Brev. Brig. Gen'l
- Feb 14, 2012
- Central Pennsylvania
Union soldiers just discharged from Mackinac Garrison, ( once a famous fort dating from the War of 1812 on Mackinac Island which held 3 Confederate, political prisoners and ordnance during the Civil War ) were on their way home on board sister steamer SS Pewabic. The collision of these ships on a quiet night, in calm waters made the Pewabic one of the most famous ship wreck sites we have. It's a little difficult finding good information, on-line sources seem to focus more on treasure and the understandable fascination of an underwater shipwreck. The death toll was ' only ' 125, nothing like Sultana's horrendous total but with Union men returning from a war they managed to live through on board there's an eerie similarity.
SS packet steamer Pewabic, 1863
August 9th, 1865. Reports- and there were a gazillion in newspapers and post collision investigations- state by nightfall August 9, 1865 the lake was calm despite one of those drizzling rains. There was a small ball was being held on board packet steamer SS Meteor, survivors of the Pewabic remembered hearing music and seeing dancing couples. Great Lakes shipping combined with passenger service was just business. Sight seeing excursions were booked, luxury cabins a lure plus ships carried passengers scheduled as if on floating trains. Copper from the Pewabic mines, for which the SS Pewabic was named burdened the hold that night. Captain George McKay was a mariner from birth- born on board Commodore Perry of all places. A 27 year old Scots immigrant captained SS Meteor, Thomas Wilson. Young yes but from descriptions as capable as McKay.
One young man related his awful night.
Despite vigorous investigations, hypothesis and a few unfounded arrests for manslaughter, no one ever figured out what in blazes happened. Literally ships crossing in the night, in bound and out bound, the ships had spotted each other and went through prescribed routine for these meetings. Best hypothesis seems to be an officer on Pewabic became confused and swung his wheel to put Pewabic directly in Meteor's path. Holed above and below the waterline by Meteor's bow, no one in their cabins had a chance. In minutes she became the most famous shipwreck on the lakes and a forever grave. SS Pewabic sank in 27 fathoms of water, around six miles from the lighthouse. She was gone in three minutes.
Captain Wilson adopted a little girl whose father swung her onto Meteor before going back to save his wife. He never returned and Thomas Wilson's new daughter never knew her name. Wilson couldn't discover it. Another woman took someone's husband with her to the bottom, in a frantic struggle as he tried to save her- he'd already saved his wife. Children died, women, passengers and crew.
Other steamers were lost in 1865 on those lakes. It's a hazardous business climbing into anything that floats, steamers were prone to awful nights without collisions adding to the toll. I'm struck by the ill luck putting discharged soldiers on board. Still tracking down which passengers they were and how many may have been lost.