Huge gray waves still swept out of the darkness to meet the long steel hull of the ore freighter Champlain, but the worst was over now. Snow and spray no longer rattled like buckshot off the pilot house windows, and the scream of the winds had died almost to a whisper.
First Mate Herbert Dupuie had the watch, thankful that the November gale had almost blown itself out. Lake Erie was still a wild expanse of churning waters, but the 80-mile-an hour winds that had blown the tops off mountainous seas had died away and the heavy snows were past. Dupuie had a more immediate problem, now -- the rocky shallows off Point Abino, and the razor-like ridges of Waverly Shoal near the approaches to Buffalo Harbor.
On the bridge of the Champlain, Dupuie and his look-outs strained to pick out a tiny point of light in the pre-dawn blackness -- a point of light hung from a 30-foot mast on the Buffalo lightship, Light Vessel 82.
Beyond the light, Buffalo Harbor held a promise of shelter and an end to Lake Erie's constant, brutal pounding. And shelter was something badly needed by Great Lakes sailors, on the morning of November 11, 1913.
Unknown to the men of the ore carrier Champlain, in the days before radio communications, the Lakes already had taken a terrible toll in a storm that packed hurricane-force winds; more than a dozen ships and nearly 250 sailors met their end in the great November storm of 1913. Some ships tried to ride out the fury of wind and waves, others ran for shelter -- but there was one ship, near Buffalo, that had nowhere to go.
The beacon on Buffalo's lightship should have been visible for miles, early that dark November morning. But now the beacon was gone.
Concerned, Dupuie ordered the big steel freighter checked down, maintaining just enough steam to creep slowly through the still-turbulent seas. He also sent word to his brother, Captain F.A. Dupuie, and the ship's master joined in the search for the tin y point of light that would tell them just where they were.
They never found the light. The Champlain made port -- but it would take nearly two years and a major salvage effort before Light Vessel 82, driven under by the winds and the waves of a vicious Lake Erie storm, would see harbor again.
* * * *
Light Vessel 82 was the second lightship in the Lighthouse Service's history to sink on station, and the first to go down with the loss of all hands. Six men died when the lightship was lost, and only one body ever was found.
The newly constructed L.V. No. 82 steams on Lake Erie near Buffalo (Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society).
"When we passed the lightship's charted position it was very dark," Herbert Dupuie reported after the Champlain was safely berthed at the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh coal dock in Buffalo. "The sea was still heavy, but little wind was blowing and it se emed to us the lightship, built expressly for heavy weather, should have ridden out the storm."
"At daylight we looked the lake over carefully with glasses, but the lightship was not in sight." L.V. 82 had vanished almost without a trace. Bits and pieces of wreckage found their way ashore over the next few days -- life preservers, sections of rail ing, pieces torn from the ship's boats.
And a board, bearing a storm-tossed message from the light-ship captain to his wife ashore: "Good-bye, Nellie, ship is breaking up fast. Williams."
Captain Hugh McClennan Williams of Manistee, Michigan, went down with his ship, on station until the very end. With him went mate Andrew Leahy of Elyria, Ohio; Andrew's brother Cornelius, the assistant engineer; chief engineer Charles Butler of Buffalo, N ew York; seaman William Jensen of Muskegon, Michigan; and cook Peter Mackey, of Buffalo.
Nearly a year later, the body of chief engineer Butler was found floating in the Niagara River off the foot of Ferry Street, on Buffalo's West Side. Butler's widow, who lived not far away, identified her husband's remains by his heavy black sweater-coat , a gold cuff button and the fact that a finger was missing from one hand; although the chief engineer's body had been in the water for more than 50 weeks and had traveled 13 miles before coming ashore, newspapers of the day reported it "was well preserve d, the face and upper portion being petrified."
For a while, waterfront denizens theorized that high winds had shifted the sunken lightship on the lake bed and freed the body, and that more crew members would soon be coming ashore. None ever did, though; Butler's body, taken to Ogdensburg, New York, fo r burial, was the only one recovered from the waters of Lake Erie or the swift-flowing Niagara.
From the beginning, there was disbelief that the lightship could have gone down. L.V. 82 was a brand-new vessel, built of steel in a Great Lakes yard to weather the fierce onslaughts of gales on the inland seas. She was 95 feet, 1 1/2 inches long, 21 fe et wide, and her foredeck was the lakes-bred "whaleback" design to help her shed the steep breaking seas of stormy Lake Erie.
She was built at the Racine Truscott-Shell Co. in Muskegon, Michigan, starting October 17, 1910, and was delivered unfinished to the Lighthouse Service on July 22, 1912 at a cost of $49,595.76. Different sources put her freshwater displacement between 187 and 209 tons, but there was no doubt she was a sturdy vessel.
