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History: Titanic of the Great Lakes sinks

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Ethelyn Pearson

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Winter starts early on the Great Lakes. November is a hazardous month for sailors. At that time violent lake storms occur due to a collision of warm air moving in from the Gulf with the polar air coming down from Canada. While January has not claimed as many ships as November, that is only because the thick pack ice on the lakes is not conducive to travel during midwinter. One boat, however, was designed to weather the ferocious icy storms of January: the doomed Chicora.

The Chicora belonged to the steamship line known as Graham and Morton Transportation, a company proud of its safety record dating back to 1875. Graham and Morton were convinced that with a sturdy enough vessel, the Lake Michigan shipping season could become a year-round enterprise. They also had a wary eye on a competing steamship line that ran both freight and passengers between St. Joseph, Chicago and Milwaukee.

With that in mind, the 210-foot Chicora was designed to not only cut through winter ice, but to give the passengers a deluxe experience. Like the Titanic, she was outfitted with a grand staircase. No expense was spared on the cabins, which were finished with the finest mahogany. Staterooms were modeled after the luxurious Pullman car. As the newest and most impressive ship of Graham and Morton, the Chicora boasted 56 staterooms (with sleeping facilities for 200 passengers), a spacious social hall and smoking room and an oak and mahogany dining room. Illumination was provided by incandescent electric lights, many covered with tinted colored shades.

But hauling heavy freight in bad weather had to be taken into consideration as well, thus the Chicora was built with a massive triple expansion engine, two steel Scotch boilers and a heavy duty timber frame and thick wooden hull. Capable of speeds exceeding 16 knots, or seven miles an hour, here indeed was the perfect ship.The Chicora could not only transport passengers to Chicago in style every summer, she was also designed to push her way through the pack ice and ferocious winter storms of Lake Michigan.

On June 25, 1892, the Chicora was launched by Detroit Drydock Company amid 1,000 cheering onlookers at the Orleans Street Yard. Although she became an asset to Graham and Morton, they soon learned that it would be too expensive to use the Chicora over winter. More than 5,000 ships lie at the bottom of Lake michigan - many of them lost in winter. Although Graham and Morton sometimes were able to run year-round, insurance costs were usually too high to keep the Chicora shipping cargo past November.

Instead, the Chicora transported passengers in summer and hauled freight during the fall and early winter. In season, she ran daily between Benton Harbor and Chicago (a trip she made in three hours and 40 minutes), while most of her freight runs were between Benton Harbor and Milwaukee.

January 1894 found the Chicora in drydock. She had been brought to St. Joseph and prepped for the winter; carpets, piano and most of her furniture had already been brought ashore for storage. Her windows were covered and parts of the hull exterior sheathed in iron for protection from the ice. But although the Chicora was already "ironed for winter service," an unexpected request for her services came in.

The upper midwest had experienced a late wheat harvest in 1895 due to a colder, wetter growing season. Because of this, flour mills continued to run. Milwaukee warehouses were being filled daily with sacks and barrels of flour. Mills in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek needed winter flour, as did bakeries in Detroit and shippers in Wisconsin put out the call for a ship to transport a cargo of flour across Lake Michigan to Benton Harbor. The demand was deemed great enough to press the Chicora into service, regardless of the time of year. Afterall, this was a vessel that was built to withstand midwinter maritime conditions; however it would have to be sent out uninsured.

While the Chicora was getting ready to go out on the lake again, her captain scrambled to put together a crew on short notice. A veteran of 20 years plying the waters of the Great Lakes, Captain Edward Stines was forced to replace several members of his crew, who had returned home for the winter. He was even without a second mate, who was down with an illness. To make up the manpower shortage, Stines included his 23-year-old son, Benjamin, as a crewmember, making him his new second mate.

On January 20, 1894 the Chicora departed for Milwaukee carrying a load of dry goods, patent medicine bitters and six passengers. Although ice was building up along the Lake Michigan coast, weather was uncharacteristically mild and the six-hour trip occurred without incident. However, just before docking in the Milwaukee harbor, an ominous event reportedly took place.

A wild duck flew in the direction of the Chicora, which caused amazement among the crew. Ducks did not normally fly toward a steamship. But before they could get over this uncommon sight, a passenger on board took out his rifle and shot it. The sailors viewed this as a bad omen, comparable to the maritime superstition that misfortune follows anyone who kills a seagull.

The Chicora docked and immediately 632 tons of flour were brought onboard in 100-lb cloth sacks and barrels. Departure was scheduled for the following morning.

Look for the tragic conclusion in next week's edition of the Pioneer Journal.

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