On 27 April 1865 the steamboat Sultana carrying recently released Union army prisoners of war exploded on the Mississippi River resulting in 1800 deaths. It is regarded as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.
The steamboat was already in dire need of repairs before it departed on 24 April from Vicksberg, Mississippi. Sultana’s captain and part owner, J. Cass Mason, was told a proper repair would take days. However the War Department was paying $5 for every enlisted man and $10 for each officer. Not wanting to miss a big payday, Mason ordered temporary patches and filled the steamboat with as many officers and enlisted that he could. Thanks to a corrupt Union Army quartermaster, 2,400 enlisted and officers were steered to a ship that was rated to carry only 376. Its decks began to sag and needed reinforcement before it departed for Cairo, Illinois its final destination.
After unloading cargo in Memphis, Tennessee the Sultana appeared top heavy. The boilers were forced to work hard against the current and swollen Mississippi River. Sometime around 0200 on 27 April three boilers exploded instantly killing many. The explosion caused massive holes and flaming debris that included hot coal that came raining down back on the ship. The Sultana erupted into flames. Frantic Union Army soldiers jumped overboard but many were weakened by being prisoners of war. Some clung to debris, and so many clamored to get on a lifeboat after it was lowered that it sank. Bodies would be found far down river and in trees.
Sadly other historical events, such as the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and the capture of John Wilkes Booth pushed this news story aside. It never got the attention it should have.
While overcrowding and corruption are considered the reasons for the disaster, some claim sabotage by Confederate agents using a coal torpedo. Some evidence, such as testimony of eyewitnesses, suggests its possibility. However more recent examinations such as done on History Detectives shows it more likely a disaster caused by overloading a ship that was already in dire need of repair.
The 2019 holiday season will start off with a colorful bang in Pigeon Forge as the Titanic Museum Attraction hosts its sixth-annual fireworks show. According to a release from the attraction, the show is the largest fireworks display on the Smoky Mountain Parkway. The event is free and will be staged at the entrance of the Titanic Museum. Visitors are encouraged to bring cameras.
The vessel was launched in 1929 and helped manoeuvre the world’s greatest ocean liners before being renamed HMS Calshot ahead of the D-Day landings on June 6 1944. She transported sections of the famous Mulberry harbours to France and also served as a “non-assault HQ ship”. But the former Red Funnel vessel is slowly deteriorating and needs to moved ashore. A trust spokesman said: “The Visit Southampton website says ‘Southampton is widely recognised as the cruise capital of Europe and welcomes more than two million passengers to the city each year’. “These passengers often have family or friends who would welcome the opportunity of visiting Calshot – The Titanic Tribute Ship.
There have been many other shipwrecks on Lake Superior over the years. Many other mammoth November storms. Many other lives lost. But thanks in large part to singer Gordon Lightfoot, one shipwreck stands above the rest in the Great Lakes’ collective memory: the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Scott was with a team of Americans and Canadians who in 1995 traveled to the site of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s watery grave. Their mission was simple: collect the bell on top of the pilot’s house, replace it with a replica that featured the engraved names of the 29 crewmen who perished in the shipwreck, and bring the old bell to the surface to be displayed as a memorial at Whitefish Point.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior on 10 Nov 1975 taking with her a crew of 29. The ship was launched in 1958 and was owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. As a freighter, the ship primarily carried taconite iron ore to iron works in various Great Lake ports. The ship set records for hauling ore during its career.
On 9 Nov 1975, the Fitzgerald under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley, embarked on her final voyage of the season fron Superior, Wisconsin to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. She met up with another freighter, SS Arthur Anderson, while enroute. The next day a severe winter storm hit with near hurricane force winds and waves that reached 35 feet in height. Sometime around or after 7:11 p.m., the Fitzgerald sank in Canadian waters approximately 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While McSorley had reported difficulty earlier, his last message was “We are holding our own.”
The cause of the sinking has stirred debate and controversy with competing theories and books on the issue. The various theories are:
(1) Inaccurate weather forecasting. The National Weather Service forecast had said the storm would pass south of Lake Superior but instead it tracked across the eastern part, exactly where the Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur Anderson were. So they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(2) Inaccurate navigational charts. The Canadian charts in use came from 1916 and 1919 surveys and did not include more updated information that Six Fathom Shoal was about 1 mile further east than shown.
(3)No Watertight Bulkheads
The ship did not have watertight bulkheads and more like barges rather than freighters. So a serious puncture could sink a vessel like Fitzgerald while ships that had such bulkheads, even if seriously damaged, had a better chance of survival.
