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UW-Superior Lake Superior Maritime Collection
The Mataafa Blow
A life-saving crew faces still-raging waters on Nov. 29, 1905, to rescue Mataafa survivors.
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UW-Superior Lake Superior Maritime Collection
The Mataafa Blow
The wounded Mataafa attracted much attention stranded near the Duluth waterfront.
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UW-Superior Lake Superior Maritime Collection
The Mataafa Blow
Nine men died on the Mataafa during the 1905 storm. This commemorative cigar box cover was created for Duluth Cigar Co. by the Calvert Lith Co. of Detroit & Chicago.
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UW-Superior Lake Superior Maritime Collection
The Mataafa Blow
During the storm, the William Edenborn was smashed along the cliffs of Minnesota's North Shore. The devastation along that coast would lead to the 1910 construction of Split Rock Lighthouse.
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Split Rock Lighthouse Collection
The Mataafa Blow
In calmer waters, Madeira cut a fine figure. Now the vessel lies in pieces near Gold Rock along the Minnesota shores of Lake Superior.
For those in peril on the sea: a century after a storm of the century
Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
– William Whiting, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (1860)
There are no atheists in a foxhole and none among sailors in a storm, it is said. And even those who deny God cannot deny Lake Superior when the inland sea musters its powers of icy winds and freezing waves into howling hurricanes in November.
When the waves rise and the whipping winds entomb man and mast in shrouds of frigid ice, then every mariner knows power and awe, peril and fear, heroics and tragedies.
Most maritime disasters unfold far from those whose lives remain safely land-bound. Ships and crews on this massive fresh-water sea struggle and sometimes disappear with nearly no trace but for the echo of ship names: Bannockburn, H.B. Smith, Ira H. Owen.
Perhaps that is why the tragic tales of 1905 – Lake Superior’s worst year for lost lives (more than 60) and vessels wrecked beyond repair (21) – haunt still, a century gone by, those who follow the maritime trade. That year was defined by one fatal drama played before an estimated 10,000 horrified witnesses in Duluth, some lighting fires on shore to warm – in spirit at least – 24 men stranded on a vessel just beyond reach of help and hope.
By dawn November 29, the fires had burned to ashes and nine of the crew had drowned or frozen or were battered to death by a storm branded forever with the name of their stout ship: the Mataafa Blow.
Nearly 30 vessels faced peril in that tumultuous storm of November 27-28, 1905, most west of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Ira H. Owen and its 14 crew members disappeared without trace northeast of Outer Island in the Apostles. It has not yet been found, but some claim it reappears as a ghost ship.
Minnesota’s north shore seemed particularly cursed that night. The lake tossed ashore, broke apart or otherwise wounded 11 vessels from Split Rock to Park Point in Duluth.
Two of the tragedies – that of William Edenborn and its tow barge Madeira and of Mataafa and its tow barge Nasmyth – embody the catastrophic loss and miraculous heroism that arose on tempest waves.
The storm stories of Madeira, Mataafa and the others actually start with a warning, sent by Lake Superior and delivered three days before the monstrous Mataafa Blow.
The warning arrived on the wooden steamer Charlemagne, which limped through the 60-mph gale on November 24 into the Keweenaw Waterway minus its bulwarks and with its aft cabin crumpled. Its captain told news reporters “that never again would he be out when he should be in,” writes Dr. Julius F. Wolff Jr. in Lake Superior Shipwrecks.
The storm that crushed Charlemagne may have contributed to the number of disasters that befell ships in the November 27-28 storm. Those many captains who safely stayed in port November 24 knew absolutely that huge Lake Superior storms never followed on the heels of one another. When clear skies arrived November 25, they hurriedly set out to fulfill the final hauls of the season, forgetting in the rush that “absolutely” and “never” do not apply to Lake Superior.
The Weather Bureau contributed its own warning. In 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating the Weather Bureau, Duluth got one of 13 original stations nationwide. In 1904, the local bureau office moved near the top of the Incline Railway on what today is Skyline Boulevard. The two-story, 11-room building overlooking the lake is a home today, as it was then because forecaster H.W. Richardson lived on the second floor. By 1905, the stations had grown to about 3,470 nationwide, and the forecasting ability had grown, too.
