Schooner Lucerne: Lessons from a Great Lakes Shipwreck
edited: Friday, July 27, 2007
By Andrew J Jalbert
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2007
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Great Lakes Shipwreck Lucerne from SEA HISTORY magazine
The Wreck of the Schooner Lucerne
Sprawling out into Lake Superior’s frigid sapphire waters, the red sandstone islands known as the Apostles pepper the horizon to the northeast of the quaint port town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Remnants of hilltops formed between pre-glacial valleys dating hundreds of millions of years old, the Apostle Islands have endured the scouring forces of water and ice to become a playground for tourists, hikers, kayakers, and sailors who are drawn to their scenic beauty. With their proximity to such historic industrial shipping ports as Washburn, Bayfield and Ashland, the Apostle Islands boast a rich maritime history as well. Scattered across the lakebed throughout the islands lay numerous shipwrecks, beautifully preserved in Superior’s fresh icy water. One such wreck is the schooner Lucerne, whose tragic sinking gives us a glimpse into the often harsh conditions that 19th century mariners had to face.
With her sleek lines, large sails, and sharp clipper bow, the schooner Lucerne was truly a majestic ship. Constructed in Tonawanda, New York by the Parsons & Humble shipyard for a cost of $55,000, the Lucerne measured 194.9 feet in length and had a 33.7 foot beam. A large ship for her day, the Lucerne’s primary load was intended to be grain. Built to carry 52,000 bushels of corn, the Lucerne ran cargo between Lake Michigan Ports and Buffalo after her launching on April 23, 1873.
Although she was first enrolled in Buffalo with James Dwyer as master, the Lucerne would change owners and masters numerous times in her short career. Her final owners would be James and John Corrigan who purchased the ship in March of 1886. At the time of the purchase, James Corrigan was buying controlling interests in Lake Superior iron mines and smelting furnaces and hoped to use the Lucerne for transporting ore. The owners proceeded to outfit her with new sails and fittings and hired Captain George Lloyd of Detroit (Marine Record 9 December 1886). In spite of the vessel’s improvements, she would only sail for eight months before she and her crew fell victim to a brutal Lake Superior storm.
A Tragic End
The Lucerne had offloaded its cargo of coal in Washburn, Wisconsin on November 12, 1886 before setting off for Ashland, Wisconsin in tow of the steamer Raleigh. Once in Ashland, she took on 1,256 tons of iron ore to be delivered to Cleveland on consignment to Luttle, Ogleby & Co. Under the command of Captain George Lloyd, the ship and crew left under sail in fair weather, planning to reunite with its tow Raleigh, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Her run to Cleveland was to be her last of the season. Unfortunately, the voyage would be the last she and her crew would ever make.
The Lucerne was heading northeast along the Michigan coastline towards the Keweenaw Peninsula when the ferocious Lake Superior nor’easter hit, bringing with it gale force winds and vicious snow squalls. The Lucerne was sighted by two other vessels during Captain Lloyd’s attempt to navigate through the storm. Around 4:00 the following day, the steam barge Fred Kelly reported that the Lucerne was rolling and pitching in heavy seas off Ontonagon, with all her sails set except her fore gaff topsail. Then again at dusk, the mate of the Kelly reported that the Lucerne had put about in the storm, apparently making a run for the safety of Chequamegon Bay (Marine Record 9 December 1886). Based on the reports from other vessels, and the location of the wreck site, it would seem that Captain Lloyd had hoped to navigate around Chequamegon Point, perhaps hoping to locate the La Pointe lighthouse for reference. Whether the lighthouse was not visible or the captain simply couldn’t get his bearings in the storm and feared sailing further in the treacherous shoals of the Apostles, still remains a mystery. Whatever the case, anchors were dropped suggesting they hoped to ride out the storm. Their attempt unfortunately failed, and on November 17th or 18th, 1886 the Lucerne was claimed by the violent storm, jamming her centerboard against the shallow lake bottom. The storm’s heavy wave action beat the centerboard against the shoal until her seams split open and allowed the frigid water to flood in. As the ship finally slipped beneath the water, some of the sailors tried to escape by climbing into the rigging. Their fate would be as terrible as those who stayed on deck.
On the morning of November 19th, the light keeper at the La Pointe lighthouse awoke to a horrific scene. His report is as follows:
“From tower saw a vessel with 2 masts pretty close to the shore. I went down, I found it was a barque wrecked. It appeared that they had let go their anchors. She was lying bow to the east, about 2 miles from lighthouse. I discovered 3 bodies, one in main, 2 in mizzen rigging, did not find any bodies on the shore. Her boat is between the lighthouse and the end of the point. Her stem came ashore ¼ mile east of the lighthouse. On her arch board is Lucerne, Cleveland. The fishing tugs were out setting their nets in the morning, they saw the wreck and reported it at Bayfield. The fishing tug Browne came to the wreck at 1 p.m. and took the bodies from the rigging and took them to Bayfield (U.S. Lighthouse Service 19 November 1886).
