Wreck of the Sevona

Historic photo of the Sevona

September 2, 1905 was a dark day in the history of the Apostle Islands. In the space of a few hours, two magnificent ships were lost to a storm that swept the lake. Early that morning, the steamship Sevona sought shelter from the storm among the islands. Clawing its way through the tempest, the ship struck a shoal northeast of Sand Island. Seven crew members drowned in sight of shore. Later that day, the huge schooner-barge Pretoria foundered in sight of Outer Island, with a loss of five lives.

Here is an account of the Sevona disaster, as told in a newspaper of the time.

"The worst storm since '73 swept Lake Superior last Saturday and Sunday, causing many wrecks and much loss of life. Two large boats were wrecked off the Apostle Islands, causing the loss of twelve lives.

The news of the wreck of the steamer Sevona reached here Sunday evening when the chief engineer, Wm.Phillipi, one of the survivors, came to town from Little Sand Bay where he landed with ten more of the crew and passengers.

The steamer Sevona, owned by James McBrier, of Erie, Pa., struck the reef between Sand and York islands at 5:15 last Saturday morning and went to pieces. The boat was in charge of Captain D.S.McDonald, and had a cargo of about six thousand tons of iron ore on board. The Sevona left the Allouez docks at West Superior Friday night at six o'clock. There was a heavy sea running when the boat cleared, but the captain thought nothing particularly of it until he was outside of Outer Island when the wind and waves became terrific. He then concluded to turn back and seek shelter among the islands."

It is supposed that he was headed for the west side of Sand Island but got in too close to the island and struck the reef that projects out from Sand Island, about one and one half miles out from the lighthouse. When the boat struck there was a crash, followed closely by two others and the big boat came to a stand badly broken in the center. It was in constant danger of collapsing owing to the seas which were beating the helpless ship unmercifully. She gradually sank onto the rocks and seemed solid. The whistle was blown for help until the fires under the boilers were extinguished, then rockets were sent up, but there was no one to see or hear their signals of distress.

At daylight there was no letup of the wind and at 6 o'clock, with a mighty crash, the huge vessel broke in two at the fourth hatchway. The forward end of the vessel seemed to be still solid, but the rear end gradually sank into the water. At eleven o'clock Chief Engineer Phillippi ordered one of the boats lowered and in this he placed four women-- Miss Kate Spencer and Miss Jones, of Erie, PA., Mrs. Wm. Phillippi, of Buffalo, and Mrs. Cluckie, of West Bay City, Michigan. He then took six of the crew and got into the boat himself and left the ill-fated steamer.

After nearly five hours of battling with the heavy waves they landed at Little Sand Bay, a large wave lifting the boat and setting it high and safe on the sand beach. More than once the men thought they would have to give up but their courage was kept up by the ladies who nerved the men up to further efforts and they finally landed safely. Boat number two containing six of the crew put off at the same time that the engineer's boat left but they handled the boat badly and it soon disappeared from sight of the other boat and it was thought they had been drowned until Captain John Pasque went out with the R.W.Currie Monday and found them at the west bay of Sand Island. The wind and waves had driven them ashore in less than one hour from the time they left the wreck.

The seven men on the forward end of the boat had absolutely nothing to leave the wreck in after the other boats had left. It was impossible for them to reach the after end of the boat after she struck, as the huge waves were going clear over her, nor was it possible for the small boats to reach them.

As soon as the truth was known in Bayfield the tug Harrow, under the command of Captain Anderson, went to the scene of the wreck to endeavor to rescue the seven men who were left there, but when the tug reached there nothing but the stern of the boat remained. The bow had been entirely swept away and the seven men were gone.

Those who reached shore in the engineer's boat at Little Sand Bay were taken care of at the logging camp of Napolean Rabideaux. The engineer, after being rested and refreshed, started for Bayfield in company with a teamster from the camp and it took them nearly all day to reach here as the heavy wind had felled many trees across the road. His statement was as follows:

Statement of Chief Engineer William Phillippi

"The sea got so high that the captain concluded to run for shelter, and it was shortly after we turned that we struck. Shortly before this I received a signal from the captain to check the speed but after she struck I received no more signals and I stopped the engine. There were three distinct shocks and crashed, then the boat came to a stand and broke in two. We blew the whistle for help until our fires were put out."