Richardson’s equipment was not sophisticated by today’s standards, but with the addition of telegraph and telephone connections to other stations around the country, he could track what was headed our way.
On the morning of November 27, Richardson saw a worrisome trend on his daily regional map. Tight concentric lines showed an intersection of high and low systems fighting for dominance. The tightest lines, the battle front between high and low, indicated where the worst winds and most snowfall would be. The closely gathered lines were headed for Lake Superior.
November will always be “our greatest period of volatility,” says Dean Packingham of Duluth’s National Weather Service office today. The atmosphere continually tries to balance, but during late fall the warm humid air of the southwest draws moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, then heads northeast and confronts the cold air dropping south from Canada.
The annual clash of high and low pressure systems sets the stage for horrific northern gales, sometimes generating hurricane-level 70 mph winds or more.
On November 27, 1905, H.W. Richardson posted northeast storm signals for mariners. At 3:30 p.m. that day, Captain Richard F. Humble, master of the 430-foot steel steamer Mataafa, left Duluth loaded with iron ore and towing the also ore-laden James Nasmyth.
“The weather indications, however, were such that I did not deem it advisable to remain in port and accordingly started down the Lake,” the captain would testify later in the inquiry after the Mataafa wreck. “I used my own judgment, as I always do in such cases, and I thought it was safe to start out at the time …”
Captain Humble was not alone in his judgment. Many vessels headed onto Lake Superior and into disaster.
William Edenborn, towing its cohort Madeira, was on the lake. They arrived on Lake Superior through the Soo Locks about noon November 26, headed to pick up a load of ore in the west. The weather was fair and the sailing smooth as they traveled light with water in their holds for ballast.
By supper the next day, all had changed. The wind snapped its tail around to blow from the northeast, bringing 60 mph winds “with snow beating down so thick and so fierce that one could not hold his face to the storm a moment,” recalled Edenborn’s first mate, William F. Hormig.
Remember, none of today’s satellite location systems were available, even in the imagination of these mariners. Without benefit of bearings, the captain tried to hold a steady compass heading, west by south, 1/4 south and then southwest.
Running before a roaring wind that for 12 hours never blew less than 60 mph and gusted to 80 mph mid-lake, the captains and crews did not realize that they had greatly overshot their intended sanctuary beside Devils Island in the Apostles. They were headed toward the treacherous cliffs on Minnesota’s shore.
Half past 3 a.m. November 28, with a rifle-like report and a momentary jarring almost indiscernible among the battering waves, the tow cable parted, setting the unpowered Madeira adrift and the Edenborn lurching forward.
“The snow was so thick and so blinding we could not see half the length of our ship in any direction, and the sea piling over her stern in volumes of solid water,” Edenborn’s Captain A.J. Talbot testified.
From this point, the fates of the two vessels truly were hidden one from the other. The volume and velocity of the storm had rendered useless the primary communication – ship whistles or megaphones – at least 24 hours before.
Given the power of the wind and the closeness of Madeira behind them, Talbot hesitated to turn Edenborn too quickly to search for the barge. After an hour or so of forward momentum, he called out to go back. This dangerous maneuver would expose them broadside to the wind before swinging into it.
As they came about, Chief Engineer Silas H. Hunter heard a tremendous sound. Thinking something was amiss with the loose tow cable, he tried to check it. “So violent was the wind and the snow – heavy hail snow biting in our faces – that I had to crawl on my hands and knees and cover my face with my arm, close down to the deck, and catch a hold of the skylight and other things to get aft.…”
Edenborn did not head into open seas, instead it stranded about half a mile south of Split Rock. Suddenly, the boat swept against the cliffs, trees appearing beside it. Soon it began to break up. Several hatch covers washed overboard or cracked and dropped, most tragically for third engineer James Johnson who had a habit – one for which he had been admonished by the captain – of walking on the hatches. Johnson fell to his death when he stepped onto Hatch 9, the cover of which was not there. Three others fell into another hold, but were rescued.