Searchers aboard Bayfield tugs S.B. Barker and Cyclone discovered the wreckage later that afternoon. They reported that a section of the Lucerne’s cabin was drifting near shore, and that the dead men in the rigging were covered by one to six inches of ice. The frozen sailors were cut down and brought to the undertaker’s in Bayfield where the Ashland Weekly Press described them:
“One is heavily dressed, having on five overcoats beside haevy underwear. Feet were bare. Height 5 feet 10 inches; weight about 160 pounds. His age cannot be far from 45. Heavy sandy moustache, but no beard. One of the others wore a heavy sandy beard, was 5 foot 10 inches tall, and was about 40 years old. He was also heavily dressed and had on rubber boots. The other was a young man, smooth face, 5 feet 9 inches tall, weight around 135, and about 21 years old. He was scantily dressed, but wore high top boots.” (Ashland Weekly Press 20 November 1886)
The body of mate Robert Jefferys washed ashore soon after the Lucerne’s wrecking. The bodies were taken to Ashland where they were embalmed and buried. Later that summer another decomposed body washed up on the shore of Long Island and was believed to have been another of the Lucerne’s crew, leaving the probable number of sailors unaccounted for at four. Three of the bodies were later shipped back to their homes for reburial. The Ashland Weekly Press painted the lost sailors aboard the Lucerne as heroes, and commended them for their bravery in an article that printed on 20 November 1886.
“Of the sufferings of that crew there will never be a written account, but in the unwritten annals which go to make up the history of individuals, there will undoubtedly be found tales of heroism and bravery in the meeting of deaths in the terrible manner which came to them. In our homes the sound of the storm outside only made the comforts of the fireside more highly appreciated, but those men went down to death, meeting it in a double manner, even by drowning and freezing.”
Lucerne the shipwreck
Today, the remains of the Lucerne lie in twenty-four feet of water off the northeast side of Long Island near Ashland, Wisconsin (N46° 43.389’, W90° 46.035’). The wreck is a wonderful example of Lake Superior’s preservation, and the hull is still remarkably intact. The heavy iron ore cargo that she was hauling on her final voyage can be seen throughout the midships area and scattered about the lakebed around her. A portion of the forecastle deck is still intact including the windlass, capstan, and chain locker. Although the anchors and eighty fathoms of chain were salvaged in 1887, small sections of chain still remain, one draped over the starboard wildcat (a notched drum on the windless used to hold chain) and another spanning between the foredeck and the chain locker. An iron bar still remains eerily jammed beneath the chain on the starboard wildcat suggesting the crew tried to loosen the frozen windlass and drop the starboard anchor as they attempted to ride out the storm.
The spars are no longer present, most likely salvaged or carried away by ice, and the cabin, which the tugs S.B. Barker and Cyclone reported seeing “drifting near the shore” is gone. Missing also are the rudder and steering gear. A close look inside the 31- foot long centerboard trunk will reveal that the centerboard still remains, although the centerboard winch was reportedly salvaged by divers in the 1970’s. It is also interesting to note that the Lucerne’s keelsons are broken just forward of the centerboard, reinforcing the theory that the centerboard lodged against the lake bottom while facing into the storm. Centerboards were designed to pivot on their front end, allowing them to rotate up if the vessel struck bottom while moving forward. If a ship were being blown backwards and struck bottom, the centerboard could not pivot and the stress would be shouldered by the trunk and the keelsons.
Although the Lucerne is preserved only up to the deck level, it still makes for a wonderful dive site. In fact, a look at her ghostly bow alone makes the dive worthwhile. Visibility typically ranges from 5 to 45 feet and the white sand bottom surrounding the wreck is largely clear of debris. During the summer diving season, temperatures range from 40° to 60° and the lack of penetrable structure make the Lucerne a safe dive, even for novice level divers. Most of the artifacts were removed during a 1977 investigation, many of which are on display at the Canal Park Marine Museum in Duluth, Minnesota and at the Little Sand Bay Visitor Center. The following personal effects were salvaged from the Lucerne’s port bunks: An overcoat, three felt hats, two vests, suspenders, socks, shoes, a rubber slicker, a woolen cap, kaolinite pipes, a pocketknife, bottles, a liquor flask, a glass oil chimney, a large syringe, sewing needles, and numerous other miscellaneous items. Additionally, excavations from the stern produced brass binoculars, an inkwell, calipers, a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Civil War medal, boots, a leather bible cover with the lettering “SCHOONER LUCERNE”, and a brass alarm clock.
Preserving the Past
The Wisconsin State Historical Society together with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and volunteers has placed and maintained a mooring buoy on the Lucerne. The buoy not only makes the wreck more accessible for divers, but it prevents damage to the wreck by providing a means for boaters to attach to the wreck without dropping and dragging their anchors. State regulations prohibiting the removal of artifacts are clearly printed on the buoy as well. Local divers remove the buoy before the winter season and store it in Bayfield until it can be replaced the following spring.
The Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute have produced dive guides for the Lucerne as well. The guides contain a map of the wreck, historical information and the regulations prohibiting artifact collection. These programs are part of an ongoing effort to increase diver awareness and education about maritime history. Hopefully, divers and government agencies can work together to preserve shipwrecks such as the Lucerne for generations to come.