It was the beginning of the 1890s when Auguste Stiller boarded the ship Augusta Victoria with her four children, leaving Warmbrunn, Germany to join her husband, Julius in America. It was only forty years before their arrival when another family boarded a ship from Prussia sailing to America. The destination was the same: Western New York State. One family would produce a sailor and a lighthouse keeper, the other family a sailor and a fireman on tugboats. Their lives would become connected and intertwined in a most unusual and tragic set of circumstances. For one family, closure intertwined those same families, only now generations apart, and provided the answers to a mystery that had gone unsolved for 104 years.
The date when Auguste Stiller and her children set foot on the land they were to call home was perhaps an omen of her future. The thirteenth day of September began their journey to a place called Buffalo, a city located at the opposite end of New York State, from another city, New York; the place of their ship’s landing. Emigrating Germans in the 1890s has followed what is called “the third wave” of immigrants that began in the 1880’s and included large numbers of southern and eastern Europeans. The rise in steamships and ocean liners made it more feasible for people to leave decades of political instability, potato blights, civil wars, and economic disasters. Unlike previous German immigrants, the Stillers came to a country filled with rising industrial cities and busy harbor ports. Their final destination, Buffalo, was one of those busy harbors and growing rapidly into a major port city.
Early on during the history of European settlement in the new world, Buffalo became an important part of that fabric. Considered to be on the frontier range of a more civilized eastern New York State, it was viewed as an important settlement with potential for Great Lakes development. The British believed this as well, so even though it was a small village, they burned it during the war of 1812, along with any plans for building a lighthouse. The New York State lawmakers had, in 1811, mandated a lighthouse be built at the Buffalo harbor. After Buffalo was burned in December of 1813, building a lighthouse was not a high priority. However, by 1818, land had been purchased and a new, 30-foot stone lighthouse was built. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo experienced a rapid growth in population - and pollution. Plagued by damp, cloudy weather, smoke from the village choked the skies and deemed the lighthouse useless. By 1839, the $2,500 allotted by the Treasury Department resulted in a new lighthouse for the people of Buffalo. There were at least eleven steamboats traveling the Great Lakes and almost 50,000 passengers sailing west from her harbor.
Four years after the first of the two families arrived in Western New York State, Congress approved plans for another lighthouse or lightship due to the number of boats sailing into the Buffalo harbor laden with cargoes of grain, lumber, and people. Unfortunately, a tangle of politics, political blunders, and miscalculations resulted in the British giving the United States an acre of underwater reef 1,150 feet into Canadian territory. A lighthouse named Horseshoe Reef was finally constructed in Canadian waters, and not at Horseshoe reef, but instead Middle Reef. Thus under the watch of Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Department and superintendent of American Lighthouses, Buffalo gained another lighthouse.
When Auguste Stiller finally joined her husband Julius, he was now an established clerk in a general store and Buffalo had already grown to a population of 255,644. In addition to lighthouses, the city had, since 1876, supported a Life Saving Station. In 1903, the United States Life Saving Service, by now a separate federal entity with paid surf-men and keepers, constructed a new station 600 feet down the Buffalo pier, closer to the main lighthouse. Smoke and pollution remained a constant pallor over the harbor. It was also compounded by the Lackawanna Railroad’s coal trestle and the smoke from the high number of vessels sailing in from Lake Erie to the harbor. Moving the station meant creating a new seawall, a necessary expenditure in order to build a lookout tower that would not be engulfed in the smoke-filled haze and industrial pollution.
Buffalo continued to grow, and toward the end of the first decade of the 1900s it was the eighth largest city in the United States with a population of almost half a million inhabitants. On an average day, anywhere between 30 and 40 vessels were entering the harbor.
Within the Buffalo harbor, the government reservation and adjoining area known as the “Beach” supported a wide variety of occupations. In addition to the keepers of light stations and Life Saving Stations, there were living within the complex; surf-men, longshoremen, boat captains, rope makers, sail repair shopkeepers, saloonkeepers, and tugboat owners. Of course, in-between them all were the coffin makers, grim reminders of what the inland seas were capable of taking.
Only five years after the completion of the new Life Saving Station, that Station, a lighthouse keeper, a tugboat fireman, and the harbor that bound them together would connect two families.