After adding lanterns, fog signals, anchors and other items, the Service put L.V. 82 on station on August 3, 1912, "temporarily to mark the approaches to Buffalo, New York, pending the construction and completion of Light Vessel No. 96."
Buffalo Harbor was one of the busiest ports in the world during the early years of this century, and there was no doubt the lightship was needed. The steamer tracks through the eastern basin of Lake Erie passed fairly close to the Canadian north shore, and Point Abino stretched a rugged finger southward into the narrowing lake just a few miles from the Niagara River and the Buffalo harbor entrance.
Point Abino's shallows extended well off the tip of the point, and Waverly Shoal waited just beneath the surface a bit closer to Buffalo. The submerged wreck of the steamer W.C. Richardson provided yet another hazard, for the unwary mariner.
Congress had taken the first steps toward establishing a lightship station off Buffalo in 1903, but a decade was to pass before L.V. 82 was to arrive to establish the light 13 miles off Buffalo, about mid-way between Point Abino on the Canadian shore an d Sturgeon Point on the American shore. She arrived decked out in a livery of "English vermilion," and powered by an inverted direct-acting high-pressure steam engine that used a 14-inch-diameter cylinder to run a 5-foot cast iron propeller.
"Lake Erie is a vast sea, and often more stormy, and even dangerous, than the ocean itself" - Thomas McKenney.
Her beacon was a group of three 20-mm lenses on a sliding band mounted on her forward mast, which also carried the daymark; a bell on the rounded foredeck and a six-inch steam whistle on the midship funnel served as fog signals, and a jigger mast aft ca rried a steadying sail.
There were also a few modem conveniences, like a steam anchor windlass and a sanitary plumbing system, and a drainage system. There were even some touches of luxury -- French plate glass mirrors, a small library, and leather upholstered oak chairs. But literally above all were the lights, 170 candlepower from each lens to light the way safely to Buffalo for a steady procession of grain and ore boats.
"From the bridge of our ship we have never had any difficulty in making her out with the glass at points miles distant from her location," First Mate Dupuie noted after the Champlain reached safety. "Never before had we experienced any difficulty in pi cking up the light of 82, and the fact that it was not in its place this morning struck me as being so unusual that I made an immediate report of the circumstance to the captain."
Had Dupuie known then of the severity of the November storm throughout the Great Lakes, he may have been less surprised at missing the lightship. Storm forecasting was in its infancy, shipboard radios a thing of the future; the "Great Storm of 1913" woul d leave a legacy of death unlikely to be equaled. Sweeping from west to east across the 95,000 square miles of the world's greatest freshwater seas, the storm would claim a staggering toll of lives and ships from the time it hit Lake Superior on Friday, N ovember 7, until it delivered a parting blow to the eastern-most lakes on Monday, November 10, the day L.V. 82 disappeared.
Crew of L.S. No. 82 (l to r), Capt. Hugh M. Willimas, Seaman William Jensen, Mate Andrews Leahy, Engr. Charles Butler, Cook Peter Mackey and Asst. Engr. Cornelius Leahy. The boy is the Captain's son, who was not aboard when she sank (Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society).
A dozen ships vanished with all hands during the Great Storm, eight of them during "Black Sunday" on the wind-whipped waves of Lake Huron. Gone were aging vessels and new steel freighters alike; the storm claimed two oceangoing tramp steamers, as well a s bulk freighters up to 550 feet long and 7,862 gross tons in burden. Ore boats were driven ashore on rocky, snow-swept coasts, and overturned hulls floating in mid-lake posed days of anxiety and heartbreak for families waiting ashore. Waves 35 feet high tossed ships like toys, and 51 of the vessels that did manage to survive reported severe damage.
Lake Erie escaped the worst of the storm, a blow that nevertheless paralyzed the shipping center of Cleveland for days, downing telegraph lines and burying roads and railroad tracks under huge drifts of snow. In Buffalo, where the winds were clocked at 80 mph, the storm was considered "no record-breaker" and most of the shipping had heeded weather warnings and stayed safely in port.
Shallower than the other inland seas, only 210 feet at its deepest point, Lake Erie is known for its mercurial moods and a frightening ability to quickly build steep, high seas that hit vessels in rapid, pounding succession. But in the Great Storm, the lake was content with only one victim -- the lonely lightship, anchored far offshore.
The morning after the blow, the Champlain was one of four downbound freighters to miss spotting the friendly glimmer of the lightship. As the gray day dawned, other reports filtered in -- bits of wreckage on the beach at the foot of Michigan Avenue incl uded life preservers marked "United States L.V. 82."
