From: The Telescope, Jan.-Feb. 1985 by: Jack Mesmer
Sarah E. Sheldon
The Sarah E. Sheldon was a wooden steam-driven propeller built in 1872. She was constructed of oak by E.M. Peck at Black River, Ohio (now Lorain), for S. Sheldon and others of Cleveland. The Sheldon measured 184.1 feet in length, 32.4 feet in width, and 13.8 feet in depth. She carried three masts and had one deck. Her tonnage was listed as 640 gross tons. Propulsion came from a steeple compound engine, with cylinder measurements of 20 inches by 40 inches with a 30 inch stroke. Steam was provided by two fire box boilers, measuring 6 feet, 3 inches in diameter. Both engine and boilers were built by the Cuyahoga Furnace Company of Cleveland in 1872.
The Sheldon began operation late in 1872, not being enrolled until October 5 at Cleveland. It is assumed that Sheldon operated her in the bulk trade between the upper lakes and Lake Erie. The steamer didn't remain under Sheldon's ownership for long. In April of 1873, the vessel was sold to Lucy A. Russell of Cleveland. In July of 1876, Ms. Russell sent the steamer to the Globe Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland to have a second deck built onto the steamer. This work was completed in September of that year and cost $1,400. The second deck resulted in a change of tonnage to 907 gross tons and 740 net.
During most of the career of the Sheldon, she towed a schooner/barge. By the early 1870's it was fairly common practice for steamers to tow one or more barges. This practice produced financial benefits for both vessels. With this in mind, Ms. Russell purchased the schooner Samuel P. Ely in the spring of 1874 as a consort for the Sheldon. These two vessels were to stay together for quite some time, generating excellent profits. However, on one occasion the consort system proved to be a disaster. On about October 6, 1880, the Sheldon grounded in the Sault River at Topsail Island. The actual grounding did little to damage the steamer, but unfortunately her consort, the Ely collided with her. The collision resulted when the Sarah E. Sheldon's bow swung out into the river after stranding. The schooner, trying to avoid a collision with the steamer's stern and possibly grounding herself, attempted to go around the vessel. The Ely ran into the steamer, cutting a hole to the water's edge. The damage to the Ely was minimal, but the Sheldon suffered considerable damage. After being released, the steamer was taken to Cleveland, where repairs amounted to nearly $2,000. Other than this accident and a trip to the Globe Drydock in July of 1883 for regular repairs, the steamer seems to have been quite trouble-free under Ms. Russell's ownership.
In April of 1884, Ms. Russell sold the Sarah E. Sheldon as well as the S.P. Ely to M.A. Bradley and others and the Bradley Transportation Company. While operating in the Bradley fleet, the Sheldon continued to tow the Ely, but in addition also towed the schooner Neguanee. In the spring of 1885, the steamer had a new smoke stack installed.
In 1886 the Sarah E. Sheldon was nearly destroyed by fire at Cleveland. The steamer had been lying in the Cuyahoga River near the Main Street bridge on the morning of September 16. The lookout at the Lifesaving Station saw fire aboard the steamer at about 1:30 a.m. He sounded the alarm and the lifesavers loaded their craft with fire equipment. They proceeded to the steamer, arriving at 1:45, and began playing a stream aboard the burning vessel. This did little to impede the spread of the flames. Just when it looked as though the steamer would be lost, the City of Cleveland firefighters arrived and added several more lines of water to the fight. At approximately 3:00 a.m., the fire had been extinguished. The vessel had been badly burned. The fire, which was believed to have started in the engine room, had done nearly $5,000 in damage. Repairs were performed at Cleveland.