Then, I received an e-mail that read, “We are 99% sure that it was the same accident you referenced in the 1908 At The Life Saving Station section on the website. We have no information other than a death certificate and a headstone. If you have any other information that would help us, we would be very grateful.” Suddenly, I was drawn to the email. Like the grains of sand that mix with the inland seas, the message could have been in a bottle washed upon the beach. Instead, the words danced across the computer screen. Whether in a bottle or a computer, they had traveled a long way, both in miles and in years.
In the Lakeside Memorial Park Cemetery, Hamburg, New York State, less than ten miles from the Buffalo harbor, rests an elaborate headstone. Chiseled into the gray rock surface is a large anchor and a Christian cross with the inscription,
“STILLER Fritz 1876-1908”
An empty hollow oval remains where once a beloved image was embedded into the headstone.
Many generations removed, descendents of the Stiller family have wondered about the circumstances surrounding his death. There were no answers. That is until now, 104 years later, when a portion of the answer, recorded in the log books of the Buffalo Life Saving Station, was stumbled upon by family who visited a lighthouse keeper’s website. The rest of the story would unfold in a serendipitous way, when history cannot be rushed and the journey slowly traveled, as the events surrounding the past are unraveled in the ironies and mysteries of circumstances.
Frederick Stiller was the son of Julius and Auguste. He was not destined to become a clerk. Instead, he was drawn to the Great Lakes. By the 1900s, two men were sailing on these inland seas; Frederick Stiller, born in 1876, and Edward Herman, born in 1878. Edward was a Master-At-Arms on the Lot M. Morrill, a vessel of the United States Revenue Cutter Service.
Edward stepped off the deck of the Morrill in May of 1907 to enter the United States Lighthouse Service. His first assignment was as an assistant keeper to Joseph Thomas at the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse. The complex community of lighthouses and the Life Saving Service was generally known as the Buffalo Life Saving Station. The keeper of the USLSS was Captain Winslow Greisser. He had served under Lucien Clemons, the first recipient of the USLSS gold medal. Both, Clemons and Winslow came from the village of Marblehead, Ohio, home to another lighthouse, Marblehead Light which to also become Edward’s future lighthouse.
“Fritz,” as he was affectionately called by his family, began his tugboat career as a fireman on the tugboat W.G. Mason in the busy and dangerous Buffalo Harbor. The Mason was considered one of the best tugboats on the Great Lakes, built for ice crushing and heavy towing; she was lunched on September 9, 1898. Her sister tug, the Babcock also serviced the Buffalo Harbor and the two tugs eventually played an important role setting a precedent for maritime law in a case involving an accident while towing a steamship and a presumption of negligence. (The outcome of the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals in the W.G. Mason, 142 Fed. 918, stated that, “Where two tugs belonging to the same owner were towing steamer, and master of leading tug directed steamer’s movements, but second tug was under own master’s control, as to own movements, rear tug not liable for standing of tow through fault of leader.” This ruling was subsequently used in arguments for maritime fault of moving vessels in numerous court cases including rulings issued by the Supreme Court of the United States.)
Tugboats were involved in a variety of activities on the Great Lakes, especially in busy harbors. In addition to guiding and towing vessels through the narrow and dangerous harbors, tugs were often called upon by both lighthouse and Life Saving Station keepers to help during rescues of wrecked vessels. The aftermath of the wreck was also attended to by the tugs, either by towing the disabled vessel or by releasing the stranded vessel when they went aground on rocks or beaches. And, sometimes, in the case of the Mason’s sister Babcock, giving a friendly tow to the assistant lighthouse keeper, Edward Herman, on his way to begin an early morning 12-hour shift at the Horseshoe Reef lighthouse. Tugboats were always the “friends” and second arm of both the lighthouse and Life-Saving Station keepers and crews.
Fritz Stiller did not stay with the infamous Mason. At some point, he transferred to another important tugboat, the S.W. Gee. Considered along with the Mason to be one of the best tugs on the Great Lakes, she was built in 1888 by the Maytham Tug Line in Buffalo, NY. Coupled with the Mason, Fritz Stiller, as a member of the crew on both tugs, participated in at least two well documented rescues involving the steamer Niagara on June 8, 1903, and the propeller S.R. Kirby on September 8, 1904, both having run aground, the Kirby due to dense fog.
By the time the year 1908 was nearing the close of the navigational year, both Edward Herman and Fritz Stiller were well immersed in the Buffalo harbor maritime community. Assistant keeper Edward was completing his second year at the Life Saving Station complex at the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse and the first year of his marriage. Fritz was a seasoned tugboat fireman and his tug the S.W. Gee was now known by a different name, the Yale. The Great Lakes Towing Company owned the Yale, along with most other tugs serving on the Great Lakes.
