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


‘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.”

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