(4)Lack of Sounding and Other Safety Instruments Fitzgerald lacked the ability to monitor water depth using a fathometer( a device that uses echo sounding to determine water depth). The only way the Fitz could do soundings was using a hand line and counting the knots to measure water depth. Nor was there any way to monitor if water was in the hold or not (some was always present reports suggest)unless it got high enough to be noticed by the crew. However on that night, the severity of the storm made it difficult to access the hatches from the spar deck. And if the hold was full of bulk cargo, it was virtually impossible to pump out the water.
(5)Increased Cargo Loads Meant Ship Was Sitting Lower In Water
The load line had been changed in 1969, 1971, and 1973 with U.S. Coast Guard approval. This resulted in Fitzgerald’s deck being only 11.5 feet above the water when she faced massive 35 foot waves on that day. She was carrying 4,0000 more tons than what she was designed to carry. Which meant the buoyancy of the ship was an issue who fully loaded resulting in reports the ship was sluggish, slower, and reduced recovery time.
The US National Transportation and Safety Board believes that prior groundings caused undetected damage that led to major structural failure during the storm. Since most Great Lakes vessels were only inspected in drydock once every five years, such damage would not have been easily detected otherwise. Concerns have also been raised that Captain McSorley did not keep up with routine maintenance. Photographic evidence indicates the hull was patched in places and the failure of the U.S. Coast Guard to take corrective action is also an issue considering that various things were not properly maintained.
Captain McSorley rarely pulled his ship into a safer harbor to ride out a storm. Nor did he heed a warning from the U.S. Coast Guard issued at 3:35 p.m. to seek safe anchorage. Possible pressure from ship owners to deliver cargo on time is considered a factor for some captains like McSorley to ride out storms rather seek safe anchorages. The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board concluded that complacency is a major factor in what happened to Fitzgerald and generally a problem for Great Lakes shipping. Critics point out the Coast Guard failed in its own tasks of properly requiring those repairs and lacked the means to rescue ships in distress on the Great Lakes.
The wreck was found on 14 Nov 1975 using technology to find sunken submarines. The U.S. Navy dived to the wreck in 1976 using an unmanned submersible. The wreck was found to be in two pieces with taconite pellets in the debris field. Jacques Cousteau dived to it in 1980 and speculated it had broken up on the surface. A three day survey dive in 1989 organized by the Michigan Sea Grant Program was done to record the wreck for use in museum educational programs. It drew no conclusions as to the cause of the sinking. Canadian explorer Joseph MacInnis led six publicly funded dives over three days in 1994 to take pictures. Also that year sport diver Fred Shannon and his Deepquest Ltd did a serious of dives and took more than 42 hours of underwater video. Shannon discovered when studying the navigational charts that the international boundary had changed three times. GPS coordinates showed the wreck was actually in Canadian waters because of an error in the boundary line shown on official lake charts. MacInnis went back to the wreck in 1995 to salvage the bell and it was financed by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. A replica bell and a beer can were put on Fitzgerald. Scuba divers Terrence Tysall and Mike Zee used trimix gas to dive to the wreck and set records for deepest scuba dive on Great Lakes. They were the only divers to get to the wreck without a submersible.
The wreck is now restricted under the Ontario Heritage Act and has been further amended that a license is required for dives, submersibles, side scan sonar surveys and even using underwater cameras in the designated protected area. And they added a steep fine of 1 million Canadian dollars for violating the act.
Fitzgerald was valued at $24 million. Two widows filed suit seeking $1.5 million from the owners and operators of the ship. The owners filed to reduce to limit their liability. However the claims never went to trial as the company paid compensation to the surviving families who signed confidentiality agreements. It is believed the owners and operator wanted to avoid a court case where McSorley was found negligent as well as the operator and owner. Changes to Great Lakes shipping did occur such as requiring fathometers in ships above a certain tonnage, survival suits, locating systems for ships (LORAN originally now GPS), emergency beacons, better wave predictions, and annual inspections of ships in the fall to inspect hatch and vent closures.
Annual memorials take place though the one made famous by Gordon Lightfoot, the Mariners Church in Detroit, now honors all who perished on the Great Lakes.
1. First Titanic, then Empress: an Irish Man’s Lucky Escapes
There are those that survive not one but two major disasters in their lifetime. Such is the case with William Clark of Greenore, County Louth, Ireland. He was reportedly in the Boer War. In 1912 he signed on as a fireman on Titanic and listed Southampton as his home. He was one of the few fireman to survive Titanic and was in lifeboat 15.
