Located 7 Miles NE of Milwaukee and 3 miles from shore
GPS Coordinates 43° 08.242’N / 87° 49.888.00’W
The Milwaukee Carferry was built in 1903 as the “Manistique Marquette And Northern 1”. She was 338 feet long and at that length one of the largest ships to end its career at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
In 1908, while plowing her way through
heavy ice at Manistique, Michigan, she broke in and damaged several hull
plates. Barely making it to the dock of a lumber company she felt her
first taste of the bottom of Lake Michigan when she unceremoniously sank.
On October 22, 1929, after fighting through already building Northeast gale force wind and waves, Captain Robert “Heavy Weather” McKay swung the Milwaukee into the Grand Trunk docks on the Kinnickinnic river. Arriving from Grand Haven, Michigan.
By three o’clock in the afternoon the Milwaukee’s inbound cargo was unloaded and reloaded with 2 cars of bathtubs, 1 car of automobiles, 1 of cheese, 1 of grits, 1 of corn, 1 of butter, 1 of veneer, 2 cars of lumber, 2 cars of canned peas, 3 cars of barley, 3 cars of salt and 7 cars of feed. The cargo was roughly worth $100,000.00 and another $63,500.00 for the boxcars themselves.
The weather had picked up so badly no one, including the crew, expected the Milwaukee to leave port. Three men, in fact, left the ship to go see a movie in downtown Milwaukee. The storm continued to build and build as the minutes ticked by. Gale winds swept mountainous waves relentlessly from Upper Michigan to Indiana. The Milwaukee harbor breakwater was taking such a pounding, several 1,300 ton chunks of concrete were ripped away. At a little after 3:00pm the people who heard it found it totally unbelievable to hear the departure whistle and see the dark hulk of the Milwaukee take a heading out of port.
The last people to see the Milwaukee afloat was the crew of the U.S. Lightship 95, a ship anchored 3 miles offshore serving as a lighthouse. They reported the Milwaukee to be pitching and rolling heavily as it disappeared into the storm.
Then it was gone….
As the hours went on, the gale grew worse. The Milwaukee had no radio equipment and being several hours overdue wasn’t a major concern as it wasn’t uncommon for ships to steam up the lake taking the seas head on, then taking shelter behind Beaver Island.
When the Milwaukee was 36 hours overdue
a serious alarm went out, partly because the “Grand Rapids”,
another Grand Trunk Carferry, had arrived safely in its dock. It had left
Milwaukee 4 hours after Captain McKay and saw no sign of his ill fated
The next morning proof of the tragedy emerged with the finding of two bodies off of Kenosha. Both had on life perseveres marked. “S.S. Milwaukee”. The watch worn by one of the sailors had stopped at 9:45. Later that same day the captain of the steamer “Steel Chemist” found two more of the unfortunate crew. Another body was picked up still later by the “Albert Gary” farther out in the lake. By nightfall two more were found.
On the 26th of October near Holland, Michigan, across the lake, more debris and a lifeboat from the Milwaukee was found. Four crewmen escaped the sinking ship only to die of exposure and exhaustion during the horrendous trip across the lake.
The next day, along with finding an “unused” lifeboat and other debris washing ashore, Francis Deto of the South Haven Coast Guard Station found the ship’s waterproof message case. Inside the note read:
S.S. MILWAUKEE, OCTOBER 22, ‘29
THE SHIP IS MAKING WATER FAST. WE HAVE TURNED AROUND AND HEADED FOR MILWAUKEE.
PUMPS ARE WORKING BUT SEA GATE IS BENT IN AND CAN’T KEEP WATER OUT.
FLICKER IS FLOODED. SEAS ARE TREMENDOUS. THINGS LOOK BAD. CREW ROLL IS
ABOUT THE SAME AS LAST PAYDAY.
Checking the handwriting it was definitely written by the ship’s purser. The “Flicker” is another name for the crew quarters, located below the car deck near the stern of the ship.
Being that this message had been written at 8:30pm and the watch on the first recovered body had stopped at 9:45, the Milwaukee must have taken a pounding from the waves for roughly an hour and 15 minutes, after the case was thrown overboard, before finally giving up the surface.
