The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

July 8, 2012

‘Perfectly fearless’

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

Staff Writer

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.

‘Corporate pressure’

Owen was employed by Acme Transit Co., which was owned by William A. and Arthur Harrison Hawgood of Cleveland. The Hawgoods held Owen in high regard and entrusted him with their newest vessels (there were eight of them in the fleet). Owen was the only captain that the Henry B. Smith had known. The 13-year-old vessel was built in Lorain and was 565 feet long and had a beam of 55 feet. She was 6,631 gross tons and 5,229 net.

“Beesen’s Marine Directory” described the star of the Hawgood fleet as “one of the staunchest steel vessels on the lake.” Jimmy Owen had good reason to believe in the invincibility of his boat and his skills at handling her.

Based in Cleveland, the ship was no stranger to Ashtabula. A 1910 photo postcard shows the Smith with the old swing bridge in the background. That was a good year for Owen; he was, by every measure, a successful Great Lakes captain. He kept the Smith in the water and on the move, essential to making money for its owners, for no vessel makes a profit when it is tied up at dock or behind the breakwater awaiting a storm to pass.

The 1913 shipping season, however, brought a plague of problems beyond Owen’s control. It seemed as if every time he arrived at a lower-lake port, the Smith was a Johnny-come-lately and had to take its place behind a long row of vessels. Other times, mechanical failures at the docks prevented loading or unloading the Smith. During these waits, which could amount to three or four days, the boat continued to burn fuel and required insurance and maintenance. And its crew members continued to eat, and rather voraciously at that.

There also seemed to be an abundance of fog in congested shipping lanes that year, especially whenever the Smith was in the neighborhood. Prudent captains could do nothing other than drop anchor and wait, a scenario the owners despised as much as having their ships idle at port.

By the time November 1913 rolled around, Owen was a worried man under great pressure, the kind of pressure familiar to any person who has to answer to “corporate.” There were rumblings that Owen, unless he could make up for the dismal performance up to that point, would be looking for another vessel, perhaps a fishing tug or aged freighter, come spring. It took only one bad season to get knocked from the corporate pedestal.

Thus, it was with great personal interest that Owen had one eye on the weather and the other on the loading chutes of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad the evening of Nov. 7, 1913. Both were dismal sights. The weather was getting worse by the hour and the forecast for a sou’wester seemed an understatement. The cold weather had frozen the ore in the hopper cars and made loading the Smith difficult and time consuming. When the storm struck Marquette with its full fury the morning of Nov. 8, loading was suspended and the dock workers sent home. Standing in the Smith’s pilothouse, Owen must have felt as if he were passing his final days there ... and indeed he was.

Perhaps, also, as Owen watched this dismal scenario, his mind went back eight years to the sinking of the Iosco, which Owen had once sailed upon. In a September gale, the Iosco and schooner Olive Jeannette foundered on Lake Superior while loaded with iron ore destined for a Lake Erie port. Twenty-six sailors perished as the Iosco’s captain, Nelson Gonyaw, attempted to find shelter among the islands east of the Keweenaw peninsula.

Soon it would Owen’s turn to face a scenario similar to that Gonyaw experienced on the same lake and with the same cargo. Turning his face toward the wind, Owen laughed; he would do better, he would deliver the goods, and restore his good name with the Hawgoods.

‘I am coming’

To do that, the Smith had to take on cargo and thus justify the risk. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, Owen begged the top brass of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic dock to reverse their decision and start loading the Smith. Amazingly, superintendent Harland ordered the dock workers to return to their posts the morning of the 9th.

Upon hearing the good  news, Owen asked a dispatcher to send a wire to Acme Transit: “I will clear as soon as the ore is aboard. Wire the owners that I am coming.”

The loading went poorly. The cold weather exacerbated the frozen-ore situation; small coal fires had to built under the cars as they waited on the track leading to the dumpers. Owen grew impatient as the daylight and hopes dimmed. As dusk descended upon Lake Superior, first mate John Tate signalled to the dock crew that the Smith’s holds were at last filled.

Then, to the amazement of dock workers, but perhaps not so much to the crew of Laughing Jimmy, the captain gave the order to cast off the lines and enter the white hell before her hatch covers were in place!

The Smith backed away from the dock and steamed slowly ahead. Owen’s plan soon became obvious: he intended to sail through the breakwater and into what would be remembered as the worst storm of the century. Worse, the deck was so buffeted by the waves and wind, it was impossible for the crew to finish the task of covering and securing the hatches, aside from each man willing to commit his life to the Hawgoods’ unspoken motto of profits over people.

Steamers Denmark and Choctaw were moored along the route taken by the Smith, and the crews of those idled vessels must have held an early Thanksgiving as they watched the Smith’s crew frantically attempt to secure the hatches. Tons of water exploded into the pilothouse and sprayed across the deck where the hapless laborers wished they had chosen farming or carpentry for occupations. It was too late now.

The Smith steamed directly into the lake for about 20 minutes; her progress being monitored by Capt. Charles Fox of the Choctaw, as well as many landlubbers on shore. The course for the Soo Locks would have been to haul to starboard, to the east, but instead the Smith turned to port and rolled violently as she fell into the troughs of the seas. Observers estimated that the seas were 10 feet over the Smith’s spar deck.