How he escaped he does not know. He was caught in the swirl of waters as the vessel plunged down – dragged down into the ocean depths with the crippled leviathan as she sank to her last resting place. Even then his abnormal luck did not desert him. He never thought to come up again, but the force of the boiler explosion lifted him and rushed him up to the surface. He struck out vigorously; was pulled aboard one of the boats, and came home to tell the tale.
Then in 1914 he was a fireman on Empress of Ireland when tragedy would strike there as well. On 29 May 1914, the ship collided with the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad in the Saint Louis River at Pointe-au-Père, Quebec. Unlike Titanic which took over two hours to sink, Empress of Ireland would sink quickly resulting in over 1,000 deaths. Clark escaped but his description shows how harrowing it was:
His lifeboat station was No. 5, and somehow or other he got there, but he cannot remember how she was launched. His mind is a blank concerning some of those awful moments spent on the canting decks of the doomed liner. They had to crawl on hands and knees on the sloping hull in order to get the boat clear, and then their best chance of escape was to plunge into the water in the hope of being able to scramble aboard. Clark was drawn under several times before he got into the boat, and afterwards, he said, they were able to pull about sixty men into her.
2.Irish firm’s virtual reality Titanic trip to launch on PlayStation (Irish Times, 15 Nov 2018) Irish firm VR Education’s virtual reality trip on the Titanic is set for launch on Sony’s PlayStation later this month. Titanic VR puts players aboard the doomed vessel the night it hit an iceberg and sank in April 1912. It will be available from November 22nd. The Titanic experience has already been launched on PC, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality. But the company said it expects the PlayStation VR version to drive sales, replicating the experience of its Apollo 11 VR showcase.
I last wrote about SS Duke of Lancaster back in 2014 when Douglas Wooley was contemplating its use for Titanic. Nothing came of that and a long series of legal challenges have continued with the former luxury ship beached near Mostyn Docks on River Dee. It still sits rusting away despite plans to use it as a floating leisure and retail complex. A new idea has emerged, reports iNews, of using the ship for “Zombie Experiences.”
Expected to open next year (no doubt in time for Halloween), the ship will be used to allow thrill seekers to roam about and of course encounter zombies in the process. Actors are being sought now to play certain roles, from zombies to doctors, as the ship will be overrun by zombies. It will apparently only be open weekends. Zombie Infection, the company behind it, promises it will bring new glory to this old ships.
“The impressive ocean liner has seen its fair share of disappointment, so it’s with great pleasure that after safety and logistic improvements, a lot of paint, love and affection, we are now able to bring this amazing venue to our international fan base and beyond. We want to assure the local and national population that we will, in partnership with the owners, take good care of her and bring her back to her well and truly back to her glory days.”
Queen Mary is hosting Titanic in Photographs-The Exhibition. The exhibition has photographs that span its beginnings until it sank in 1912. According to Long Beach Press Telegram:
Located in the stern of the ship, next to the Engine Room, the new educational gallery area features over 100 images that document the ship-building process through completion, immersing visitors on a journey through the Titanic’s luxurious amenities, from its staterooms and First Class Lounge to the Turkish bath, swimming pool, and Grand Staircase. The photos are paired with dozens of artifacts — like silverware, crystal, and china — from the Titanic, as well as from two sister oceanliners, the Olympic and the Carpathia.
On this date in 1915, the passenger ship SS Eastland rolled over while docked in the Chicago River. 844 passengers and crew were killed making it the largest loss of life from a shipwreck on the Great Lakes.
The SS Eastland was owned by St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and was launched in May 1903 . Problems were discovered from the start. Design flaws made it top heavy and its center of gravity was too high. When lots of passengers congregated on top deck, the ship would list. While some modifications fixed issues, there were still listing problems. SS Eastland also achieved notoriety in August 1903 for a mutiny by the ships firemen. On 14 Aug, while traversing between Chicago to South Haven, Michigan some fireman refused to stoke the fires because they had not received their potatoes. The captain ordered the men arrested. Two firemen who did not participate in the mutiny had to stoke the fires until they docked. The six men were arrested by the police and later the captain was replaced.
