Three famous nautical disasters

September 26, 2002|By Knight Ridder/Tribune

AKRON, Ohio - For more than a century, Lake Erie was the great highway to the heartland of America, carrying millions of immigrants to their dreams.

It took thousands more to their deaths.

Their tragic tales have not been immortalized like that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Cleveland-bound steamer whose 1975 sinking in Lake Superior was told through the haunting lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot.

But if Lightfoot had lived in the 1800s, he would have been singing about the Atlantic, the City of Erie or the G.P. Griffith - Lake Erie's three greatest nautical disasters.

As the steamer Atlantic pulled away from Buffalo, N.Y., an exhausted Erik Thorstad turned his traveling chest into a makeshift bed and allowed Lake Erie to rock him to sleep.

The last two months had been exhausting: First a treacherous journey across the ocean, and then inland trips by railroad and wagon. The last leg between his old home in Norway and a new life in Milwaukee was the Great Lakes.

Some 500 other sleeping immigrants - Norwegian, German and Irish - were on board the Atlantic that foggy summer night of Aug. 20, 1852.

Just before 2 a.m., they awoke to a nightmare.

In a 150-year-old letter reprinted on the NorwayHeritage Project Web site, (www.norwayheritage.com), Thorstad recalled the "great confusion and fright" after the Atlantic collided with another ship off the tip of Long Point, Ontario.

At first, Thorstad didn't feel he was in immediate danger because the engines were still in motion. He watched aghast as panicked passengers piled into a lifeboat that capsized.

But the captain's attempt to speed for shore was thwarted. The mighty paddle wheels of the Atlantic stopped moving after water rushed into the engine room and flooded the boilers.

As the lower decks began to submerge, Thorstad raced to the top. He joined a group of people preparing to launch a small boat. They moved the craft away from the sinking ship by paddling with their hands, and were soon picked up by the Ogdensburg, the ship they had struck.

"The misery and the cries of distress which I witnessed and heard that night are indescribable, and I shall not forget it as long as I live," Thorstad wrote.

With the passenger manifest lost, officials could only guess as to how many people were lost that night. Most estimates suggest it was more than 250.

The first in the three Erie tragedies was a ship named the City of Erie. When the steamboat pulled away from the harbor in Buffalo on Aug. 9, 1841, it sported a brand new coat of paint.

On board were more than 200 German and Swiss immigrants, plus six painters who planned to finish their work at the next port. But that evening, sparks from the boiler lighted a pile of paint, varnish and turpentine, causing an explosion.

Three ships that saw the flames turned to help, but they were 20 miles away. The Erie raced for the shore but the wind fanned the flames. The fire consumed the life preserver belts, and the two small lifeboats that were launched capsized in the panic.

When the rescue ships arrived, the only survivors were 29 men clinging to debris in the choppy water. None of the women, burdened with heavy gowns, could stay afloat.

Like the Atlantic and the Erie, the G.P. Griffith was outbound from Buffalo with a load of immigrants the night of June 17, 1850.

The ship sailed toward Cleveland under the guidance of Captain C.C. Roby. It was his first trip as the ship's owner, and he brought his family with him to celebrate the occasion.

The paddle-wheel steamer carried 326 passengers, mostly Germans, but including a small group of English passengers on their way to Medina, Ohio, to join family who had settled there.

As the ship sailed near Willowick, a fire erupted in the cargo hold, probably caused by a shipment of matches.

The ship sped toward land, but half a mile from shore, it struck a sandbar.

As the Griffith began to sink, passengers jumped en masse into the water. Some were churned under by the paddle wheels. Others were knocked unconscious by those who jumped on top of them.

The next day, rescuers found just 30 men and one woman alive on shore. The rest washed up over a matter of days, and were buried in a mass grave.

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