Out on Point Abino, Elman Boughman borrowed the strongest telescope he could find and scanned the waves for the light vessel.
"The surf was running high along shore, but the lake was less turbulent, the wind having died down," he told a reporter for The Buffalo Evening News. "With this glass I can pick out a rowboat several miles distant, but I cannot find even a speck which mi ght be the lightship." The Lighthouse Service, in fact, got word of its loss in a call from the newspaper. Roscoe House, veteran superintendent of the Tenth District, sent the tender Crocus out to search for L.V. 82, but found it hard to believe the new steel lightship was gone; "The lightship ought to weather any gale, as it has its own power and is a staunch steel boat," he said. "The fact that life preservers, and parts of railing or small doors were picked up on the beach near Michigan Street is not seriously significant, for the upper works might be washed off and everything on the upper part of the lightship, yet the boat would weather the gale."
By noon, when the assistant district superintendent had boarded the tug Yale to join the fruitless search and the crews of the Life Savings Service station were patrolling the beaches along Buffalo's shores, House may have begun to lose hope. L.V. 82 had vanished. There would be no survivors.
Wreckage continued to come ashore, but most proved to have come from a wooden freighter that had been wrecked a few weeks earlier on Long Point. From L.V. 82 came a drawer from the ship's galley, the capsized and mast-less small wooden sailboat carried by the lightship, a board from the ship's powerboat containing the brass cover to the gasoline tank -- and a mystery.
A fisherman walking along a beach days later found a board, apparently a piece of ship's cabinetry, with a message scrawled in pencil. "Good-bye, Nellie," the message read, "ship is breaking up fast. Williams."
Was it a last, desperate message from the lightship's captain to his wife ashore? Or was it just a cruel, heartless hoax perpetrated, as one newspaper account suggests, by the small boys who lived in the seawall shanty town?
Lightship BUFFALO anchored in Buffalo Harbor (Michael Vogel Collection).
There was debate from the beginning. Captain Williams' wife was Mary Williams, not Nellie -- and would a loving husband have signed such a message with only his last name?
Williams had promised to leave his wife such a message, if disaster overtook him; the wood, compared to other drawers from the doomed lightship, appeared authentic. During the summer or 1912, Williams had stayed with the family of Horseshoe Reef lightke eper Thomas Joseph in Buffalo, and Mrs. Joseph said she had heard the captain addressing his wife as Nellie -- a claim Mrs. Williams herself, arriving in Buffalo with her brother at mid-week to join in the search, would deny.
Mary Williams, who would mount her own sorrowful vigil on the rolling decks of the Crocus as it spent two days searching for the lightship and its crew, had no doubt the message was real.
Her daughter-in-law, Angel M. Williams of Manistee, recalled years later that Mary Williams felt her husband was so near death that he had someone else write the hurried words for him. The message was not in her husband's handwriting, Mrs. Williams sai d, and the "Nellie" could have been written in error, Angel Williams found evidence of haste and impending doom in the fact that "the 'S' in Williams was a scrawled line as if the ship had given a mighty lurch at that moment."
Real or not, the message was only part of the puzzle facing the Lighthouse Service. Of paramount importance was finding the missing ship itself, to solve the greatest mystery of all -- the question of how a new steel vessel, built expressly to weather s evere lake gales, could be lost. L.V. 82, though, proved an elusive quarry.
After the initial searches by the tender Crocus, a revenue cutter and Buffalo-based tugs proved unsuccessful, the Lighthouse Service dispatched Captain E.M. Trott from Washington, D.C. to supervise the hunt for the sunken lightship. Captain Trott arrive d on Thursday, November 13, and had a large acetylene gas buoy and a set of grappling hooks loaded aboard the Crocus, intending to drag the bottom to locate and mark the wreck site. The effort ended, again, in failure -- at the lightship station, seas sti ll were running too high for the work.
By the next day, however, the seas had calmed enough to let the crews anchor the lighted buoy on the lightship station, to finish out the navigation season on Lake Erie. The Crocus had no luck finding the wreck, though, and by late November the search w as being handled by the United States Lake Survey office in Detroit.
Winter came, icing over the eastern basin of Lake Erie before L.V. 82 could be found. Investigators meanwhile concluded that the ship had been lost sometime between the last sighting of its beacon at about 4:45 a.m. Monday, November 10, and the Champlai n's passage about 24 hours later. Whatever its doom, L.V. 82 had probably met its end sometime during the height of the storm that dark Monday.
