The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 11, 2012

Saga of the John B. Lyon

Old steamer suffered long stream of mishaps before finally going down off Conneaut

Staff Writer

— The hurricane that smashed into Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 8, 1900, left up to 12,000 individuals dead in its wake. It was the deadliest natural disaster to every strike the United States.

The category 4 storm marched across the United States after devastating Galveston and, by Sept. 11, its tail was stirring the Great Lakes into deadly cauldrons. The effect was particularly devastating on Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five lakes. Captains sought safety in the harbors all along the southern lake shore as the hurricane took one final swipe at mariners and their ships.

The storm found a ready target near Conneaut about 2:30 a.m. Sept. 12, when the Steamer John B. Lyon foundered and 10 crew members perished.

That the Lyon perished in that storm is no great surprise; there was hardly a boat on the Great Lakes with a longer history of misfortune than the Lyon, which was named after John B. Lyon, a prominent Chicago grain merchant.

Launched in 1881 at Cleveland, the Lyon was but 274 feet long and built of wood. A single decker, she was built to handle bulk cargoes, primarily grains. The ship was originally equipped with two masts and sails, but two compound steam engines producing 1,426 horsepower were added to the vessel.

The Lyon operated with at least one tow barge and frequently two or three. But the poor steamer had a difficult enough time keeping itself afloat and out of trouble without those added burdens. An entire story, written by Jack Mesmer, has been written about the many mishaps of the Lyon and be read at Some of the highlights of the Lyon’s troubled service include:

In May 1881 her propeller went aground in Chicago Harbor for three days while inbound with a load of coal. It took 12 tugs and a lighter to release the steamer.

The day after being released, the Lyon collided with the schooner Jones at a coal dock. The Lyon’s wheel was damaged and had to be replaced.

Another collision, with a canal boat, occurred in the Buffalo River that fall. There were two more mishaps that season, including a severe mauling by a gale on Lake Michigan.

At least two mishaps are documented for the 1882 season, and in 1883 she ran aground at least twice.

In 1884 the steamer caught fire at Buffalo after taking on a load of coal for Chicago. A candle in the hold used by coal trimmers was the cause of the blaze that caused $500 in damage.

An ice field damaged her propeller in early 1885, requiring nearly $2,000 in repairs. A period of relative calm continued thereafter until November 1887, when she went aground at least twice, damaging her wheel. More grounding problems plagued the Lyon in 1888.

Misfortune continued to hound the Lyon throughout the 1890s. Capt. Frank Perew, who had commanded the Lyon since she came out in 1881, finally had enough and sold the steamer in June 1892 to Capt. J.C. Gilchrist and others in Cleveland. Gilchrist changed the Lyon’s mission; no longer would Chicago be her primary port and grain  her main cargo. Equipped with a new wheel to improve her speed, the Lyon was pressed into coal service for Lake Superior.

The Lyon soon found trouble, striking bottom while entering Traverse Bay in November 1892. Her rudder was disabled by the incident.

The 1895 season brought more collisions and groundings, including one near Port Huron that required 800 tons of her cargo be removed before she could be released.

After an uneventful season in 1896, one of the Lyon’s cabins caught fire while on Lake Huron and, a few days later, an unusual accident took the life of crewman Martin White.

There came thereafter the calm before the literal storm. The Lyon’s final voyage began at Marquette, where she took on a load of iron ore destined for Cleveland. When she left Marquette, a crew of 14 men under Capt. A.H. Sengham of Marine city was onboard. Also making the trip was a passenger, Minnie Loskiel, the wife of the ship’s steward, Gust Loskiel. The Lyon was towing a barge, the F.A. Georger, to be delivered at Ashtabula before the Lyon went to Cleveland to unload.

The consort was successfully left at Ashtabula late in the evening of Sept. 11, 1900. The vessel then headed toward Cleveland to unload its ore. But the chief engineer, Charles Willows, complained to the captain that coal at Cleveland, where they would take on the fuel, was of poor quality. He said better quality coal could be had at Fairport Harbor, and the captain made for that port. However, suitable fuel could not be found there, so incredibly, they made for Erie, Pa., with the cargo of iron ore still in the hold. The logic in this was that the wind would be at their back.

“Leaving Ashtabula, we started for Cleveland arrived at a point about two and one half miles west of Cleveland when we had to turn back and start for Erie for coal and shelter,” W.H. Braud told the Marine City, a Michigan newspaper. “This was about 11 o’clock Tuesday night. We started from Ashtabula with only about 12 hours’ supply of coal on board, and the captain finding that we had not sufficient coal to make headway in the heavy sea, decided to turn back. The sea kept getting heavier all the time, so heavy even that some of the seams parted.”

