On 9 September 1910, the SS Pere Marquette 18, bound from Ludington to Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, would sink with 27 dead and leaving a mystery as to why she sank.
The SS Pere Marquette was built in 1902 by the American Ship Building Company (Cleveland, Ohio) as a railroad car ferry. The Pere Marquette Railroad Company intended to use her to cross Lake Michigan between the western ports of Kewaunee, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee with the eastern side where Ludington, Michigan was located. With four railroad car tracks, it could accommodate up to thirty railroad cars. It has had fifty staterooms (and other rooms as well) to carry up to 260 passengers as well. However, if you combined both the rooms and the decks it could hold up to 5.000 people. It had a maximum speed of between 13-14 knots (15 or 16 mph).
Between 1907-1909, the ship was converted into an excursion steamer that carried people to events or around Lake Michigan. The railroad tracks were covered over by planking. Despite the ship’s popularity as an excursion steamer, it did not generate the profits hoped by the company, so they did not renew any contracts for the upcoming 1911 pleasure cruise season. It was converted back into a railroad car ferry and on 8 September 1910, she was back in service in that capacity when she departed Ludington, Michigan. She had 62 passengers and crew, 29 rail cards and miscellaneous freight. Around 3 or 4 am the next morning, the helmsman noted the ship was steering properly. An oiler checking on the propeller around the same time noticed water in the stern and reported it to the bridge. He reported 7 feet of water in the stern. Captain Kitty ordered the pumps be turned on, but that did not work, and the stern continued to sink so low that water was coming in through the portholes. Kitty changed the heading to Sheboygan, Wisconsin and had some railroad cars dropped in the water to give the ship more buoyancy. That seemed to work for a while but eventually the stern started sinking again.
Wireless operator Stephen F. Szczepanek was ordered to send the distress call, CQD, to all ships in the area. He sent the message “Car ferry No.18 sinking – help!” for the next hour. Aboard the Pere Marquette 17, it heard the distress call and notified the captain. The ship immediately headed towards the sinking car ferry. It would pull alongside and rendered assistance to those trying to leave the sinking ship. Two other ships would also arrive on the scene: the Pere Marquette 20 and the tug A.A.C. Tessley arrived on scene to assist as well. Sadly, the wireless operator never made it off ship and was the first wireless operator to perish on the Great Lakes. None of the senior officers survived as well making it more difficult to ascertain exactly what happened.
The ship sank at 7:30 am stern first and the bow rising high into the air. An explosion occurred as she sank, likely caused the pressure of air trapped inside her and likely taking lives with it. 27 lives were lost along with 2 from the Pere Marquette 17. The actual cause of the sinking has never been determined though several theories by investigators and others have been brought forward.
During the time she served as a excursion steamer, the charter captains treated her roughly and hit pilings when she docked.
Steel Plates issue
Another possible cause is that the steel plates had become loose and since they were underwater allowed water to enter the ship.
No Stern Gate
Older ferries like the Pere Marquette 18 had no rear stern gate to prevent water from entering during storms or heavy wave action.
There were two stowaways aboard, but no one has any idea if they played a role in the sinking.
This would be due to the propellor or its components allowing water into the ship.
The ship was valued at $400,000 and her cargo somewhere between $100,000-$150,000. Captain Kitty was criticized for trying to save his ship and not the people aboard her. In New York City, a memorial was erected in Battery Park in 1915 with the names of wireless operators who had died at sea. Stephen F. Szczepanek is on it right below Jack Phillips, who died on Titanic. Szczepanek was remembered by journalist J. Andrew White as remaining calm, reassuring passengers that help was coming, and returning to the wireless room to continue sending messages. The company would replace the lost ship and name it Pere Marquette 18 that entered service in 1911 and worked until 1952. It was sold for scrap in 1957.
The wreck of the Pere Marquette 18 lies 25 miles off Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 500 feet of water. Until she was found in 2020, she was the largest undiscovered shipwreck in the Great Lakes.
The Carferries of the Great Lakes
Wisconsin Shipwrecks-Pere Marquette 18 (1902)
SS Pere Marquette 18 (Wikipedia)
S.S. Pere Marquette 18 Historical Marker (HMdb,org)
Minnesota shipwreck hunters locate long-sought Lake Michigan wreck (MPRNews, 8 Sep 2020)