In 1899, the Great Lakes Towing Co. was organized to provide tug service at important harbors on the Great Lakes. Combining the fleets of several smaller tug operators, the newly formed company had a fleet of almost two hundred tugs, becoming the largest tug operator on the Great Lakes.
Even with a name change and as part of a fleet of two hundred tugs, she had not lost her reputation. The Yale was still considered one of the best. Yet, on Sunday, December 13, 1908, best was not good enough and everyone in the harbor would relive the gruesome scene for many sleepless nights.
The fall of 1908 had not been kind to the maritime community of the harbor. November had witnessed the drowning of four Chinese men when their smuggler’s boat capsized near the Buffalo Main Lghthouse off the rocky outcrop of the break wall. All lighthouse keepers were ordered to be on the lookout for the bodies of the dead Chinese. Then in the same month, a police boat had collided with a steamer right outside the Life Saving Station. The day following, a steamer floundered in the choppy, freezing lake water. Snow came early, the ice encrusted the Life Saving Station crew, and their boat took hours to reach the distressed vessel. At the end of the month the Station crew had the grim task of retrieving the body of a twenty-six year old man with the grappling hook.
Thirteen days into December, a light snow began falling over the Buffalo harbor in the early Sunday morning hours. The wind was picking up just as assistant keeper Edward began his trek across the harbor through the dangerous currents, on his way to relieve the head keeper at the Horseshoe Reef Lighthouse. The Life Saving Station keeper, Winslow Greisser, noted the snow and stiff breeze into the station log as the crew began preparations to close for the season. While Edward’s boat was being towed out to the light, another tug was working in the harbor.
The best of the tugs, the Yale was attempting to tow another vessel of the same name, the steamship Yale. (“The new steamer YALE was launched at the yard of the Cleveland Shipbuilding Co. this afternoon in the presence of the largest crowd that ever witnessed an event of the kind. A novel ceremony in connection with the launching was the singing of ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.’ and other songs by an opera company playing at a local theatre. The big boat went into the water without a hitch and will be completed Sept. 1. She is the largest boat ever built at this port and will undoubtedly be the best equipped freighter on the Great Lakes. She is owned by Robert R. Rhodes and others of this city. She is 396 ft. over all, 45 ft. beam, 28 ft. deep, constructed of open hearth steel throughout.” Excerpt from the Detroit Tribune; August 4, 1895.) On this fateful morning at approximately 9:00 a.m., two of the four-tug crew, O’Neill and Stiller were in the engine room working as firemen. The captain, Joseph Green, and the engineer, James Dickson, were both on deck towing the steamer Yale from the harbor to the mouth of the Buffalo River. As the steamer swung into the river, the strong current caused it to sheer toward the steamer A.E. Nettelton, moored at the Lackawanna trestle. The tug turned toward the government pier in an effort to head the steamer toward the pier, but it was not successful. Instead, the head line from the steamer caused the tug to list to the port side. Copious amounts of water rushed into the engine room with a tremendous strength of force. The line parted and the tug went down with the bow against the government wall, taking with her the crew of four.
Suddenly, the quiet harbor erupted into the blasting sounds of emergency vessels, Life Saving Station crews, and police boats. Although not noted this time in the station journal, usually when horrific accidents occurred, all lighthouse keepers were called into action to help with the rescue attempts. Divers soon arrived at the scene and plunged into the churning, icy water as they attempted to rescue the men. The captain and the engineer were able to launch a life craft and clung helplessly to its side in the frigid December water until rescued by the Life Saving Station keeper and crew. Fireman O’Neill was found by the divers, lodged between the smokestack and the flagstaff, on the verge of near collapse. Fritz Stiller was nowhere to be found.
Eighteen years, two months and thirteen days after Auguste Stiller departed Germany with her four children for a better life, her son was dead. Divers retrieved his body from the wintry water later in the afternoon. The deceased, his obituary read, was a member of the Tug Firemen and Linemen’s Association, Local No.6 and Licensed Tugmen’s Protective Association, Lodge No. 4. He was only thirty-two years, seven months and twenty-two days old.
Winslow Greisser would later record into the Life Saving Station journal, “The inrush of water was so great as to take down one of the firemen into the fire hole where he could not escape. The other fireman was rescued by keeper and surfman. The captain and engineer were taken from the life raft by one of the surfmen. The body of the fireman was recovered by a diver at 4:00 p.m. It was found jammed against the underside of the deck….”
