The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 19, 2012

Steaming into eternity

Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 had many ties to Conneaut

Staff Writer

CONNEAUT — Edward Pfister, the lighthouse keeper at Conneaut, was erecting a fog signal bell on the lighthouse tower when the carferry Marquette and Bessemer No. 2 steamed out of the harbor late in the morning of Dec. 7, 1909.

Pfister grabbed his hammer and banged on the bell to acknowledge the vessel’s passing. Capt. Robert McLeod heard the gong and waved to Pfister as the big vessel lumbered past the lighthouse and into the region’s first big storm of the winter.

“Get that thing fixed,” McLeod shouted to Pfister. “I may need it on my trip back.”

It was the last time a landlubber would see McLeod alive.

More than a century after the fact, the sinking of the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 remains one of the Great Lakes’ unsolved mysteries. The spot where it sank remains a matter of debate, as does why there were knives in the lifeboat. It is rivaled only by the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster for sheer drama and loss of human life.

The M&B No. 2 was just four years old when it sailed into storm that morning. She was owned by Marquette & Bessemer Dock and Navigation Company and was bilt to replaced the Shenango No. 1, a carferry that burned to the water line, while frozen in the ice at Conneaut.

Four railroad tracks ran the length of the 350-foot-long M&B No. 2. The tracks allowed rail cars to be pushed into the caverous hold and thereby shipped across the lake, with their contents, to Port Stanley, Ontario. Oddly, the American Shipbuilding Company did not install a stern gate across the opening through which those rail cars passed.

Capt. McLeod had complained to the builder about this issue after the carferry nearly foundered in a November storm. Water had rushed in “in a tremendous volume” and nearly extinguished the fires in the boilers. The captain, after making his complaint, was promised a stern gate — once the 1909 sailing season ended. Neverthless, McLeod told a friend that “if we were caught in a heavy sea and the cars shifted, a man would not have time to put on his hat before she would be at the bottom. She would do down like a shot.”

The stern gate issue aside, sailling on the carferry offered the best of both worlds for the sailor who enjoyed the comforts of domestic life and the adventure of a daily lake crossing. The round-trip run was completed in eight hours or so, enabling the sailor to be home for dinner and other domestic amenities.

Its connection to Ashtabula County is as strong as the Titanic’s was to Liverpool. Conneaut was the vessel’s home port, and many of the sailors who entrusted their lives to the 350-foot-long boat lived in the city.

There was the captain, originally from Kincardine, Ontario, and one of the six McLeod brothers who sailed the Great Lakes. His brother, John, was Robert’s first mate, and for a while lived in Conneaut, as well. Other crew members from Conneaut included Frank Stone, R.C. Smith, Chief Engineer Eugene Wood, E. Buckler, T. Kennedy, W. Wigglesworth, W. Wilson, F. Annis, P. Keith and P.  Hughes. Charles Allen, who for a while had a barbershop in Conneaut Harbor, also sailed on the M&B No. 2 as a coal passer. Assisting was William Ray, who was making his first trip on a boat. He was nervous and had every reason to be so.

The carferry had its share of sailors from across the ocean, as well. Tom Steele, fireman, came to the United States from Scotland three years earlier. He planned to make the Dec. 7 trip his last because he’d found work on shore. John “Paddy” Hart, a stereotypical sailor from Ireland, was an oiler whose tales of serving in the Second Boer War and sailing helped lubricate the human tensions aboard the ship.

The cargo aboard the M&B No. 2 that morning consisted of 26 cars of coal, three of structural steel and one of iron castings. It was a typical load for the carferry, which had a sister, the M&B No. 1, that ran out of the same harbor.

The No. 1, also known as the “collier,” carried only coal. Its destination was Rondeau, Ontario, about 40 miles west of Port Stanley. It had managed to slip out of the harbor by 6 a.m. that morning, but the M&B No. 2 encountered delays.

First there was the ore vessel whose stern had swung ito the channel after snapping her hawsers in the high wind. It took the tugs two hours to rectify the situation. Just as McLeod finally got the carferry under way, a man carrying a brown briefcase was spotted running along the dock and demanding passage. Grudgingly, McLeod reversed the engines and brought the carferry close enough to the dock for Albert J. Weiss to jump aboard.

Weiss, a former Ashtabula resident, was treasurer of the Keystone Fish Company of Erie, Pa., and had business to conduct in Port Stanley. His briefcase contained $50,000 in cash, which would be used to purchase a Canadian fishing company.

The mercury had been steadily dropping since the No. 1 steamed out of the harbor. It was 42 degrees that morning, but was heading to the low of 10. It was the wind and snow, however, that would send chills down Capt. McLeod’s spine.

Winds of 70 miles per  hour were recorded at locations all along the southern shore of Lake Erie. Snow squalls beat against pedestrians and steam locomotives alike, making transportation of any form nearly impossible. On the open lake, the storm was creating an icy hell of hopeless fury. Those captains that could made for the protection behind Long Point, Ontario. More than 30 freighters would ride out the gale there, but the M&B No. 2 would not be one of them.

Sometime around 2 p.m. the fishing tug owned by Frank Snyder, a commercial fisherman, was spotted between the sheets of snow as it wallowed in the heavy seas, still mile or more from shore. Covered with ice, the Alberta T. with its crew of Snyder, Adam Brabender, George Blake, John Keeler and George Smith finally made it into the harbor.

The men boasted of having passed the M&B No. 2 a few miles out. “Captain McLeod came out of the pilothouse with his megaphone and yelled something to us, but the wind was making so much noise we couldn’t tell what he was saying. We think he was asking us if we needed any help. We didn’t.”

Continued next week