Wall Street fell into the tailspin soon to be known as “Black Thursday,” the Milwaukee was now 36 hours overdue. The S.S. Grand Rapids, another Grand Truck ferry, had by now arrived safely in Michigan, having left four hours after the Milwaukee and reporting no sight of the vessel. Later that day, the S.S. Cetus, a freighter bound for Milwaukee from Chicago, came upon gruesome wreckage just off Kenosha. One, then another and another appeared around the boat—dead men strapped into Milwaukee life vests. “All about us they were hovering,” the Cetus’ captain reported, “like tombstones in an ocean graveyard.”

Three bodies were pulled from the water near Kenosha. Another two were found near Chicago. Soon, great chunks of the doomed vessel were reported floating near various ports. On Saturday, a lifeboat was found off Holland, Michigan. It carried four frigid bodies, tied into the same lifejackets found on the others. An examination of the bodies determined they had died sometime on Friday, survivors of the wreck who died of exposure in the days that followed. Of the 52 men lost with the ship, only these nine were ever recovered.

The day after the discovery of the four bodies, another lifeboat was found near South Haven, Michigan. A waterproof case was the boat’s only occupant. Inside was a scrawled note: “The ship is making water fast,” it read in part. “We have turned around and headed for Milwaukee…Seas are tremendous. Things look bad. Crew roll is about the same as the last payday.”

Examination of the wreckage, located about three miles off of Fox Point in 1972, found that the wheel locks on the railcars likely failed in the rolling seas, causing several cars to slide violently to the starboard side and punch a hole in the ship’s storm gate. The hold chains used to secure the cars in times of rough seas were evidently never used. Divers reported them to be hanging on their storage racks to this day. With the ship taking water, the crew attempted to return to port, but the rushing waters were too much to overcome. The lifejackets and lifeboats found suggest an abandon ship order was given, but came too late to save the crew. The wreck of the ship sits today beneath about 115 feet of water. The railcars that doomed the Milwaukee still sit askew in its belly, buried with the ship and resting peacefully with its men.


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