Monday, December 24, 2007

Urban renewal

The December 22 Green Bay Press-Gazette brings word that the old North Point Light (shown here in 1927), on the shores of Lake Michigan in what is now urban Milwaukee, has recently been fully restored.

Like many Great Lakes lights, the North Point Light went into service as shipping on the Great Lakes boomed in the middle of the nineteenth century (1855 in the North Point light's case). It was moved once due to shoreline erosion before it eventually fell into disuse, and disrepair, in 1994.

But fortunately, the old light had a group of willing volunteers in its corner. Funds were raised, the federal government chipped in US$1.6 million, and the seventy-four-foot tower was restored in 2006. Just months ago, the nearby keepers' dwelling was also given a much-needed facelift, a move that fully returned the site to its early twentieth-century grandeur.

And there are bigger plans afoot. The light is being thrown open to the public, with guided tours and visits on the agenda for the summer months. The volunteers, who dub themselves the North Point Lighthouse Friends, also envision a maritime museum taking up residence in the old keepers' quarters.

You can read the Press-Gazette story here.

Visit the impressive North Point Lighthouse web site here.

This will be my last posting for 2007, as Leeward Press takes a much-needed holiday siesta. Look for more, including preordering information on my first book, Lake Erie Stories (due out in May), early in the new year.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chicago's Christmas Tree Ship

Yes, there is even a holiday-themed Great Lakes shipwreck story. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the happiest of endings.

On November 21, 1912, the weatherbeaten three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons prepared to leave Manistique, in northern Michigan, bound for Chicago. Aboard were nine men commanded by Herman Schuenemann. Their cargo? A load of Christmas trees, of course.

It was a routine run for the old schooner, which had been hauling the trees to the city for the past few years. As the boat neared port, eager families, many of them from Chicago's lower classes, would gather at the dock in order to have the pleasure of buying their trees right then and there, fresh from the northern forests. Before long, the deliveries by the Christmas Tree Ship, as the Simmons was more commonly known, became something of a Chicago tradition.

But the Simmons, built way back in 1868, was not a young vessel, and the trade in Christmas trees was not easy on her. Her owners literally stuffed her hold and piled trees high on her deck before she made the Lake Michigan crossing. The run, for obvious reasons, had to be completed in November, when the weather on Lake Michigan can be downright frightening.

What exactly happened after the Simmons left Manistique is unclear. But she was spotted the following day rolling heavily in a terrible early winter storm off Kewanee, Wisconsin, her sails shredded and her deck covered with ice. But with the lake in such a frenzy, there was no hope of rescuing her besieged crew.

Meanwhile, on the docks at Chicago her customers waited. When she failed to materialize, they hoped she had just been waylaid by the storm. Unfortunately, she would never again bring her load of Christmas trees to the Windy City. And everyone's worst fears were confirmed when, a few days later, some shattered wreckage from the Simmons washed ashore in Michigan.

The wreck itself was not found until the 1970s when divers stumbled across the Simmons, resting upright and quite peacefully on the bottom of Lake Michigan, very much by accident. Her hold, of course, was still full of its festive cargo. You can see pictures here.

To read Great Lakes author James Donahue's account of the Simmons' last voyage, click here.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Visual distraction

Lately, I've really begun to sink my teeth into the visual research for the Lake Erie book. I used to do a lot of this type of thing when I worked as a production editor at James Lorimer & Company, a small Canadian publishing house that has put out a number of history titles over the years. It was there, in fact, that the idea for this book was born.

One of the things I adore about visual research is that many of the archival images (paintings, woodcuts, and whatnot) that I turn up reveal much more about the beliefs and prejudices of the time they were created than they do about the events they portray. Case in point:

This is a seventeenth-century impression of the construction of the Griffon, the first ship ever to set sail on Lake Erie, in 1679. The Griffon was the brainchild of the explorer Rene Robert, Cavelier de La Salle. The enterprising La Salle, who would go on to gain fame for his explorations of the Mississippi River and Louisiana, planned to use the boat to haul furs out of the American Midwest and on to Montreal, where they would be processed and sent on to Europe for sale.

The image, however, looks a lot more like a scene from Tahiti than from the banks of the Niagara River, where the Griffon was built and launched. In the foreground, scantily clad Native warriors gape at the partially constructed vessel. Meanwhile, two French shipwrights forge iron beneath a very palmish-looking tree that looks like nothing I've ever come across in Escarpment country. Speaking of the Escarpment, I suppose it is represented by the towering mountains lining the background.

I'm looking forward to pressing even further on. In the end, Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean will contain between 20 and 30 images, consisting of a mix of sites I've photographed myself and historical artworks like this.

If I happen across any more interesting ones, I'll let you know.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gales of November II

Dennis Hale is a Great Lakes veteran with a sad tale to tell.

On the night of November 29, 1966, Hale was a crewman aboard the 600-foot freighter Daniel J. Morrell. With twenty-nine men aboard, the Morrell was making her last trip of the 1966 navigation season, sailing north on Lake Huron on her way to pick up a load of iron ore near Duluth, Minnesota. The crews of the big lakers almost universally dread the last trip. It comes at a time when the weather on the Great Lakes is at its worst, and the crews, by this point exhausted from sailing the big ships to too many port towns to mention, are distracted by thoughts of getting home to deeply missed loved ones and the long, restful winter layover.

The crew of the Morrell was no different. And neither was this finale to the shipping season. On that fateful November night, Lake Huron was in a frenzy, lashed by a storm of a severity not seen in many years. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds whipped the boat, and pushed the waves up to a height greater than the towering Morrell herself. It was tough going for the aged freighter, now sixty years old and made of steel that had been forged way back in the early 1900s.

Hale was in his bunk, in the Morrell's forward section, when the boat literally cracked in half at about two in the morning. Apart from the sickening sound of the splitting hull, which came apart about midship, the power went out (the Morrell's generators were located in the stern section), leaving Hale to struggle to the main deck in the pitch dark wearing nothing but his underwear, a coat, and a lifejacket. When he got there, he was confronted by a truly unbelievable spectacle: the Morrell's stern section, still driven by her powerful engines and fully lit up, was literally bashing away at the bow, where the terrified crew was now gathered. After several moments of this violent death struggle, the stern finally broke away and literally sailed off into the night, a short-lived vessel all its own. (The stern would later be found on the bottom of the lake nearly five miles from the wreckage of the Morrell's bow.)

Soon enough, the last redoubt of the Morrell's beleaguered crew began to slip beneath the swirling waves and Hale, with none of the protection of today's cold weather gear, found himself immersed in Lake Huron's icy grip. Knowing all too well that he would not last long in such conditions, he managed to swim to a nearby raft, which was occupied by three of his shipmates.

Dennis Hale would be the only one of the Daniel J. Morrell's crew to ever return home. The other men in the raft succumbed to hypothermia in the nearly forty hours it took for rescuers to get to them, and the rest, presumably, didn't last long after the bow section went down.

Hale continues to tell the story of the loss of the Daniel J. Morrell, and even wrote a book about his experience to make sure his lost crewmates aren't forgotten.

Dennis Hale was in Ashtabula, Ohio, last week. You can read more, from the Ashtabula Star-Beacon, here.

You can read more about the Daniel J. Morrell here.

For more on Dennis Hale's book, click here.