The flat-bottomed, two-masted scow, J. H. Magruder, left the dock at Alcona in northern Michigan at noon on Thursday the 22nd, with a cargo of 187,000 feet of lumber bound for Detroit. The captain had his wife and two children on board along with a crew of four. It was a rainy day in April on Lake Huron and bitter cold.
The scow’s Captain said in a later written report:
“We sighted the Point aux Barques light at ten o’clock that night; the wind had shifted east and was breezing up. Took gaff topsails in at eleven o’clock. When abreast of light we commenced listing badly. Saw we were making great leeway and the lee rail under water. Discovered vessel was leaking badly with two feet of water in the hold. About midnight was laboring very heavy with high wind and heavy sea. Got both anchors ready and let go about 2 a.m. the 23rd. She righted immediately with fourteen feet of water under the stern, but at every high surge, she would drag anchor the seas breaking over her bow. I hung a red lantern in main rigging as a signal of distress.”
The State of Michigan is shaped like a mitten and at the tip of the thumb is a place that French traders called Pointe aux Barques or “Point of Little Boats” because of canoes that used to gather there during fur-trading season. Also, it describes the shallow shoals and reefs that lurk beneath the waves, presenting a hazard to boats as they round the thumb. The first Point aux Barques Lighthouse was built in 1848, which proved to be inadequate; so ten years later it was replaced by an 89 foot conical brick tower with a third order Fresnel lens. (It still stands today.)
Andrew Shaw was appointed Keeper there in 1863 and his assistant, Alexander Esler had been on duty at the station for two years. They were in the tower, in the pre-dawn hours, getting ready to extinguish the lamps when Mr. Shaw spotted the troubled scow’s distress signal. He told Esler to report the fact to the Life-Saving Station that was located south of the light station. Shipwrecks were a common sight.
Normally, the Great Lakes closed for navigation around December 15th and stayed frozen solid until late March of the next year. All of the coastal towns had been without new provisions for over three months, so when navigation began on April 1st, there were thousands of merchant vessels transporting all kinds of goods to ports.
Lighthouses were maintained to warn ships from danger and the keepers also helped people who were in danger close to the stations. The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service assisted mariners in distress offshore. However, the organization that contributed most was the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which went to the assistance of ships that had run aground or were wrecked near the shore. In 1875, Congress authorized the building of a number of new USLSS stations that included the Great Lakes.
Keeper Jerome G. Kiah and his crew of six men manned the Point aux Barques Life-Saving Station. They had been very busy in the three weeks that the station had been open for the season. Three wrecks had occurred on April 10th and they had rowed their surfboat out to the assistance of each one: The 125 ton schooner Home, with a cargo of salt and a crew of six adrift a half mile south of Port Hope; the scow Mary Garrett with a cargo of salt and a crew of five was pounded against the river dock, four miles NW of the station by a heavy sea; the 328 ton schooner Montauk with a cargo of coal and a crew of nine struck the outside reef, four miles SE of the station, and commenced to fill with water. It was a cold day with a strong wind and the lake had a heavy sea.
On the pages of the logbook, written with pen and ink, Jerome G. Kiah made the following entry for Friday April 23, 1880:
“A little before sunrise, surfman Nantau called keeper to see a scow that was lying at anchor E by S and about three miles distant from the station, showing a signal of distress. (Ensign at half mast) Wind east moderately fresh, sea moderately heavy, weather clear and cold. After making out this signal of distress, keeper called all hands to run out boat ready for launching. Had all hands take a warm cup of coffee that had been hastily prepared, fastened cork jacket on each one of crew and in about15 minutes after keeper made out signal of distress, we shoved off with all hands in their places in the boat, after getting outside the reef we found the sea heavier with an occasional very heavy on. We dodged and weathered them all right, until within about one-fourth mile of the scow and nearly one mile distant from the nearest point of land.
“Suddenly, I noticed a very big sea coming for us, there was only time to straighten her so that she might take it head on, but it proved too much for her. It came aboard and completely filled her, as the sea was leaving; I gave the order to bail
(We had two bailing dishes aboard) but, the men saw that the gunwales were too far below water. As soon as the sea left us, in a few minutes, after she broached to and rolled over with us. We righted her and tried to work one of the oars, to get her stern to the sea, but it was impossible. Her gunwales being so far below water and in a few moments, she rolled over again. We righted her again or not, but if we did not, I think the seas rolled her over several more times, but of this I am not sure.
“All seemed to have hopes, at first, that they could hang on until we got to the reef where we thought we might touch bottom and right her up and get the water out. At the time she filled up, we were distant from the reef about a half mile. In about three fourths of an hour, after filling, surfman Pottinger gave out. From that time until the last one finished it, I think it was about a half hour.