At that point, it was likely Owen knew he had made a huge blunder, one that even he could not laugh at. Those watching the drama unfold could only wonder what maneuver this experienced captain would attempt in an effort to rectify a season’s worth of bad luck. There was only one logical one: set a course for the shelter of Keweenaw Point, where the more prudent captains were waiting out the storm.

Then again, Jimmy Owen was not being logical that night.

“If Captain Owen, after seeing that the sea was too strong for him, endeavored to seek shelter, he could have turned to ports along the Keweenaw shore, which furnish perfect protection,” Capt. Murphy of the Frontenanc told a reporter. “But then, a man who would have left port in a storm like that would do anything.”

“We watched her turn, but it was getting dark,” recalled an observer who viewed the drama from shore. “And since boats frequently turned north or west for a time to keep out of the trough of the seas, we thought nothing of it and went home.”

No one is certain when or where the Smith went down in Lake Superior. She never made it to the Soo Locks, and the crew of other ships that would have passed her on that course never saw the vessel.

Capt. Kennedy of the steamer Peter White thought he heard distress signals while anchored in the lee of Grand Island’s Trout Point. He asked his second mate Milton J. Brown if he heard them. Brown strained to listen above the roar, then said, “No. You must be hearing things. Nobody in their right mind would go out in this weather.”

Good fortune

To this day, the Smith has not been found. Debris from the ship began to come ashore about two days after she was last seen. There were several oars with her name stenciled upon them, as well as cabin doors and pieces of wood painted white. And bodies, two bodies.

The first was found two weeks after the Smith went missing. It was that of Henry R. Haskin, second cook. Cooks were often the first to don their survival gear when the situation looked hopeless. His body was found about 50 miles west of Whitefish Point.

Six months passed, and the badly decomposed body of engineer John Gallagher was discovered at Michipicoten Island. An engraved watch and papers in his pocket provided identification.

In June 1914 a fisherman found a bottle with a note inside, addressed to the Hawgood Company. The worn, water-soaked, partially illegible note stated that the Smith had broken into two parts at the number 5 hatch while 12 miles east of Marquette. A badly blurred “O” could be discerned at the bottom of the note, suggesting Owen had jotted down the details in an effort to provide the ship’s owners with information the insurer would want to know. Most historians consider the note bogus, however, because it was dated Nov. 12, at least two days after the Smith steamed into the stormy night.

As for appeasing the Hawgoods, that was unnecessary. The company successfully collected the $335,000 insurance payment.

The ship’s other 23 crew members, including Laughing Jimmy Owen, never came ashore. Unless, that is, as Frederick Stonehouse, author of “Went Missing” suggests, their bodies were buried in the sand along the south shore of Lake Superior. The Big Blow of November 1913 was so violent, it literally changed the geography of the shore, filling in what had been swamps and bayous with sand and debris.

Amid this tragedy, there was a bit of good news. Second mate James Burke of Cleveland decided to jump ship at Marquette on account of pneumonia. He’d had enough of storms, the maniacal laughter of a fearless captain and the painful congestion in his lungs. From Marquette he began the long journey home over blizzard-struck land and lake. The news of his death preceded him; after all, he was a crew member, and so it was assumed ...

Burke’s wife saw the announcement of her husband’s death in the newspapers and traveled to Ashtabula for the comfort of her sisters, Mrs. T.A. Findley and Miss Mary Adamson, on Nov. 15, a Saturday.

Meanwhile, James Burke was making his way from Marquette to Ashtabula. He arrived in the harbor the evening of Nov. 15 and took a street car to the uptown area, where he would catch the first west-bound passenger to Cleveland. His trek through the city took him past the Adamson Hotel, where his wife was bawling out her eyes.

At Our Mother of Sorrows Church, prayers were raised for Burke’s soul the following morning. And it was about that time a telegram arrived from Cleveland, announcing to his wife that he was waiting for her at home.

There were at least two other instances of what some may call divine intervention, or at the very least, pure luck, in connection with this disaster.  Roy Kelley, a Smithport, Pa., resident was supposed to be aboard the Henry Smith when she sailed for Lake Superior. But on Nov. 7, Kelley got off the ship at Cleveland and started hiking toward Ashtabula Harbor.

Also blessed were Mr. and Mrs. F.O. Brown, who had planned to take the Smith back to Cleveland after visiting friends in Marquette. But Owen, who was known for being a congenial host to guests aboard his vessel, this time neglected to invite them. Or did he have a premonition?

In the little bakery shop on Detroit Avenue, where Jimmy’s sister Margaret Doran sold her fancy coconut cookies, she refused to see her brother as anything but brave.

“They say he went into this storm as he did into others, and I’m sure he was never freightened a moment at the end,” she told a reporter.

Others said Owen had suffered a mental breakdown or fortified himself with alcohol in order to satisfy the Hawgood’s insatiable taste for profits. Some of the men who’d been in port that day swore that Owen required the assistance of two dark, swarthy men to help him onto the ship that Sunday afternoon; Dancing Jimmy Smith could barely stand, let alone dance, they laughed.

Whatever his condition, it is Jimmy was just trying to redeem his reputation as a reliable, profitable captain for the Hawgoods. And as Cleveland dug out from the worst November blizzard in misery, Mrs. Jimmy Owen continued to pass her time in the Hawgood office, awaiting the news that both the Smith and its captain had weathered the storm and was just off Cleveland harbor, ready to deliver its load.

The news, the ship, never arrived. And she returned to Geneva the widow of Dancin’, Laughing Jimmy Owen.