Most men stayed on the Edenborn and later the crew and the body of James Johnson would be taken to Two Harbors by the Edna G., an overworked little tug aiding in the rescue of multiple crews from ships wrecked along the shores.
Meanwhile, the Edenborn crew wondered about the fate of their barge. “I did not see my barge after it broke loose,” Captain Talbot said, “in fact, I did not see it before it broke loose, the storm being so severe.”
Indeed, the masted Madeira did not fare well, but amazing heroism saved all but one.
Once parted from Edenborn, Madeira’s Captain John Dissette kept sounding the Pittsburgh Steamship Company signal, but to no avail. Edenborn could not return to help. In testimony, the captain remembered trying to set forward and aft anchors, using the entire 150 fathoms (900 feet) of cable. But some divers who explored the sunken wreck decades later believe that the anchors had remained in place.
With or without anchors, Madeira drifted at the mercy of the unmerciful waves and wind until it hit, head on, the 75-foot cliffs about two miles northeast from Split Rock.
Its stern swung with the wind, hitting broadside and breaking Madeira in two, separating four men forward and five aft.
A flamboyant report of the wreck published in the December 1, 1905, Duluth Evening Herald, describes it thusly: “Suddenly in the darkness the ship struck, and the crew found looming up in front of them a sheer cliff so high that in the darkness and storm they could not see the top. In desperation a line was cast to see if it would catch on something, but it was of no avail, and the barge would back up and then shoot against the cliff like an insane man trying to batter out his brains against a stone wall.”
Bludgeoned by freezing waves and tossed by hurricane-force winds, two men took action to get a line to the cliff. Both were heroic. One would die and one would, miraculously, succeed.
First Mate John Marrow saw that one mizzenmast swung almost to the cliff each time waves rocked the boat. Scaling the mast, he tried to reach the cliff but soon found his position precarious and the task impossible. He scurried back to the deck, only to be swept off and drowned.
Seaman Fred Benson found another way. Benson, described by the Duluth Evening Herald as “a big, powerfully built Scandinavian with the arms and shoulders of a Hercules,” grabbed a coil of rope, and when the boat leaned toward shore, he leapt from the deck onto the cliff. He scrambled up like a “human squirrel,” lapped by the huge hungry waves as he sought hand and footholds on the ice-covered cliff. At the top, he secured the line, then weighting it with a rock and dropped it to the Madeira. He helped four men to the top, then hauled up a heavier rope to help the others.
The crew quickly built a fire and later searched the woods. After a day of exposure, they found the shanty of fisherman Nick Hansen of Superior, Wisconsin, who took them to the cabin of August Hardell. Neither fisherman had adequate provisions, but they shared what they had with the frostbitten men, some of whom, like the captain, suffered from frozen feet. Like so many others, the surviving Madeira crew eventually rode home on the Edna G., sadly accompanied by the recovered body of their first mate.
Versions of these stories were repeated along the Minnesota shore by the crews of such vessels as Lafayette and its barge Manila. Lafayette’s Captain D.P. Wright testified on the fate of his vessel, divided by the storm: “The immense seas would pick her up like an egg shell, toss her off from 20 to 30 feet, throw her against the rocks with a crash that could be heard for miles. I think about the third sea that struck her broke her in two …” Lafayette later was towed, half a boat, through the Duluth canal. One of the boat’s firemen died when he tried to slide down a rope and was crushed between the boat and the cliff.
Meanwhile, on November 27 – the first day of the storm and the day when the snapped towline sent William Edenborn and Madeira to their separate fates – Mataafa’s Captain Humble was rethinking his decision to leave Duluth for Two Harbors. Humble’s steamer and its tow Nasmyth came abreast of Two Harbors at 7 p.m. that day, about the time the soon-to-be-named Mataafa Blow sincerely began to howl.
Plowing through heavy seas, but making, the captain reported later, “very good headway,” the two vessels continued on course until about 2 a.m. November 28. Then, said the captain, “The sea had gotten to be so large that it was running over our decks from both sides and was loosening some of the hatch fastenings on the hatches.”