After the fire aboard the Sheldon, the boat seemed to be plagued with engine troubles. It is very likely that the fire, which nearly destroyed her the year before, had fatigued the metal of her engine, resulting in the periodic breakdowns. The first of these breakdowns occurred on November 13, 1887. The steamer was downbound from Marquette, with the wrecked schooner Alva Bradley in tow. The Sheldon's engine gave out when the holding down bolts in the main journal broke. The two vessels laid off Sable Point, Lake Superior, with a freshening northeast wind. Distress signals were sounded and fortunately, these brought aid in the form of the Life Saving crew of Station No. 11 and the steamer W.H. Stevens. Both would-be rescue parties arrived at the same time, and it was decided to let the Stevens take the two boats in tow to the Soo. Shortly after reaching the Sault Ste. Marie River, the winds on Lake Superior began blowing gale force. Had not the Stevens arrived when she did, both the Sheldon and the Bradley might have ended their days on the beach as wrecks. (The Alva Bradley had just been released from the beach at Shot Point, just east of Marquette a few days or so before, after she had been stranded there during a gale on October 23. The Sheldon had been ordered by her owner to pick up the Bradley, also owned by the Bradley Transportation Company, and bring her to Cleveland for repairs.) It would appear that the Stevens brought both vessels down the lakes, where they underwent necessary repairs. Engine problems again occurred while upbound on Lake Erie in mid-October of 1889. The steamer was able to reach Detroit under her own power, but was delayed for a day with repairs.
While operating in the Bradley Fleet, the Sheldon carried a variety of cargoes. One of her mainstays on downbound trips was grain, particularly late in the season. On one of these trips to Buffalo in 1891, the steamer was involved in serious accident, which occurred all too frequently in congested Buffalo Creek. While lying near the Sturges elevator, waiting to unload a cargo of grain, the vessel was struck by the steamer Gault, on November 24. The Gault was on tow, headed up the river. When attempting to pass the Sheldon, she struck a heavy blow to the Sheldon's stern. A large hole was cut into the Sheldon, but as the damage was mostly above water, she was in no immediate danger of sinking. A canvass sheet was placed over the hole to prevent leaking until her cargo could be unloaded. Rough estimates of the damage was placed at $500 to the vessel with no damage to her cargo. Due to the lateness of the season, it was decided to lay the steamer up at Buffalo and have repairs performed there.
In 1892, at the end of May or the first of June, the Sarah E. Sheldon suffered her third engine breakdown. This time she was in the confines of the Detroit River, near southeast bend with her consort, when her machinery became disabled. All of the vessels were able to safely come to anchor. It is not known at this time whether this breakdown required docking or whether her engine was able to make satisfactory repairs so she could continue on her voyage. Early in 1893, the Sheldon, while downbound with grain for Kingston, Ontario, stranded on the rocks in the Sault Ste. Marie River. On May 23, after about four days on the rocks, she was released with the aid of a diver and a steam pump. The vessel sustained considerable damage, requiring repairs to some thirty feet of her keel, a new fore foot and a number of planks forward.
In March of 1894, the Sarah E. Sheldon underwent another rebuild. She was reduced once again to a single deck with a single mast. In addition to this, her cabins on the stern were largely changed. The work was completed in May, and she was enrolled at Cleveland on the 10th, with a gross tonnage of 693 and a net of 517. The changes were undertaken because the steamer had begun to run in the lumber trade with considerable regularity. Her new profile allowed her to carry quite a bit more lumber. Later that same year, engine problems returned to once again plague the vessel. On September 12, the steamer broke down while off Sheboygan, Michigan. She was forced to drop her consorts, Ely and Neguanee, and limp into Sheboygan harbor for repairs. After turning her consorts loose, the Neguanee was able to come to anchor, but the Ely was driven to shore at DeTour. Apparently, the Ely was not seriously damaged, both for she and the Sheldon were repaired and back in operation by late September. No sooner did the steamer and her barges returned to work than they were mauled in a storm on October 1 and 2. The Sheldon had been downbound with the Ely and the Neguanee in tow with lumber, from Duluth to Chicago. When off Keweenaw Point, on the first, the vessels were overtaken by a gale. The steamer's rudder was unshipped, causing the vessels to wallow about in the waves. Temporary repairs were made to the rudder, which allowed the boat to be maneuvered behind Keweenaw Point. Once behind the point, further repairs were made to the rudder. All the vessels suffered damage in the storm. The Ely and Neguanee both lost their deckloads, and the Sheldon sprung several leaks, although none were serious. In addition, waves broke down her engine room door, creating havoc below in her engine room. All these vessels limped into Marquette, where they were completely repaired and on their way to Chicago by October 5. As if things had not been bad enough this year, on November 7, the Sheldon once again broke down when her machinery became disabled. She was forced to return to Port Huron, where repairs were made.