Inspector House duly wrote off the vessel as November neared its end, and -- following Service regulations -- recommended to Washington that the crew posts be discontinued. The Secretary of Commerce duly lined out the jobs and the salaries -- $900 per y ear for the captain, $840 for the chief engineer, $660 for the mate and the assistant engineer, $40 per month for the cook and $37.50 per month for the seaman.
It would be the next May, when Lake Erie's ice had melted or disappeared down the mighty Niagara, before L.V. 82 was found. The search ship Surveyor came across the wreckage in 62 feet of water, nearly two miles off station.
There was hope, then, that the bodies of the men would at last be recovered. Dave Beaudrey, a Detroit diver working for the Lake Survey, made a thorough search of the wreck, but no trace of the crew was found.
"It was thought that the bodies would be found in the fire hold because it was said the crew always went there in a severe storm," Captain Williams' hometown newspaper in Manistee reported. "It was believed they were trapped between decks with locked do ors..."
The Surveyor left a buoy to mark the wreck, and the government turned the job of raising the ship over to commercial salvers. Two companies tried to bring her up, but L.V. 82 had taken on a heavy cargo of lake bottom sand and the efforts failed. Finall y, the Reid Wrecking and Towing Company brought L.V. 82 back to the surface on September 16, 1915 at a cost of $36,000.
She had been on the bottom for nearly two years, but the wreckage still bore testimony to the violence of the November 1913 storm. And it provided the answer to the final puzzle.
Steep, towering seas had come out of the wall of wind and snow in rapid succession, battering the tiny lightship unmercifully. Mountains of water broke across the turtleback-style foredeck, but the seas were so high they swept still farther aft to pound against the wooden superstructure.
Held in place by its huge mushroom anchor, L.V. 82 took a tremendous beating. Seas smashed in the lantern room, splintered windows and doors, crushed hatches and ventilators. L.V. 82's crew had sealed the vessel against the storm as well as they could, c hoosing to stay on station rather than run for shelter, but the Lighthouse Service's brand-new "staunch steel ship" had literally been pounded to death by the fury of the storm.
Darkness and storms, after all, are what lightships were for. L.V. 82 had nowhere to go, that snow-shrouded day -- and, perhaps, just time enough for one hastily-penciled message.
The wreckers brought the shattered hulk back to shore, beaching the vessel at Buffalo. Eventually, the hull was re-floated and towed the length of Lake Erie to Detroit, for re-building and fitting out as a relief lightship.
Diver Beudrey's report proved correct. The hull was intact, but seas that poured in and caused the vessel to founder had wrecked the interior. At the Detroit depot, the oil lamps were replaced by new acetylene beacons, and a 10-inch steam whistle and s ubmarine bell were installed.
Incredibly, the lightship that had been pounded under by the Great Storm saw duty again on the Great Lakes. L.V. 82 served in a relief role from 1916 to 1925, working throughout the Tenth District. From 1926 to 1935, she marked Eleven Foot Shoal, until that lightship station was replaced by a lighthouse for the 1936 season.
Laid up as a relief vessel, L.V. 82 found still another odd change in course in her future. Rep. John W. McCormack of Massachusetts sponsored an act of Congress that, when signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, turned the little lightship over to newly -formed U.S.S. Constitution Post 3339, Veterans of Foreign Wars -- a Boston VFW post of ex-Navy men who used the docked lightship as summer quarters from 1936 until 1945.
In the end, vandals did what not even a vicious Great Lakes gale could do -- they drove L.V. 82 under for good, sinking her at her dock. According to the late New England historian Edgar Rowe Snow, the wreckage was finally scrapped. Even the Buffalo lig htship station had faded into history, by that time.
The station was marked in 1914 by L.V. 96, a larger lightship that had just been launched in Michigan by the same yard that had built L.V. 82. The assignment was temporary, an emergency measure occasioned by the loss of L.V. 82 a few months before, and the new ship was moved to Poe Reef off Michigan the next season.
Her place was taken in 1915 by a sister ship, L.V. 98, which marked the station until 1918. That was the last year for a Buffalo lightship -- in 1917, Canada opened its powerful new Point Abino Light. The lighthouse, and buoys on the shoals near Buffalo Harbor, made a lightship station unnecessary.
Canada's Point Abino Light (Aaron T. Heverin).
The tragedy of Light Vessel 82 slowly faded from memory in the Buffalo area. Back in Manistee, Mary Williams received a final memento -- her husband's pilot's license, faded from its long sojourn at the bottom of the lake, was taken from the wreckage of h is cabin and sent to the widow two years after the sinking. In a cemetary at Onekama, nearby, stands a monument to "Captain Hugh M. Williams, Lost at Sea."