Soon the northeast wind – entering the 12-hour period of 60 mph and stronger – began to determine Mataafa’s course on its own. Using full power, the captain tried to steer his boat straight into the wind. No headway was made. Conceding to the wind, Captain Humble called for Mataafa and its barge to turn their backs to the gale, running back toward Duluth. After hours of trying to keep a clear course in blinding snows without getting too close to shores or piers, Mataafa’s captain saw some hope about noon when a momentary lull in the snow brought Duluth into view.
Captain Humble planned to try for the harbor, but decided that while towing Nasmyth, he could not safely “shoot the chutes,” as some captains called the Duluth piers. With great reluctance, he signaled to the barge to shorten its tow line and to prepare to be disconnected. He feared for the barge and its crew. Little did Captain Humble know, he was about to make a second and fatal error in judgment. Rather than anchoring out with the barge to weather the storm, he decided to bring Mataafa into its home port.
It’s worth a reminder that the tools mariners take for granted today, even simple electronic communication, did not exist. Ships communicated by megaphone or whistle.
So Captain Humble could not know that two vessels had already tried with great consequence to enter the harbor just before him.
At about noon November 28, the 363-foot steamer R.W. England had tried to enter the canal, missed the opening, got caught in the waves and was tossed onto sand just off the Park Point beach. The England’s fate would be critical to the crew of Mataafa. The rush of Duluth’s sole life-saving crew to the far end of Minnesota Point left no life-savers on the north side of the newly completed aerial ferry bridge.
After the England, the next attempt to “shoot the chute” was the ore-laden, 478-foot steamer Isaac Ellwood, returned like the Mataafa from an ill-timed attempt to reach Two Harbors from Duluth the day before.
In what could be read as yet another warning from the lake, Ellwood’s attempt met disaster as it hit the north pier, bounced to the south pier and finally, mercifully, crept into the harbor to sink in shallow water.
Warning delivered, the lake would not be as merciful on the next attempt to enter the canal. Mataafa’s luck, what little kept it afloat in the storm so far, was about to run out.
Untethered from its barge, Mataafa charged the canal at full speed – perhaps expecting that speed would keep it steady in the churning waters.
With “home-safe” in sight, the spirit of the lake – often benevolent, but this day malicious – rose as a surge of high water as if to say, “Not so fast.”
The lake lifted Mataafa, its engines spinning momentarily useless before launching it back into the water in time for its propeller to catch and to send Mataafa, full force, into the north pier. The crash did considerable damage to the bow. The captain called for maneuvers starboard, port, starboard without effect other than again to strike the pier with the bow.
As waves dragged Mataafa from the pier and toward the beach, the captain called to let go anchors. One was disabled, and the other, despite release of 40 fathoms (240 feet) of chain, did not set. Mataafa beached about 100 feet off the north pier, 700 feet from the beach and from help.
Captain Humble tried to get aft to talk with the engineer, but found himself stopped by a crack amidship. As the boat sank lower, the waves came higher across it. He ordered life preservers for the 12 with him in the bow, then tried to get help from shore.
“I sung out through a megaphone to somebody on shore to send the life savers. The wind was blowing so hard I could not understand what they said and thought from their motions that the life savers were coming.”
Duluth Evening Herald would report that from shore the gathering crowd could see Captain Humble calling through the megaphone. “Only occasionally a word could be understood because of the roar of the wind and waves, but one time, just as it was growing dark, came the words: ‘My God! Can’t ---’”
But the lifesavers, still struggling to evacuate crew from the stranded England, would not arrive until hours later, and then only to have rescue attempts thwarted. They could not safely row out in the lifeboat. Attempts were made to shoot a line to the boat for the men to ride across in a breeches buoy. The first line went over mid-ship, too far from the crew. A second shot could not be found in the dark. The third attempt reached the men in front, but they could not manage the line, which had frozen into a solid mass. A fourth and final attempt also failed.
Meanwhile, the fates had already divided the crew into those who would live and those who would not – almost.