"The vessel broke in two as soon as we struck, but there was a portion of the star-board side rail hanging and I don't know why the captain didn't try to come aft. Of course it was almost impossible, but they might have made it for almost a half hour after she broke. It may be that he thought the forward end would stand the sea, as it seemed to be hard aground. I don't know why. I wanted to go forward with our life boat, and try and pick them up, but we couldn't, and I didn't want to lose the people I had.

If there had been only one of the mates or even a sailor aft to take charge of the other small boat, they might have gotten them off, but every sailor on the vessel was forward and cut off. Those in the rear were deck hands and oilers and knew nothing about managing a row boat."

The remainder of those who were in the engineer's boat came to town Monday and Miss Kate Spencer and Miss Jones left on the afternoon train for Erie, Pa.

Recollections of a Passenger

Miss Spencer's story of the wreck is as follows:

"It makes me shudder to talk or think of the terrible experience through which we passed. About three o'clock in the morning Captain McDonald knocked at out door and told us that he was going to seek shelter, and for us to secure all breakable stuff in a place of safety, as when the boat put about she would toss badly.

It was only a short time before the captain came to our stateroom again and told us to dress. This we did and a little later two sailors came and accompanied us to the after end of the boat. We were instructed to put on life preservers, which we did. No one seemed to be specially frightened, but a 5:45 came the terrible crash which broke the vessel in two.

We got into the life boat at that time, but the captain and the men could not come aft owing to the break. He hailed us through the megaphone 'Hang on as long as you can.' We did so, but the sea was pounding so hard, that we finally got out of the small boat, and into the large vessel again, all congregating in the dining room which was still intact.

The big boat was pounding and tossing. Now a piece of the deck would go then a portion of the dining room, in which we were quartered. During all this time, the men forward could not get to us. Finally, at 11 o'clock everything seemed to be breaking at once, and by order of the chief engineer, we took to the small boat again.

One by one we piled into the boat, leaving six men behind us. I never heard such a heart rending cry as came from those six. 'For God's sake don't leave us,' they cried, so two of the men who were in our boat got out and helped the six men get the port boat over to the starboard side so they could launch it. These men then left in their boat and our and our men came back to our boat, and we put off.

It was a terrible fight to keep the small boat afloat. And to the skill of the second engineer, Adam Fiden, we certainly owe our lives. He is an expert sculler, and kept our boat right, when oars on the side were practically useless. We knew we were in danger, but we obeyed his orders implicitly, and he finally landed us safe and sound.

When the tug Currie returned from Sand Island Monday afternoon with the six men who were in boat number two, it was also learned that the bodies of Captain McDonald and Nels Severson, wheelsman, had been found on the beach at Sand Island. Justice Davis was instructed to go there and hold an inquest. Upon their return to the island two more bodies had been found, Louis Darwin, first mate, and the other one could not be identified. The bodies were brought to Bayfield and taken in charge by Undertaker Sense, and prepared for shipment. The body of Captain McDonald was sent to his home ln Northeast, Pa., Tuesday and two more of the bodies were shipped to Buffalo Wednesday.

Harry Magnet, a sailor on the steamer W.H.Mack, arrived in the city from Duluth Tuesday evening and identified his brother, Otto Willett, the last one of the bodies that washed ashore from the steamer Sevona. He took the remains of his brother to Cleveland Wednesday.

A search has been made for the three remaining bodies but none of them have been found yet.

The bodies of the second mate and two watchmen are still missing. The survivors of the Sevona were sent to their respective homes Wednesday evening after being in Bayfield since Monday. Their expenses were all paid by the owners of the boat. Valued at $250,000, and insured for $160,000, she was a total loss."

The bodies of the remaining victims were all eventually recovered. Lying just below the surface, the wreck of the Sevona was determined to be a hazard to navigation, and so the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the wreck in the summer of 1909. Nonetheless, significant portions of the Sevona remain today, and the wreck is a popular destination for sport divers.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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