Shortly after midnight, Braund was relieved at the wheel and set about “hustling around with the captain and mate, attempting to save the ship.” One of their tactics was to fill two pairs of pants with black oil and trail them overboard “in hopes of calming the sea.”

“The experiment had no perceptible effect, as the wind was blowing at the rate of about 76 miles an hour, and the sea was very heavy,” Braund told the newspaper.

The Lyon soon began to leak, and the captain sent several crew members into the hold in an attempt to locate and repair the crack.

“From every part of the ship we could hear water rushing into the hold below,” Braund told the newspaper. “The captain ordered the second mate and myself to go down and see the cause of it. When we got below we found the decks had been badly sprung and that the water was rushing through, filling up the vessel inside on top of the cargo.”

Next, the captain ordered the men cut through the ship’s ceiling so the water would run off into the bilges and be pumped out. But a great sea swept over the ship as the men were cutting and caved in a hatch and section of the deck on top of the six men in the hold.

“We were thrown into total darkness, but managed to pick our way on the deck again,” Braund told the newspaper. “There we met an awful sight. Every sea that boarded the ship went down through the opening in her deck, (filling) her with water.”

A half-hearted effort was made to launch the lifeboat, but the men know it would be futile in these seas. And then another sea washed over the vessel, and the whole deck was swamped. “Her sides sprung in; a large wave raised her stern and she broke in two and plunged bow first into the depths,” Braund recalled.

David Brown, second engineer on the Lyon, would recall the vessel going down “like a ball of shot.” Brown scarcely had time to get out of the engine room and grab a life preserver before the Lyon disappeared in about 80 feet of water about five miles off Elk Creek, Erie County, Pa.

It was 2:30 p.m. Sept. 12, 1900, when she disappeared.

The Lyon quickly became a mass of wreckage in the violent seas. Braund recalled that it was impossible to hold onto one piece of debris for very long, for the waves were so strong they soon weakened the grip. “I finally succeeded in getting a piece of wreckage about 6X8 feet with a shattered piece of deck beam projecting out by which I could hang on with legs as well as arms till that little float managed to drift ashore,” Braund told the newspaper.

Braund was discovered by “two powerful fishermen” who spotted him about 60 feet from shore and rushed into the water to save him. They carried Braund to a fisherman’s shanty, where he remained unconscious for nearly 36 hours.

The fishermen, by the name of Daggett, also found several other survivors near Braund, including the steward’s wife. Fireman James H. Spencer and several others helped the woman to a mass of wreckage as the ship went down. They lashed her and themselves to some wreckage and drifted into the open sea as the Lyon disappeared below the waves.

“The woman’s predicament was a terrible one. She nearly died from sheer fright and exhaustion,” reported the Erie Daily Times. “It was nearly fifteen hours after the boat went down that they drifted to the shore east of her, more dead than alive.”

The gale was still heavy the next morning, but as reports of survivors coming ashore reached the Conneaut and Ashtabula harbors, rescue efforts were launched. It was too late.

Six persons survived the ordeal: Brown, Braund, Spencer, wheelman Peter Bishop, deckhand “Charley,” and Minnie Loskiel. Dead were Capt. Senghas, who had given up his life preserver to a man known only as “Deckhand Billy,” who also perished. The other dead were First Mate Oscar Carlson (Colson in some sources), Second Mate George Tyler, Chief Engineer Willis, watchmen Michael Nestor and a Mr. Tyler (the second mate’s father), fireman William Smith, “Deckhand Billy” and Gus Loskiel, the steward.

Inquiry into the incident revealed that the Lyon was overloaded, especially given the heavy seas. But overloading was a common practice in those days, when the only way to make the smaller vessels profitable was to push them beyond their practical limits. Further, the long string of mishaps that had pounded the Lyon through her nearly 20 years of sailing finally caught up with her on that night near Conneaut.

In hindsight, Capt. Senghas should have stayed in Ashtabula and weathered out the storm, but history is by made by both poor and wise decisions. For the Lyon, it was one bad decision after another.

Note: There is considerable disagreement on the number of dead from this incident and the names. Some sources list only nine dead. There is also disagreement of where the Lyon went down, whether off Conneaut or some point farther east, near the Elk Creek.