The sinking of the Civil War-era steamer Pewabic ranks as one of worst disasters in the history of the Great Lakes

She is remembered as the Ghost Ship of Thunder Bay and Lake Huron’s Death Ship. The memory of Pewabic has haunted mariners since her tragic demise four months after the end of the Civil War. The desire to recover her precious cargo of copper has obsessed many people and even led to the death of a few.

At sunset on Aug. 9, 1865, Pewabic collided almost bows-on with her sister ship, Meteor, and sank quickly. With the loss of as many as 125 lives, the sinking is counted among the 10 worst ship disasters in Great Lakes history. The cause of the mishap — on a calm summer evening, with the ships in full view of each other — remains a mystery.

The accident occurred about six miles off Thunder Bay Light. Pewabic was southbound from Sault Sainte Marie on her way to Detroit. Meteor was northbound. The vessels were merely 20 feet apart when Pewabic veered suddenly. Meteor’s bow cut deeply into Pewabic’s port side, just aft of the wheelhouse.

Passengers, including Union soldiers returning home from the garrison at Mackinac Island, were preparing for a dance. Most were crushed in the main cabin where they were socializing.

“The crash was awful and frightening,” survivor W.H. Russell exclaimed. Within five minutes Pewabic plunged into 180 feet of dark, frigid water. The only passenger manifest went with it.

Adelaide Brush, wearing a homemade life preserver, saved herself and others. Showing calm and courage, as well as skill as a swimmer, she became known as the Heroine of the Pewabic.

Calvin Wright, after gallantly saving his wife, was not as fortunate. Seized in the water by a drowning woman, he was dragged to his death in a frantic struggle.

Greyhound of the Lakes

With a top speed of 12 knots, Pewabic often was referred to as the Greyhound of the Lakes. The sleek vessel was one of the finest passenger ships and package freighters on the Great Lakes. Adorned with colorful banners and flags, she was fashionably decorated with skylights, stained-glass windows, satin drapery, marble tabletops, rosewood furniture, silver serving ware and ornate woodwork. Card games of whist and euchre were popular diversions during the day. In the evenings, a string orchestra provided entertainment on the promenade deck.

Built in 1863 by Peck & Masters at Cleveland, Pewabic was powered by twin steam engines that turned 8-foot propellers. The 200-foot vessel had a beam of 31 feet. Her oak hull was 2 feet thick and was strengthened by a wooden arch running down the centerline. She regularly transported more than 100 passengers and 1,000 tons of cargo.

On Pewabic the distinctive arch, which ordinarily would have been placed on a vessel’s side, was hidden within the ship’s cabin. Wooden propeller ships, introduced on the Great Lakes in 1841, became popular for carrying bulk cargo. By 1850, there were more than 50 of them.

Pewabic and Meteor were constructed for the Pioneer line of the Lake Superior Transit Co., operated by John T. Whiting. Both were built in 1863 and were about the same size. The only difference was that Meteor was designed with a side arch, Pewabic with a center arch. Each had a crew of about 20.

Every week either Pewabic or Meteor visited the Lake Superior copper country. An 1865 advertisement promised “irresistible attractions for the speculator and geologist, recovery of perfect health for the invalid and abundant recreation for the sportsman.”

Michigan was the first major copper mining region in the United States. Copper was shipped in various forms, including ingots, barreled stampings and large masses of ore. The array of uses included sheathing for ship bottoms, boiler plates for locomotives, spikes, tubing, wiring, coins and even buttons.

Precious red metal

On her final voyage, Pewabic was carrying a valuable cargo of copper. There were also rumors of 18 kegs of silver hidden onboard and thousands of dollars in cash and jewels in the safe. The precious red metal, as well as persistent scuttlebutt regarding other treasures, made her the target of many salvage attempts.

Before 1865, salvage operations in water as deep as 180 feet were rare. The effects of compression on people working underwater were not understood. Reports of divers dying of heart attacks and bad air were common.

In the fall of 1865, a man named Billy Pike took the first dip to try to find Pewabic. Using the customary hard-hat diving helmet and suit invented in 1835, he died in the attempt.

During the summer of 1891, Oliver Pelkey made headlines sporting a diving suit with metal rings designed to support it against water pressure. Pelkey descended successfully to Pewabic, but on his second dive, he became entangled in debris and the suit collapsed. He made headlines a second time when his lifeless body was hauled from the wreck.

Pewabic was spotted next in 1897 by the American Wrecking and Salvage Co. of Milwaukee. “I saw the old Pewabic on the bottom of the lake, green with moss, lying on a bed of white sand,” one diver reported. “As we were leaving the wreck, we could almost hear lost passengers cry out to us.”