After a rough year in 1894 things began to run smoothly in 1895, and it does not appear that the Sheldon had any problems. Even in 1896, when on November 29 the steamer grounded at Point Aux Pines near Sault Ste. Marie, can it be said that she had any real difficulty. She was pulled off by a tug that same day with no serious damage.
Unlike the previous two years, 1897 saw a rash of minor accidents. The first occurred on September 15. She was headed down the Niagara River for Tonawanda with iron ore, with her consort in tow when off Riverside Park, about three miles from Buffalo Harbor, she grounded. Tugs were sent to release her, but were unable for 36 hours. When she was finally released, it was ascertained that her hull had suffered no damage. The following month, on October 6, the Sheldon ran aground near Fighting Island in the Detroit River, while downbound for Toledo. The cause of the grounding was attributed to the captain mistaking the lights of the government steamer Haze for the range light. At any rate, the steamer was out forward nearly two feet and had to be lightered before the tug Schneck could pull her free. This required two days. Still, later that same month, on the 24th, the Sheldon was struck by the steamer Boscobell, which was entering Toledo with two barges in tow. The collision resulted in the breaking of the Sheldon's stanchion and rail. 1898 did not seem to be that much better, for on July 10th, the steamer and her consort, the Neguanee, went ashore at North Summer Island at the foot of Lake Michigan. Early reports from the sight of the beaching sounded rather grim, but the vessels were released and soon back in operation. From this time until some five years later, the Sarah E. Sheldon ran with no further accidents.
In 1903, the Sarah E. Sheldon was 31 years old. By wooden boat standards, she was quite old. Her advanced age and general condition was reflected in her insurance valuation, which was now a mere $16,000, and she was rated as A2. However, this did not prevent the Bradley Transportation Company from keeping the steamer active. While at Buffalo, on July 13, 1903, the steamer headed for the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh dock to load coal. The Michigan Street bridge, which had been struck a few days before by a passing vessel and had supposedly just been repaired, was struck by the Sheldon when she attempted to pass through. The steamer's mainmast struck the bridge. Her mast broke nearly at the deck and fell down onto the smokestack, which broke in several places. Fortunately, no one was injured, and while the steamer sat loading coal at the dock, her smokestack was repaired. Repairs to her mast were supposedly postponed till the end of the season.
In 1904, the Sarah E. Sheldon got off to a slow start. Her owners had intended to get her out early, but due to a strike by the Masters and Pilots against the Lake Carriers Association, she remained at her winter quarters in Buffalo until June 22. This year was not much different than previous years, hauling coal upbound and primarily lumber or ore down. It also proved to be a trouble-free year.
The year 1905 would prove to be the year of her undoing. The steamer's trouble began on September 17. While on Lake Huron with the schooner Neguanee in tow, the vessels were overtaken by an early fall storm. Captain James Garant, who was master of the steamer, mistook a light shore and ran the steamer and the schooner aground on the Kenosha reef. Distress signals were sounded, which brought the Thunder Bay Island Lifesavers to the stranded vessels. As the vessels were in no immediate danger from the storms where they laid, Captain Garant decided to go ashore with the lifesaving crew and call for a tug. When the tug arrived, the lifesaving crew accompanied them, and with their assistance, sufficient coal was lightered from the Sheldon and the Neguanee to release them. Both vessels were released within 24 hours of the tug's arrival. Although at the time of the mishap it was said that there was no damage to either vessel, future events would prove this to be untrue.
On Thursday, October 19, the Sarah E. Sheldon laid up at Cleveland loading coal for Sarnia, Ontario. By evening, the last car of coal had been loaded aboard the steamer, and Captain Garant had ordered the crew to batten down the hatches as he intended to make sail before midnight. It turned out that Captain Garant was a superstitious man. He appears to have believed the adage that nothing should start on Friday, if any real good was to come of it. The steamer cleared shortly before midnight from Cleveland. Her course was set for Huron, Ohio where the Neguanee laid waiting for the Sheldon to take her to Sarnia.