Not all the details of the horrific accident could be entered into the space allotted in the station journal. Keeper Greisser continued recording the events onto a separate sheet of paper that he affixed by glue and then folded neatly into the logbook where it remained unfolded for the next one hundred and four years.
With only a death certificate and a log book entry that at best seemed to have mistakenly recorded an incorrect name for one of the vessels, Fritz’s story seemed as doomed as his fate on the tug. It was only after rereading keeper Winslow’s entry for the third time that the realization emerged that there might not be a mistaken entry in the journal. Perhaps, ironically, two vessels with the same name had been involved in the recorded accident.
Thus began the piecing together of a mystery and an irony of circumstance; the story of two Yales, the Buffalo harbor, and the journey of closure for a family one hundred and four years after the event. A digital image of the actual station journal entry, from previously documented research at the National Archives in Chicago, was sent to the family. Although it was emotionally difficult to read, they were awed and comforted by the relentless pursuit of keepers and divers in the attempted retrieval of Fritz despite the high winds, freezing temperatures, and ice filled waters. That the other three-crew members were saved was also a source of comfort. Finally, they said, there were the answers to questions they had waited so long to learn.
The two Yales also survived ironies of circumstance surrounding both the steamer and the tug. Earlier in her life, on April 24, 1900, the steamer Yale went aground in the entrance to the Buffalo harbor. She carried a full load of corn. Six tugs, the Dunbar, Cheney, Cascade, Hebbard, Gee (which would become the ill-fated Yale), and Conneaut went to her rescue.
Three years later, the steamer Yale participated in her own heroic rescue on October 26, 1903 when the propeller William F. Sauber bound for Lake Erie from Ashland, Wisconsin, sank in a gale. The Yale rescued most of her crew in what was termed “appalling conditions.” The skipper, whose arms were broken, was unable to help himself when a line was thrown to him and he drowned. He would not take the last seat in the lifeboat.
Although the tugboat Yale eventually took on yet another name, the “Columbia” before her demise in the 1920s, she continued to work the harbor. Almost one year later, her sister tug, the Princeton was rolled over in about the same location. The tug Yale went to the scene of the accident to search for the bodies of the crew. Only Captain James Sullivan of the Princeton escaped. He swam to the Life Saving Station dock.
In October of 1913, assistant keeper Edward Herman arrived at the Marblehead Lighthouse to begin his new assignment. The lighthouse tender Crocus made several trips back and forth from the Buffalo harbor to deliver his household goods and, later in the month, uniforms and an inspection by the District Superintendent. The Crocus therefore was not in the Buffalo harbor the following month when the monstrous storm of November 1913 swept over the Great Lakes with hurricane force winds. When it was apparent that something might have happened to Lightship No. 82, stationed outside the Buffalo Harbor, the tug Yale was chartered in the absence of the lighthouse tender. Her mission, under a directive from the assistant superintendent, was to search for the lightship until the Crocus could receive orders to return. The Yale was not successful and the Lightship No. 82, it was learned, had sunk leaving no survivors.
Plying her trade also meant the Yale occasionally chugged past other lighthouses and into various harbors located around Lake Erie such as Ohio’s Sandusky and Marblehead. On days when keeper Edward Herman stood watch on the deck of the Marblehead Lighthouse, sighting her passing must have brought forth haunting memories of that fateful day in the Buffalo Harbor.
In the recollections from an extended family member of Frederick Stiller it is written;
“My father used to work on tugboats and as a little child we looked at them working in the Port of NY. It is amazing how such a little thing moves such a large thing! I had a great uncle who was working on a barge that was being towed by a tug in Long Island Harbor. The tow line broke and the barge sunk killing him and the other man on the barge. Their bodies washed up on the shore [New England side] soon after the accident. My great uncle had worked on ammunition boats during WW II [Merchant Marine], a very dangerous job, and made it through the war alive but died in Long Island Harbor; very ironic. My great grandmother’s first husband was also lost at sea but in the North Atlantic and the accident therefore was not tug related at all. The water is a very dangerous place at times.”
Yes indeed, the water is a very dangerous place. And, like so many pieces of polished sea glass, the history within will be eventually washed up among the grains of sand on beaches and rocky shores, to rest while awaiting discovery by its rightful owners. The sea always gives back what she takes and relinquishes her stories to unfold for future generations, even if it takes one hundred and four years.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2012 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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