St. Clair tragedy, Part 2

The steam barge St. Clair was burning on Lake Superior twelve miles north of Ontonagon at 2 a.m. on July 9, 1876. With reportedly 32 people on board, only a small metal boat with a capacity of less than 15 people was available after a much larger wooden lifeboat burned in the first few minutes of the fire.

Twelve men, who had initially boarded the small lifeboat, tumbled into dark, frigid waters when a thirteenth man jumped from an upper deck, landed on the gunnel and capsized it. After repeated attempts to right the boat, only a handful of the original dozen remained adrift near the lifeboat. A chronology of this event appeared in the July 22, 1876 issue of The Mining Journal:

“. . . It seems, according to the captain’s statement, that after the small boat had been successfully righted and partially bailed out by himself, she then having sufficient buoyancy to carry one more person, the question arose who that one should be; the passengers decided the engineer should be the man, he being stronger than the rest and better able to bail her out; but the captain objected on account of his (the engineer’s) weight — he weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds — fearing he would again capsize the frail craft; the passengers however overruled his objections for the reasons above stated and insisted that he should get on board.

The engineer was accordingly then helped into the boat. After bailing out a sufficient amount of water to enable another to be taken in, Mr. Leitch was taken aboard, when after more bailing Mr. Sutphin was likewise helped to come in, and a little later Mr. Shea, of Duluth, was taken; these being all the living souls in sight of the boat.

The captain and engineer continued bailing out the water when suddenly Mr. Leitch stiffened out and fell overboard into the water — dead — and disappeared. A few minutes later while still bailing Mr. Shea, from a recumbent position, started up, straightened out, and also fell over the side of the boat, and was caught by Capt. Rhynas after he had fallen in, and with assistance of the engineer drew him up to the edge of the boat, when he was discovered to be dead, and was let go.

Three men now were in the boat and no one else was in sight. They then finished bailing it out and paddled in the direction of cries heard in the distance; they soon discovered the mate and two wheelsmen floating on a hatch, and took the mate and one wheelsman on board – the other wheelsman being dead. They then being unable to find any more of the passengers or crew of the ill-fated vessel, and a strong breeze springing up, paddled for the shore which they reached in an exhausted condition in about six hours.”

The Ontonagon Miner indicated the five survivors arrived on shore near the Sleeping River. In a fishing shanty at the mouth of the river, they dried off and ate. After some rest, the survivors, led by Captain Rhynas, traveled north in a Mackinaw boat. Upon arriving at their destination, Rhynas secured a tug and returned to the site of the accident to look for bodies.

The exact number of people who died was unclear as the clerk of the boat and his records were lost to Superior. Reports indicate fourteen bodies were recovered and identified and the number of missing was thought to be thirteen. Of the three men headed to Marquette only Mine Captain Thomas Mellen’s body was recovered. His remains were returned to family and burial was at the Ishpeming Cemetery.

Bodies of the other two Marquette bound passengers were never located. Judge Joseph Edwards, a prominent and well-respected citizen of Marquette, had been in Ontonagon on mining business. Following a memorial service, a plaque was placed at Park Cemetery commemorating his life and tragic death. Neil Leitch, who had made it into the small lifeboat, only to succumb to exposure, was from Manistee, Michigan, but had been temporarily living and working in Marquette.

The investigation into the accident was conducted by the U.S. Local Inspectors of Steamboats in the District of Superior. The conclusion of the inspection cleared the Captain and crew of neglect. The cause of the fire was thought to be from an oil lamp used by wood passers in the main hold where wood was stored. Speculation by some was that the fire spread quickly due to flammable residue left from the St. Clair’s days as an ore barge.

The Ontonagon Miner reported on July 11, 1876: “This terrible disaster has cast a gloom over our entire community by the loss of so many so well known to all.” The Mining Journal on July 15, 1876 reported the same sentiment, indicating about the St. Clair, “Her name will remain as a scar upon the memories of our people for years to come.”


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