After an intensive investigation it was the unanimous feeling of the Milwaukee inspectors that simply “Stress Of Weather” was the cause of the Milwaukee’s sinking. Dickerson N Hoover, Supervising Inspector General of the Steamboat Inspection Service said in his report:
“… it is evident that Captain McKay of the Milwaukee knew full well the weather conditions when he started out on his last trip, having just crossed the lake a few hours previously… Whether he went out of his own free will and accord (or was ordered out) we cannot positively state. The fact stands out quite clearly that each of the four Grand Trunk ferries had left port and were out in the big storm of October 22, while car ferries of the other lines remained in port or did not venture out again until the storm abated.”
Where the Milwaukee lay on the bottom remained a mystery through the years. In 1961 a Miller Fisheries Tug, fishing in Kenosha, snagged a lifeboat davit with her nets. They assumed they found the Milwaukee and announced it to the press, but was later proven wrong.
On April 14, 1972, aboard the R.V. Hunter, Kent Bellrichard, John Steele and Roger Chapman found the Milwaukee’s resting place by accident. Though bound for Two Rivers, WI, Steele lowered his modified government surplus submarine sonar system into the water around Fox Point. This idea developed from a tip to Bellrichard from local fisherman after snagging their lines on something in that area. A big target appeared within one and one half miles of where they started. At 11:00pm they lowered a television camera and lights to the spot and saw “Rivet heads on a porthole”. Being so late at night, they put off diving it right away and continued on their way.
The weather turned bad and it was more then a week before they could identify their find. There painted on the stern was the name, “Milwaukee”.
On later dives Bellrichard found the stern gate was “twisted like a pretzel” and that it appeared as though the crew was trying to rig something to secure a loose boxcar. “There are some cables sort of draped around the stern and some great big jacks back there.”, Bellrichard stated. One car is crossways across the stern. Quite a few amidships lean against the sides of the hull. A few up forward are still on the rails.
The Milwaukee sits upright on the bottom facing North, indicating that McKay may have had the ship heading into the storm trying to keep from being overwhelmed.
In 1991 divers Brian Black and Frank Wilson stated “In all our dives we have only seen one railroad car with wheel locks on the rails and have not seen any car with hold down chains on. In fact there are hold down chains still in the storage rack on the stern.”
They also offered this scenario on the sinking: “Since the carferry Milwaukee was built heavier then other carferries of its type and was under powered, she had a tendency to plow more into the waves and to roll heavily. This caused the unfastened cars to come loose and damage the storm gate. This is verified by the fact that three of the stern box cars are missing and a fourth car is sideways on the car deck. The storm gate is broken off on the starboard side. It is bent in the shape of a “W” and is hanging off the stern.
When the carferry turned around it was probably unable to stay ahead of the waves since it was under powered and plowing. With the storm gate damaged they would have been unable to hold the following seas out. Each wave would have just washed down the car deck flooding the below deck areas. The flicker “was” flooded as indicated by the intactness of the wooden walls. If it had not have been flooded the walls would have been washed away by the in rushing water.
There are cracks in the boilers and the inspection doors are blown off. The sides of the hull above the rub rail in the boiler room area are blown out. This damage would indicate that the boilers still had some steam pressure on them when the carferry sank.
The controls for the triple expansion engine are in the stop position. Captain McKay realizing the hopelessness of the situation due to the below deck flooding and the inability of the pumps to keep up, ordered the engines stopped so that the crew could abandon ship.
The lifeboats found off of the Michigan shore would indicate that an attempt to abandon ship was made. The lifeboats were lowered but the carferry sank before the crew could board them. Except for four crewmen who somehow got aboard one of the lifeboats only to die from exposure.”
The Milwaukee today still rests on the bottom in all its glory. The sides of the ship through the years have broken free and have slid down dropping the upper deck on top of the lower deck. The rest of the ship is caving in down the center. One of the boxcars missing from the rear deck has been found under the starboard screw. The pilot house rests upright roughly 100 feet off the port bow. The boxcars have broken open and the contents have spilled out on the deck. Though zebra mussels are now covering most everything on the wreck, the cargo of bathtubs and toilet tanks are still identifiable. The carload of automobiles has crushed down to a basically a pile of rubble and any kind of penetration gets more hazardous every year.
The Milwaukee, once the pride of the Grand Trunk lines, is now basically a broken pile of rubble in the depths, but still the pride of Milwaukee area shipwrecks.
Written on August 25th, 2005 by Rick Richter
Silent Helm Underwater Productions