Most of Thursday, the weather had been windy. That evening, as the vessel was receiving the last of her load, the winds had begun to diminish. Captain Garant had felt that this was the last of the heavy weather. Had he realized that this was the calm before the storm, it is very likely that he would have overlooked his superstition and waited out the night at Cleveland. The Sheldon had proceeded up the lake to a point midway between Rocky River and Avon Point, where the winds began to stiffen from the southwest. The winds were accompanied by a heavy downpour. At this time, Captain Garant made the decision to proceed to Huron rather than turn around and return to Cleveland. The engineer was ordered to give the boat full speed, and the wheelsman ordered to bring her closer to the lee shore. At 5:00 a.m., the chief engineer reported to the captain that the vessel was leaking worse than usual and that all five of her pumps were operating at maximum capacity. (The engineer's statement indicated that the steamer was leaking all the time. This was probably due to her grounding at Lake Huron the previous month.) Realizing the danger, Captain Garant decided that the vessel would never make Huron. The vessel's course was once again altered, this time for Lorain. After about an hour, another message was received by the captain from the chief engineer. The captain was informed that the water was gaining rapidly, and the pumps were unable to keep up. Water was sloshing around in the boiler room and would occasionally dampen the fires under the boiler, resulting in a loss of pressure and a corresponding loss in power.
Seeing that the situation was desperate, Captain Garant ordered still yet another course change. This time the steamer was headed for the closest shore. Within fifteen minutes of the execution of the order, the steamer struck bottom, off Lake Breeze, six miles east of Lorain. The steamer grounded on an offshore sandbar, more than 1,000 feet from the beach. After initially striking, the unrelenting seas picked the boat up and threw her forward a few more yards. This resulted in the steamer's bow being buried into the sand and mud, affectively anchoring her forward half. The waves continued to pound the vessel mercilessly and her stern, which was still floating, was twisted and wrenched. This action resulted in the vessel showing signs of breaking in two. Water began to enter from everywhere. The water below decks put out the fires, leaving the vessel completely helpless.
Captain Garant concluded that his boat would not last much longer. He gave orders to abandon the vessel. Before leaving his station in the pilot house, he tied down the whistle cord so that it might continue to blow, in hopes of alerting someone to their situation. He also ordered one of the crew to hoist a red tablecloth on the steamer's mast with the flag, so that this might attract attention. Upon leaving the pilot house, the captain saw that the first mate and the other crewmen were attempting to lower the yawl boat on the windward side of the steamer. Captain Garant ordered the yawl drawn back aboard and launched under the lee of the bow. As the men attempted to carry this out, a wave caught the yawl and tore it from the hold of the men and capsized it. Wheelsman John Fox and Henry Johnson were in the yawl at the time. (There are conflicting reports concerning the second man aboard the yawl with Fox, some papers state that it was Charles Evans, the first mate.) The upside down yawl with its two unwilling passengers was swept out into the lake by the raging seas.
With no means at hand for reaching safety, the crew took refuge on the mast. The waves continued to pound the steamer mercilessly throughout the early morning hours. The whistle, which had been sounding its desperate plea, slowly became silent, as the steam in the boiler was exhausted. The men trapped aboard the vessel must have surely felt that their lives were nearly at an end. As fear and despair crept into their thoughts, a ray of hope appeared on the horizon.
The shrill sound of the Sheldon's whistle had done its job. Residents along the shore were awakened by the whistle and alerted to the disaster. A telephone call had been placed to the docks at Lorain and one of the Lifesaving Stations at Cleveland. The tug Kunkle Brothers, under the command of Captain McRae, was immediately dispatched to the scene. The Lifesaving crew also set out for the steamer, leaving Cleveland around 7:30 a.m. in tow of the tug Frank W.
