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Lives and Vessels Sacrificed: Why Shipwrecks Still Captivate and Fascinate

Nov 20, 2023 09:19AM ● By Content Editor

Image: U of M Press

By Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media - November 17, 2023

An interview with author Michael Schumacher about his newest book, Too Much Sea for Their Decks: Shipwrecks of Minnesota’s North Shore and Isle Royale. 

Soenen: You have written five books and worked on 25 documentaries about the Great L.akes and the history of shipping. Some shipwrecks happened right off of the canal in Duluth, and others, off shore. As a scholar, can you share a few instances of shipwrecks that stunned even you either because of the number of crew lost or an incident that could have been prevented?  

Schumacher: I'm amazed by a lot of the sinkings. There's the burning of the Phoenix, which happened not far from the Sheboygan, Wisconsin port. There's the incredible rolling over of the Eastland, which claimed more passenger lives than the Titanic. There's the incredible loss of the Hurricane on Lake Huron in 1913. Then there are the "big three"—the Carl D. Bradley, the Morrell, and the Fitzgerald—which didn't lose as many lives, but which should have never happened, given what we knew about weather. 

Tough question: they're all tragic.

Soenen: During the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s during the Industrial Revolution, workers took enormous risks at factories, across industry and on the sea. There were few, if any, protections. Today, on shipping and fishing vessels, risk remains extremely high. What are your thoughts on the type of person that would work on Lake Superior at the turn of the last century? What did it take?

Schumacher: So many sailors grew up around the water. They had fathers, brothers, uncles, and so on, who worked as sailors. One of the most—and most consistent—answers I receive about working on the water is “What about the danger?” You don't think you'll be killed when you go three blocks to the grocery store. We don't think about danger when we sail. If anything, we think we're safer on a boat than on land.

Soenen: Last December and spring, Grand Marais experienced three history-making storms. Winds hit 94mph and the power of the spring Nor’easter turned the heads of people who have lived on the shore across many generations. Because our readership lives and works on the North Shore, tell us why November is historically the most punishing time of year for storms on Lake Superior.

Schumacher: November is a transition month. Cold air comes in from Canada. Warm air comes up from the South. The lake water is still relatively warm. When all three come together, look out. Even the best sailors in the world say Lake Superior is to be feared. 

Soenen: You write about the SS Mataafa and the 1905 storm on Lake Superior of the same name. That storm destroyed 29 vessels and killed 36 seamen. 29 crew members perished after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Why do you think the Mataafa is not remembered with as much reverence. Time? 

Schumacher: Time has a lot to do with it. We move on. The Fitz tragedy, I think, is memorable because no one knows why it sank. We love mysteries. In the case of the Mataafa, we know what happened to those unfortunate souls on the stern of the ship: they were not able to escape into the boat—it had flooded—and were stuck outside in sub-zero temperatures. They all died of exposure. 

Soenen: What are a few of the most inspiring stories you’ve read about captains battling the power and ferocity of Lake Superior, and winning against all odds?

Schumacher: I don't know that there are any, really. They see it as rough, but they treat it as something they beat. Pure and simple. The ones that die—that's another story, but we'll never hear it.

Soenen: In your book Too Much Sea for Their Decks you address how corporate greed impacted captains and crews. By cutting corners and discounting safety, ships and seaman were often pushed to the brink and the boats—often left to dock through storms that damaged them—which risked the health of the crew and the ship. Today, labor strikes are taking place coast to coast. Physicians, ski patrol, actors, pharmacy staffs, delivery workers, baristas, pilots and more are all striking for safety and equitable working conditions. The number of labor strikes is historic. Within the shipping and receiving industry today on the Great Lakes, what improvements have you studied over the last 20 years and have conditions for shipping crews improved?

Schumacher: This is an interesting question because while corporate greed is a factor in shipping accidents, the sailing community is just as guilty in its history of resisting change. There was a huge demand for change after the "unsinkable" Titanic hit an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage. Here in this country, there was huge demand for change. Laws were passed, including laws that addressed the trend of not having lifeboats for every passenger. However, the new laws had their own effect: the lifeboats took up space on the upper parts of the Eastland. Many believe this made her top-heavy…It usually took a major event to change anything. Boats didn't keep ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore radios, for instance. Accidents piled up and you can say they led to today's situation: every boat is equipped with both electric and battery powered radios. And this is just one example. We have enclosed life rafts, better survival suits, better life jackets, and so on. 

Soenen: The Pacific and Atlantic are majestic. What is it about the Great Lakes that captivates you most and why should readers care about these magical freshwater lakes?

Schumacher: Any sailor or officer will tell you that it's tougher sailing on the Great Lakes than on the oceans. Ocean waves are bigger than lake waves, but they come at you differently. Great Lakes produce waves that come at you in chops--or Christmas trees, as some of the sailors like to say. On today's thousand-footers, you can get three waves under you at one time, and that creates unbelievable strain. Yes, the oceans are much more majestic than, say, Lake Erie, but the smaller, freshwater lakes have their different kind of majesty.

Soenen: After all these years, what compels you to continue writing about and researching the Great Lakes? Why the lifelong fascination personally and professionally?

Schumacher: This is both an easy and a tough question to answer. It is easy because I love the Lakes and their stories, but tough because, to be brutally honest, there are only so many ways to sink a ship before you start becoming repetitive. It's a real challenge! A life lost is worth preserving, if only in writing, and so many have been given over time, So, you take the lives and vessels sacrificed and you have the challenge. This is what drives me forward.

Purchase Michael Schumacher’s book Too Much Sea for Their Decks: Shipwrecks of Minnesota's North Shore and Isle Royale at Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, Minnesota, or wherever books are sold:

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here