“They all seemed to go the same way, gradually going off in a stupor…something like being chloroformed…with one exception they were all holding on the boat by the life lines when they gave up. Slowly their faces would drop forward until they touched the water, and in a few moments after, their holds would relax and the boat would slowly drift away from them.
“The exception was surfman Morrison…he let go his hold or was washed away when I noticed him he was five or six feet from the boat seemingly unconscious, his face was slowly dropping. I sung out to him, calling him by name, but he never showed any sign that he heard me, and in a moment or two, I saw it was all over for him.
“Surfman Deegan was the last one to give up. Up to this time my memory serves me very good. This must have been about 7 a.m.
“From this time until about 12 noon, I can remember only a very little of what transpired. I was found on the beach by Mr. S. McFarland and Mr. A. Shaw about 9:30 a.m. At 12 o’clock noon my wife called me (they had brought me home and put me in bed) to say that the bodies were coming ashore. And some one said there appeared to be life on them. I immediately got up and went into boat room where the bodies of surfman Deegan and Nantau were. Lighthouse keeper Shaw and Mr. Pethers tried to revive Deegan while I worked on surfman Nantau. We worked over an hour but they showed no sign of recovery.
“From the time I saw surfman Deegan give up until his body come ashore, it could not have been much less than five hours.
“I then sent telegrams to Supt. Joseph Sawyer and to the families and friends of the surfmen about 2 p.m. The last body came ashore, the bodies all drifted in shore around the station, while I was found about one mile south of station.
“By sympathizing friends, the bodies were laid out in the boat room. I ordered coffins for them. The names of the heroic dead are as follows: William Sayre, Dennis Deegan, Walter Petherbridge, James Pottinger, James Nantau, Robert Morrison.
“Saturday April 24th: All the bodies were taken from the station. Called the doctor to examine my legs, they had chilled so that the circulation was stopped and they were very much discolored.
“Sunday April 25th: Supt. Joseph Sawyer arrived. He attended the funerals of surfman Deegan and Pottinger. Doctor called and dressed my legs.
“Monday April 26th: Supt. took my statement of disaster. He took statements of others also. Doctor called and dressed my legs.
“Wednesday April 28th: Visited Mrs. Pottinger and Mrs. Deegan. No crew except Keeper and one extra man. With team and extra help, surf boat was got back to the station.”
Jerome G. Kiah, Keeper
Imagine yourself patrolling a deserted open beach on a winter night with the sound of the surf pounding in your ears. Your job is to cast a weather eye upon the angry sea for any sign of a ship in distress. There is little light to guide you on your patrol. Suddenly a sound makes you stop in your tracks. The cries of distress from a ship in danger is your call to action. As a United States Life-Saver, it is your job to get back to your station and alert the rest of the surfmen. You and the rest of the crew will do everything possible to save those aboard the periled vessel. This was the mission of the United States Life-Saving Service.
The motto of the U.S. Life Saving Service: “You have to go out; you don’t have to come back.” These plain men, dwellers on lonely sands, took their lives in their hands, and at the most imminent risk, crossing the most tumultuous sea, and all for what? That others might live to see home and friends.
Ironically, the Skipper of J.H. Magruder made a written statement that he and his crew saw the surfboat capsize and the peril of the surfmen as they tried to right her. They didn’t launch their own boat to attempt help for the surfmen as no ordinary yawl boat could live in such a sea. He wrote, “I then commenced throwing my deck-load overboard, and at noon, the wind shifting to the northeast, we made all sail and started, cleared the reef, and arrived in Sand Beach all safe, but leaking badly. The weather was piercing cold, and all that day the spray would freeze as it came aboard of us.”
Jerome G. Kiah could not forget his poor boys; all of them gone. He left the Life Saving Service on June 30, 1880, unable to overcome the trauma. However, when Kiah’s cousin, Superintendent Joseph Sawyer, was drowned in an accident off Rogers City, along with Keeper George Feaben. Captain Kiah was asked to take the job of Supt. of the Tenth District, left vacant by Sawyer, which he accepted.
On November 8, 1880, Captain Jerome Kiah received the Gold Lifesaving Medal for his efforts in attempting to save his crew. The event and the medal are still commemorated on the U.S. Coast Guard website. This was the first fatal lifesaving accident for the USLSS on the Great Lakes.
Jerome G. Kiah served for 35 years as Superintendent. He retired in March, 1915 when the U.S. Life-Saving Service merged with the U.S. Revenue-Cutter Service, creating the U.S. Coast Guard. He died in February 25, 1917 in Los Angeles, CA where he and Annette, his wife of 46 years, had been on a winter vacation.
Author’s note: My sincere thanks go out to Debbie Allyn Jett of Chicago who assisted with this article. She is a dedicated writer and researcher that specializes in the United States Life Saving Service. She has visited and photographed the grave markers of three of the surfmen who perished that fateful day.
This story appeared in the
August 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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