The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

July 8, 2012

‘Perfectly fearless’

Laughing Jimmy Owen of Geneva faced life’s greatest storms with a smile and a dance

Second of a two-part series on the Big Blow of November 1913

On Nov. 14, 1913, with telephone poles still leaning across the rail lines between Ashtabula and Cleveland, Mrs. Jimmy Owen began a treacherous journey from Geneva to the offices of Acme Transit in Cleveland. For the next several days, Mrs. Owen waited there for good news regarding the fate of her husband.

He was, after all, Laughing Jimmy Owen, Dancin’ Jimmy Owen, a Great Lakes captain with a reputation for laughing in the face of danger, even danger of the magnitude of the Big Blow of November 1913.

The massive storm over the Great Lakes claimed the lives of more than 250 sailors and sent at least a dozen ships to their graves. The lucky mariners who survived the storm would, for the rest of their lives, hold captive their Christmas dinner guests with tales of grit and horror from November 1913. And at some point during that conversation, particularly for those who witnessed the Henry B. Smith steam into the worst nature has to offer, the tale would wed “laughing” and “foolhardy” into one sentence with the Owen surname as its subject.

Other writers and even Great Lakes historians have focused their research on the ship rather than its captain, and thus provide us with few details of the man behind one of our region’s great mysteries. Numerous 1913 sources give Owen’s city of residence as Geneva, although he is not accounted for in the 1910 Federal Census. Adding to the problem of tracking down genealogy on Owen is the fact his body was never found, although the assumption is he is buried with the ship in Lake Superior.

Robert J. Hemming, in his book “Ships Gone Missing,” describes Owen as “brusque, blunt and outspoken,” possessing the “sinless countenance of a Kentucky Bible thumper.” An unsourced quote expressed the general feeling about Owen among those who knew him: “It has been said of many men that they were generous to a fault. Somebody may invent a better phrase some day, but that accurately describes Captain Owen. Nobody with a worthy cause ever appealed to him for financial aid in vain.”

Owen was closing out his 36th year on the Great Lakes as the Smith limped into Marquette Harbor on Nov. 7, 1913. He was 54 years old and married, but newspaper accounts of his passing make no mention of any children. The one-sentence, Nov. 14, 1913, article of her trek to Cleveland simply identifies his wife as “Mrs. Owen, wife of Captain Owen of Geneva.”

If bereft of family, Owen was rich in nicknames. First was that ‘dancin’’ moniker. As soon as Jimmy Owen docked his ship at a port, he headed to the nearest dance hall to kick up his  heels. A circa 1910 photograph of him with several tourists on the Smith’s pilot house depicts a handsome, trim, physically fit gentleman.

He also was jolly.

His sister, Margaret Doran of Cleveland, told a reporter that “My brother laughed at danger. He laughed when he went into a storm and he laughed when he came out of it. Nothing was big enough to break down his great good nature and power to joke away difficulties. He was perfectly fearless.”

And so history tells us that Jimmy Owen was generous to a fault, and perfectly fearless to a fault, as well.

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