Fifty tons of copper, including a piece weighing over 10,000 pounds, was removed.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the operation’s backer, George F. Campbell. He returned with an experimental diving bell in June of 1898. On the first attempt a porthole of the bell cracked and was repaired imperfectly. Against advice, Campbell went down again with diver Peter Olson. Both drowned when the glass shattered.

As World War I fostered a copper shortage, Margaret C. Goodman gained attention by organizing a salvage expedition in 1917. She entered the business in order to support an invalid husband and a daughter. Goodman employed diver Benjamin Franklin Leavitt, who used a new type of diving suit capable of descending to 300 feet. The endeavor brought up more than 100 tons of copper and iron ore. Other mementos were raised from the ship, including watches, revolvers, coins predating the Civil War, bracelets, spectacles, books, ladies’ hair combs, gentlemen’s square-toed boots, slippers, handmade silk lace, baggage-room checks and door keys stamped with Pewabic’s name. No trace was found of the fabled silver-filled kegs.

Despite the Goodman expedition’s success, eerie reports of Pewabic’s remains kept salvors away for decades. One observer claimed, “the wreck’s rigging and structure were still intact, skeletons were in the cabins, trunks were open with clothing still hanging, an unfinished game of cards lay on a folding table, and cheese and beef still lay in the pantry.”

Virtually all of the remaining copper, mostly ingots, and Pewabic’s legendary safe, were recovered in 1974 by the Busch Oceanographic Equipment Co. Two leather pouches, each containing a soggy black mass of paper, were found inside the safe. “I worked all night and managed to restore part of a five dollar bill issued in 1864, and a check for five dollars from the Ridge Mining Co.,” salvor Gregory Busch declared. “Evidently, the purser, who said the safe contained less than 50 dollars, was right.”

Accustomed rendezvous

Pewabic’s loss sparked much colorful speculation. Some claimed Pewabic’s safe was looted and that she was run into Meteor purposely to cover up the crime. A Pewabic deck hand alleged the lookout was drunk. A Meteor wheelman blamed his lookout for being in the cabin listening to music rather than at his post.

A board of inquiry convened in Detroit to determine fault. On both ships, the first mates were on watch. “We altered course to pass port to port,” Pewabic’s first mate, George T. Cleveland, testified. “For some unknown reason, Meteor turned in the same direction and struck us.”

Meteor’s first mate, Byron Mills, agreed. “The wheelman thought Pewabic was crowding. I gave the order to turn hard aport. We hit a minute later.”

Meteor’s captain, Thomas Wilson Jr., arrived in the pilothouse moments before the collision. “If both vessels had kept to their course,” he observed, “we should have gone past each other.”

Pewabic’s captain, George P. McKay, had just come up from the engine room. “Meteor drew close. She was trying to avoid us. I gave orders to stop the starboard engines and hold the wheel hard,” he explained. “Then came the crash.”

Characterized as domineering and overbearing, Cleveland bore the brunt of the criticism. Meteor’s chief engineer asserted that Cleveland was deceived by the drizzly weather and misjudged the distance between the two vessels. A crewmember aboard Pewabic insisted Cleveland noted the nearing of the ships, became rattled and gave the wheelman the wrong order.

Cleveland was held guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. McKay’s master’s license was revoked. On appeal, the decisions were overruled and both were exonerated.

The mystery of why the ships were on courses that brought them so close remains unsolved.

One theory outlives all others. In 1865, vessels — especially those affiliated with the same line — often tossed newspapers, messages and small packages from ship to ship while passing. Passengers were eager to obtain the latest news from ports still ahead, but masters weren’t willing to stop just to swap mail.

Most likely, Pewabic and Meteor arrived at an accustomed rendezvous point. On that evening, perhaps while maneuvering to exchange dispatches, the ships came too close. From the decks of both vessels, passengers were waving expectantly to each other, one eyewitness recalled.

Pewabic remains on the bottom of Thunder Bay’s Shipwreck Alley. Although the hull remains, a 50-foot section of the bow is completely severed. Most of the upper fittings have vanished. A handful of artifacts, including Pewabic’s 2,345-pound bow anchor, are on display at the Jesse Besser Museum in Alpena, Mich. The safe is part of an exhibit opened recently by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary & Underwater Preserve.

Although Meteor survived the crash, her fate was sealed by the collision. Two days later, water making its way through the leaking hull contacted its cargo of lime, igniting a fire. To extinguish the flames, Meteor was scuttled and sank in 12 feet of water. No lives were lost. The ships’ captains went on to become influential in Great Lakes shipping circles. Wilson founded Wilson Marine Transit Co. McKay managed the Cleveland Transportation Co. fleet and was a founding member and treasurer of the Lake Carriers’ Association. He died in 1918 at 80 after being presented with a souvenir walking cane made from oak timbers and copper salvaged from Pewabic the previous year.

By Professional Mariner Staff