This article was part of a series for the Lakeshore Guardian on various aspects of the Great Lakes.

Disasters on Display

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There is something macabre in us that attracts us to tragedies-especially if they happen to someone else. There is no shortage of tragedies to explore in the newly remodeled wing of the Port Huron Museum.

"We're making our museum more visitor-driven than volunteer-led," Curator T.J. Gaffney explained. "We used to have our displays set up for tour guides. Now there is a much better flow, and fuller explanations of the exhibits give anyone coming in a better understanding."

Gaffney recently took me on a tour of the new Marine Wing layout. He recounted the greatest inland maritime disaster ever to befall the United States, chronicled in last month's Lakeshore Guardian. Even though the Museum contains much more than just Great Lakes calamities, these were the things that caught my attention first.

Mystery ship sinking

There are probably few people alive today who recall the worst storm ever to hit Lake Huron, the blow of 1913. How bad was it? The HURON Lightship, anchored in the lake just north of the Port Huron, acted as a floating lighthouse. It marked the deep-water channel to safety. It was the only ship not seeking shelter from the storm-it had to guide other ships to safe harbor. The Lightship's anchor and chain were heavy enough to hold the ship on station for eight months of the year. Fortunately for the crew aboard, the massive chain was ripped apart by the wind and waves, and the Lightship was blown aground on the Canadian shore. But all of her sailors survived.

The result of the lightship blowing away was that the only guide to safe water during the storm was gone. Many ships that couldn't get to harbor were never seen again. Twelve went down in one night, with a combined loss of 235 men.

One of them came to be called the "mystery ship." Its hull floated upside down, unidentified for days after sinking. First sighted just north of Port Huron, divers were unable to discover the ship's name because of rough water. Part of the hull was touching the bottom, so the remains didn't float downstream. It wasn't until days later that divers could finally ascertain the name-the Charles S. Price.

Another ship lost in the storm had a ghastly tie to the Price-the S. S. Regina. The Regina was a floating general store, with hundreds of items for sale on board.

A day or two after the storm, bodies of both crews washed up on shore. Many had life preservers. But for some reason, some crewmembers of the Price were wearing life vests from the Regina, and vice versa.

Had there been a collision? Did one ship come to the aid of the other, and founder because of it? There were no survivors from either ship, so we will never know the answers for sure.

Later examination showed that the Price had had no damage either from ramming or being rammed. According to Curator TJ Gaffney, what most probably happened is that the two ships went down near each other, but independently of each other. When their sailors were washed ashore, scavengers began looting the bodies. On the arrival of the authorities, life jackets were hastily replaced so as to give the appearance that they had been untouched. But the jackets were put onto the nearest bodies, regardless of where they had come from.

Chain reaction closes River

Tailgating is an important cause of chain reaction automobile accidents. Something similar also occurred in the "St. Clair Rapids" in 1888. The Army Corps of Engineers didn't dredge a deepwater channel for shipping in 1893. Until then, ships did the best they could to get through the shallow, swift-flowing lake waters just north of the St. Clair River.

On that unfortunate day the Fontana was coming downstream out of the lake. It was entering the narrowest section of the lake before the river started, barely a quarter of a mile wide. She ran into the John S. Martin, being towed upstream.

Communications didn't exist in that era. Other ships northbound or southbound were in the water, unaware that the bottleneck through the rapids had been blocked.

A few hours later the Fontana was hit by the Kingfisher. The Martin, pulling free, was hit by the Yuma. Before it was all over, the Appomattox, Kaligula, Santiago, Samuel Marshall and Grover all ran into the mess. Four lives were lost. In order to clear the channel, the Fontana had to be dynamited.

Anchors and other memorabilia from this pileup are on display throughout the Marine Wing.

Collision with sister ship sends one to bottom

The Great Lakes cargo carrier Pewabic was built in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. The need for raw materials was great, and the ship steamed back and forth from the foundries to the copper mines in the Upper Peninsula. Her sister ship, the Meteor, was doing the same thing.

In an ironic twist of fate, the two ships ran into each other in 1865, and the Pewabic sank just off of Alpena. Its cargoes, while precious, did not warrant the expense of a salvage operation.

When World War I arrived, however, copper again became an important military commodity. The ships were found and its ingots salvaged. Many arrived in Port Huron at the Mueller Brass Company. The ingots were all stamped with the name of the shipping company as well as the name of the mine. Some of them escaped the smelter's cauldron, however-they are in a special display, along with other remnants of the lost ship.

"We are fortunate that many of these ingots found their way to our museum," explains Gaffney. "They were mostly donated by the families of former Mueller Brass workers. Of course, we like to assume that these 'souvenirs' the workers acquired were all purchased from the company…"

One of the most unusual ingots has a very high silver content-the highest found in any mine in North America. It is displayed at the HURON Lightship. Anthropologists have found jewelry and weapons fashioned from this copper throughout North America. It tells us that the natives not only worked the mines, but also used the copper for trade across the entire continent long before Europeans arrived.
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