The Kunkle Brothers from Lorain was the first of the rescuers to arrive. As the tug approached the wrecked boat, Captain Garant signaled Captain McRae that two of his men had been carried out into the lake. Captain Garant felt that they still had a good chance of being alive as they both had on lifebelts and had managed to regain control of the yawl. Captain McRae complied with his request and set back out into the lake. After nearly two hours of searching, they returned, having been unable to locate the men.
While the Kunkle Brother was out searching for the crewmen, a number of large waves lifted the Sheldon off the sandbar and carried her further into shore. The vessel once again settled to the bottom, but she had been turned 180 degrees and was considerably closer to shore. Upon returning to the steamer, Captain McRae brought his tug in close to the wrecked steamer and shouted for the crew of the Sheldon to jump to the tug as it passed their vessel. Five of the men succeeded in jumping aboard the tug on several passes. However, while maneuvering about the wreck, the tug struck bottom. The change in the steamer's position, closer to shore and just inside the sandbar, had forced the tug to operate in shallower waters than was safe. Fearing damage to the tug and apparent reluctance of the remaining men to leave the steamer, Captain McRae decided to return to Lorain.
Although the wind velocity diminished throughout the morning, Captain Garant and the remaining crew were faced with a perilous situation. The sand on which the vessel laid began to shift, resulting in the steamer sinking deeper. The end result being that the deck of the Sheldon was now below water. Captain Garant had the men rip off planking and cabin doors. With these, they could build a makeshift raft, and hopefully reach shore. Just as their efforts were being readied for launching, smoke was spotted from an approaching vessel. Silently, the men watched as the vessel drew near. When it became apparent that the vessel was a tug with a lifeboat in tow, the men began to cheer.
The tug was the Frank W. with the Cleveland Lifesaving crew in tow. The two vessels had battled to six hours through treacherous seas to aid the stranded steamer's crew. Arriving at 1:30 p.m., the situation was examined, and it was decided that the water around the wreck would be shallow for the tug. The lifeboat would have to be used to make any rescue attempt. The line from the tug was let go, and the small craft was rowed toward the wreck. When some distance from the stranded steamer, the lifeboat's anchor was dropped and a line paid out in an effort to get closer to the wreck. This scheme did not work, for the anchor refused to hold in the rough seas, and the lifeboat could not be held safely off the Sheldon. The Lifesavers rowed back out to the tug, which had been standing by, and a long line was passed from her to the lifeboat. Again, the lifeboat dropped back as the line was paid out. The tug acted as an anchor. When the lifeboat came close to the steamer, a line was tossed from the wreck. Held by these two lines, rescue operations began. One man was brought aboard the lifeboat, but before a second could attempt to get aboard, a huge wave lifted the lifeboat, throwing it at the wreck. Had it not been for the quick action of the tug captain, who pulled the lifeboat away from the steamer, the small craft would have smashed down on the submerged deck of the wrecked craft. Although quick action saved the lifeboat from completed destruction, it could not prevent the lifeboat's gunwales and rudder from being smashed. This setback didn't deter Captain Motley and his lifesaving crew. They prepared to make a third approach. The Frank W. changed her position so that when the lifeboat drifted down on the wreck, she came in under the lee of the Sheldon. From this position, all of the men were removed from the wreck. With the lifeboat in tow, the Frank W. proceeded to Lorain, where the steamer's crew was taken care of.
The Sarah E. Sheldon had gone to pieces by Saturday evening. All that remained above the water was her boiler and machinery. The machinery was sold to John Stanton, a diver, for $50.00, who probably salvaged it sometime later. The two sailors who had been swept out into the lake had perished. The body of wheelsman Fox was picked up by a fishtug, ten miles west of Lorain on Sunday. The body was found floating, buoyed by his life preserver. The body of the second man was not found. Apparently the body must have slipped from the life preserver and sank.
An investigation was held into the loss of the Sarah E. Sheldon by the Steamboat Inspection Service. After listening to the testimony of the captain and crew, Inspector Stone concluded that the steamer was in a poor state of condition and was more or less un-seaworthy. Whether any action was taken against Captain Garant or the Bradley Transportation Company is unknown. Thus ended the thirty-three-year career of the Sarah E. Sheldon.