With him in the bow, the captain later reported, were 12 of the crew with the other 12 in the stern. (Here there is historic discrepancy. Most reports show 24, not 25, crewmen. Years later, however, a Two Harbors attorney said he as a 17-year-old was also on board.)
As the stern of Mataafa settled in the water, there was no safe, dry place. Wave after wave beat the men against the smokestack – some may have died from head injuries sustained early on – while the dropping temperatures endangered the soaked sailors.
Four men risked a walk forward. Yet again it seemed the list of those doomed was already written. In the line of four, the third man – the young, strong and strapping fireman Thomas Woodgate – seemed best equipped to survive. Instead, the lake chose him to pull away three times; he regained the vessel by strength alone. Eventually he could not go on and retreated to the stern. Found later in his pocket, after his body was chipped from the ice, was a letter from his father, dated November 17. Eerily prophetic in its lightly spoken fear and sadly confident in the vessel that Thomas Woodgate had left just days before the storm to work on Mataafa, the father writes:
Your letter came to hand, for which I thank you and it always gives me pleasure to hear from you. I am glad you are well. There has been more stormy weather, but as it would take all the U.S. Navy to wreck the old Kensington, I have dared to presume that you are safe and sound.… I now say bye bye as I hope soon to see you. I am exercising patience until the time arrives and you reach the port of 130 Harbord St.
With much love from your affectionate father, H.W. Woodgate
In the end, all nine in the stern perished, listed on their St. Louis County death certificates as dead “by exposure to cold and waves” with contributing factor “shipwreck.”
Water flooded into the smashed cabin doors and windows, below in the windlass room, the captain and remaining crew burned wood taken mostly from the bathroom. They made it, barely, through the night.
On shore, the storm knocked out telephone and telegraph cables, ripped a gap into Park Point while flooding people from their homes. It halted street cars, interstate and aerial ferry bridges. Yet people, fascinated and horrified by Mataafa’s life-and-death drama, came in droves to the ship canal.
“It seemed as though half the population of Duluth was on the pier’s approach and along the shore watching the giant freighter going to her doom,” reported the Duluth Evening Herald. “Some seemed permeated solely with curiosity to judge from the rather unfeeling remarks which were made, but there were those, who were too overcome and fascinated by the dreadful picture of men facing what may be their death, to speak. Thinking men and women gasped every time a wave broke over the doomed vessel and groans could be heard when she would be seen to shrink like a human being. One would almost imagine the vessel had feelings of a human in watching her. She shook and trembled under the terrific blows which were dealt her as though each caused excruciating pain.”
For days and even weeks after the storm, news of destruction and loss of life dribbled in. Day after day, word of vessels deemed missing arrived as crews made their way to towns from the remote wrecks along Minnesota’s shore.
The day after Mataafa wrecked, life-savers rowed with difficulty to the survivors, making two trips to bring the 15 men to shore. The exhausted life-saving crew waited another day to remove the bodies of those who died. Five of the nine were on the frozen deck; some had to be cut free from ice. Bodies of others, washed over or below, were recovered later. In a strange quirk of the lake, a headless and armless decomposed corpse was found nearby – thought to be a crewman of Thomas Wilson, a whaleback freighter that sank after a collision near the piers in 1902.
Lasting changes arose out of the storm. An appeal to Congress after the devastation on the Minnesota shore led to the 1910 construction of Split Rock Lighthouse. Review of rescue problems garnered recommendation that lifesavers and boats be stationed on both sides of Duluth’s canal. Recommended, too, was to add a cable running from bow to stern on vessels, which might have saved the doomed Mataafa crew.
Advances in forecasting tools, satellite-based navigational aids and electronic communications have made mass maritime devastation as in 1905 unlikely 100 years later.
But even today, when Lake Superior boils in an angry November mood, with all of our technology, safe passage is not guaranteed for those who work on the churning waters. During the howling gales, a quiet prayer may still be required.
O Trinity of love and power
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour
From rock and tempest, fire and foe
Protect them wheresoe’er they go.
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.