The Ultimate Storm

Nobody ever knew where or when the boats sank. There were no survivors.

The only possible explanation seemed to be that the two ships had collided, mortally injuring each other, and that some of the Price ’s people scrambled aboard the Regina in those last desperate moments. But a few days after the storm died down, the all-but-submerged hull of a big cargo boat, bottom-side up, temporarily kept at the surface by air trapped in the hull, was found in the open a dozen miles north of the Port Huron exit. Very little of this dead craft could be seen, and it seemed important to make an identification, so a diver was taken out to the boat and he went twenty or thirty feet underwater and groped along the submerged plates of the bow until he found the raised letters giving the boat’s name. In the green darkness he traced them with his hands, spelling the words out letter by letter, and then surfaced to report. It was the Charles S. Price . Before anything could be done in the way of salvage, the trapped air escaped and the hull went to the bottom, and it has been there ever since. The diver reported that he found no sign of collision damage, but it has never been clear whether he examined enough of the hull to be certain that no collision had taken place.

Strange business. And there was more. Just before the Price sailed from Cleveland on her final voyage, an engineer officer named Milton Smith had a powerful hunch: he simply did not want to sail on this trip, so he took himself off the payroll (despite the pleading of the chief engineer) and stayed ashore. It was he who later went to Ontario and identified certain bodies as those of Price crewmen.

THE SORT OF THING that must have happened to some of the lost ships was described later by the captain of the steamer Matoa , which started up Lake Huron early Sunday morning, November 9, with a load of coal for the Upper Peninsula. The Matoa was about six hours out of Port Huron, steaming north through a sea that was giving no trouble at all, when she suddenly met tremendous waves sweeping down the lake, followed by a blinding snowstorm. The after cabin was wrecked, and the galley and messroom were washed out, with tons of water down in the engine room; on the open deck the strongbacks holding down three hatch covers were carried away. The temperature dropped to fifteen degrees, and the after part of the boat was quickly encased in ice.

In desperation, the captain of the Matoa , needing a harbor of refuge above all things, took the considerable chance of turning his boat around, got the wind astern at last, and ran before the storm. The Matoa fought the storm in mid-lake all day long. The captain was just beginning to hope that the worst was over, when deck plates began to split open, and it was obvious that Matoa was going to break up … at which point she ran hard aground on a reef not far from Pointe Aux Barques. “It’s lucky that we stranded,” the captain said later, adding that in the open lake they could not have stayed afloat another half hour. After roosting on the rocks for two long days, the crew was rescued by a tugboat. The Matoa was a total loss.

For days bodies drifted onto the Ontario coast at the lower end of the lake.

Similar was the experience of the Howard M. Hanna, Jr. , which set out from Lorain, Ohio, for Fort William, Ontario, on Saturday morning, coming up into Lake Huron about the same time as the Matoa . The weather was good and the northwest breeze was light; then, after a few hours, the wind boxed the compass, swinging around to southeast, then on to northeast, and finally to north-northeast; snow flurries developed into a blinding snow-storm—and then the worst of it came all at once, full orchestra, wrecking the after cabin and sending torrents down into the engine room. The Hanna could make no headway. With engines working at full speed she could’ not even hold her head to the wind, and presently she dropped off and fell into the trough, rolling heavily but never quite going all the way over.

Sometime after ten on Sunday night the storm slammed the helpless vessel onto an offshore reef near Port Austin Light. The crash broke the hull in half; the smokestack was already gone, fore and aft the deckhouses were wrecked, and while the deck force took what shelter they could find at the captain’s end of the boat, the rest of the crew huddled in the wreckage at the engineer’s end. The Hanna of course was unsalvageable; somehow, lifesavers got out and rescued the crew.