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Conclusion to Titanic of the Great Lakes Sinks

Ethelyn Pearson

Some accounts claim that Captain Stines was not feeling well and thus had added incentive to return to Michigan as quickly as possible in order to see his doctor. Perhaps that was the reason that Captain Stines appeared so sad that evening, going so far as to confide in a Milwaukee stockholder that he regretted not resigning his commission the previous fall. Or maybe he had a premonition of what was to come. Whatever the reason, he is on record as saying that he wished he had not taken the Chicora out on voyage.

The Chicora left Milwaukee at 5:15 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 21. Twenty-three crewmembers and one passenger were onboard. The dawn weather was unseasonably pleasant: 50 degrees with a light rain. There seemed no reason for concern about the six-hour return trip. And while the vessel seemed to be struggling beneath the weight of its tons of cargo, the ship was designed to carry even heavier loads.

The outlook was considerably different across the lake. John Graham, owner of the Chicora, was waiting in Benton Harbor and becoming increasingly concerned by barometric readings. When the barometer continued to fall, Graham wired Captain Stines with instructions to not leave Milwaukee. Unfortunately, when the telegraph messenger arrived at the dock, the ship had already set sail 10 minutes earlier.

When the ship left Milwaukee, the southeast wind speed was 26 mph. But by the time the Chicora reached the middle of the lake, the wind had shifted and the January storm hit with full force. Buffeted by sixty-four mile per hour winds from the southwest, ice began forming from the rapidly dropping temperature. Battered by the sudden onslaught of blinding snow and ice, Chicora fought the storm all afternoon . . . and lost.

We have some idea of the conditions that awaited ship and crew. Three hours after the Chicora left Milwaukee, the F&P.M No. 4 vessel also left the same harbor en route to Ludington. Several hours into the voyage the No. 4 was forced to turn back after it encountered what its captain said was, "one of the severest gales he had ever seen."

When the Chicora didn't arrive in Benton Harbor later that day, it was assumed that the storm had delayed her arrival. By nightfall however, alarm set in. Even so, Graham assumed that the ship had been stopped by growing ice and that she would be back in port the following morning. A company agent assured the public that, "I do not despair of the safety of the Chicora. it is a good strong boat and ought to easily weather a storm like yesterday's. It was built especially for the winter transportation business." Like the unsinkable Titanic, it seemed impossible that such a ship could be lost to the lake.

The following day, telegrams were sent along the coast of Michigan, asking harbormasters to look out for the Chicora. Word spread that several eyewitnesses had described a ship in distress near South Haven; her stern was visibly sinking and the vessel's warning horn sounded continuously.

As soon as the weather allowed, rescue ships were sent out. The most poignant was the steamer 'City of Ludington' commanded by Henry Stines, brother of Captain Edward Stines. After two days of combing the waters for a trace of ship or crew, Henry Stines had to accept the tragic fact that he had lost both his brother and his nephew.

Wreckage soon began turning up off South Haven, prompting 5,400 people to search the frozen lake despite temperatures of 15 below zero. Some of the items retrieved were doors, cabin curtains, 12-ft-long upper bulwarks, mahogany casings and flour packed in barrels.

Men from the communities of Saugatuck and Douglas conducted their own search, venturing out onto the ice as far as they dared. A frozen line of wreckage was discovered, stretching from Saugatuck to South Haven, approximately three-fourths of a mile from shore. Saugatuck resident Christopher Schultz, his sons and the 'Wark boys' from Douglas retrieved what was later confirmed to be the Chicora's two masts and several oars. Empty flour sacks and bulwarks bearing the ship's name were also found.

These masts were given to the village of Douglas and installed that March as the official new flagpole. The pole served as the village flagpole until the 1930s, when its rotting condition led to the removal. Today the Chicora mast can be viewed at the Allegan County Museum.

When the ice thawed that spring, further evidence of the wreck of the Chicora turned up, the most notable being an engine room chair. On April 14, a note in a bottle was discovered. The message inside read, "All is lost, could see land if not snowed and blowed. Engine gave out, drifting to shore in ice. First Mate and Clerk are swept off. We have a hard time of it. 10:15 o'clock."

The same week, yet another message washed up. a note, sealed in a bottle, read, "Our machinery disabled. We could see land if it were not for the snow. Captain and Clarke have been swept overboard. We will all be lost; 10:30 o'clock. Goodbye J.D (sic) McClure." Although jokesters were often known to throw fake messages in bottles into the lake, Chicora engineer McClure had frequently told his family that he would indeed send a message in a bottle should he find himself in a disastrous situation. And the fact that the bottle cork was stuffed with cotton waste - the same type used in a steamer's engine room - increases the likelihood that the message was authentic.

Although built to withstand the ferocity of winter on the Great Lakes, even the formidable Chicora could not survive one of the worst recorded storms ever to hit Lake Michigan. For over a century historians, treasure hunters and divers have tried to discover where the hull of the Chicora lies.

In 2002, the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA) investigated a wreck resting on the bottom of Lake Michigan that was believed to be the Chicora. The remains of this wooden hull steamer lay just 275 feet from the shore of Saugatuck. However, video from later dives showed that the shipwreck's boilers and hatches did not match the Chicora's deck plans. Additional dives led researchers to conclude that the wreck was instead the remains of the lost ship H. C. Akeley.