On 24 Jul 1915 the Eastland and two other passenger steamers were chartered to take employees of Western Electric to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. For the workers, it was a major event since many did not take holidays. Boarding began at 0630 and by 0710, the ship had reached its capacity of 2,572. The ship was packed and passengers filled every possible place on the upper decks. The ship had already begun to list to port and the crew tried to balance the ship using the ballast tanks. That did not work. Numerous passengers passengers apparently rushed to the port side making it worse. At 0728, the ship lurched sharply to port and rolled over to rest on the river bottom twenty feet below the surface. Because so many were below decks to keep warm, they were trapped by the sudden rollover. Heavy furniture-pianos, bookcases, tables-crushed many inside.
The Kenosha responded immediately and came aside to allow those stranded on top to jump aboard. But for those trapped below, there was no rescue. The bodies were retrieved and taken to temporary morgues.
The president and three officers of St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company were indicted for manslaughter. The ship’s captain and engineer where charged with criminal carelessness as well. However during an extradition hearing (all six were in Michigan and had to be extradited to Illinois to stand trial) the federal judge believed there was not enough probable cause citing lack of evidence and refused to extradite. He further said the captain and engineer were merely doing their jobs.
Ironically because of the 1915 Seamen’s Act passed after Titanic’s demise, the additional weight of the lifeboats probably worsened the top-heavy issues of the ship.
A historical marker along the Chicago River marks the event. Plans are also underway to construct an outdoor exhibit where Eastland sank.
Eastland Goes Navy
The Eastland was raised and sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve and commissioned USS Wilmette . She was reconfigured as a gun boat and primarily used for training. Her only action came after the war when she was tasked with sinking a captured German U-Boat in 1921. Most of her career after that was training naval reservists. In 1941, her training duty was altered to train naval armed crews on merchant ships. Her most prestigious task was to take President Roosevelt and others to Whitefish Bay to plan war strategies in 1943. She was decommissioned in 1945 and sold for scrap in 1946.
Due to being busy on other projects, some important events in history were missed recently. On 6 May 1937 the German passenger airship Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed while trying to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst near Lakehurst, NJ. Of the 97 passengers and crew, 35 perished and one worker was killed on the ground.
Airships were a popular and comfortable way to fly back then. They were comfortable and often afforded their passengers the ability to see things that passengers of airplanes would not often see. The Germans had perfected the use of airships while the United States suffered humiliating crashes that confounded designers. The German Zeppelins used hydrogen for many years without any major incident until what happened at Lakehurst, NJ in 1937
The event was caught on newsreel and on radio. Herbert Morrision’s radio coverage is classic and you can listen to at History.com. You can also listen to this one on YouTube which points out that Morrison’s voice was much higher than normal due to the tape recording speed (he was known for his deep voice). His actual audio report sounds different when you hear it as it ought to have been. A British Pathe newsreel of the disaster be viewed here.
While sabotage was suspected, neither the American or German inquiries concluded that was the cause. The American report concludes:
The cause of the accident was the ignition of a mixture of free hydrogen and air. Based upon the evidence, a leak at or in the vicinity of cell 4 and 5 caused a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air to form in the upper stern part of the ship in considerable quantity; the first appearance of an open flame was on the top of the ship and a relatively short distance forward of the upper vertical fin. The theory that a brush discharge ignited such mixture appears most probable.
The many theories that continue to persist are:
Mythbusters examined the incendiary paint hypothesis and concluded it did not cause the catastrophe. You can view that here. Many believe the most likely reason for the explosion is that a tiny tear in the fabric or an exposed piece of metal was the entry point for static electricity to ignite the hydrogen. Hydrogen would never be used again for airships after this.
Airships faded from use though the famous Goodyear blimps over sports and other events are used to film the events below. And with the desire to conserve our environment these days, helium filled airships may yet return as a means of travel.
The SS United States, once a majestic ocean liner larger than Titanic and decaying away in Philadelphia for two decades, might have a new lease on life. Crystal Cruises, a luxury travel company, has announced plans to overhaul the ship providing it passes a nine month feasibility study. The estimated cost of the overhaul is $700 million. The gutted and rusty ship is owned by a conservation group, SS United States Conservancy, that made the deal with Crystal Cruises.
The ship was launched in 1951 and constructed entirely in the United States. It was the fastest ocean liner of her day and won the Blue Riband for its crossing speed. It remained in service till 1969 when transatlantic ocean travel had dwindled. After that it fell into different hands. Its fittings and furniture were auctioned off and many plans advanced for its use never materialized. The SS United States Conservancy bought the ship in 2011 hoping to restore it for use in a waterfront exhibition. However the costs associated with that along with ongoing docking fees made this difficult and plans were made to scrap the ship if funding was not found. The contract with Crystal Cruises requires them to pay the docking fees for nine months during the feasibility study.