The sinking of the Rappahannock

In Captain Rattray’s own words this is how the tragedy occurred:

“We passed the Soo about noon on Sunday and proceeded on our way to Whitefish Point. The weather was fair, apparently favourable and we were making good time. He had in toe the barge Montazuma carrying about five thousand tons of coal which was the charge of Captain McFadden, he being accompanied by his wife and child and ·having a mate and four men with him. He loaded at Ashtabula with coal which was consigned to Du1uth. Heading up the lake the wind was about E. S. E. and these conditions continued until Sunday night about 5:30 when we passed Whitefish Point. We continued on our coarse, a little northerly if anything for Duluth and our consort had her canvas up and the sails were filling nicely. The indications were that there was no fear of a July storm that have a tendency to affect boats like mine but what followed is one of those unforeseen happenings that crop up on the Great Lakes.”

“On Sunday night the weather thickened and the smoke falling down over our bows at times, I decided to keep to the north of the usual course of lake boats in order to avoid a collision. When the mate came on watch about 12:15a.rn, Monday morning, the atmosphere was very thick though we were making fair time, the wind blowing about 18 miles an hour after us. I retired at one o’clock cautioning the mate of the probability of meeting steamers and therefore of the necessity of keeping to the north of the usual track. The mate called me at four- o’clock saying that the boat was taking water and the tow barge was sheering badly. I therefore went to the pilot house and noticed the barge haul around-after us again and everything was apparently in good shape on board the barge as I had at first imagined that their steering gear had gone wrong. ”

“At that time, we were running into a high northerly sea and a north sea at the same time and the barge took a sheer to the windward and the tow line parted at 5:30 a.m. We checked the steamer and headed into the seas so that we could make fast and stand by the barge but the weather got too thick and we lost track of them, there being now a gale wind. The wind was blowing about

60 to 70 miles an hour, and though I kept blowing for the barge to make sail as our tow lines were gone and we had nothing to pick them up with. To our great regret we had to give up the search owing to the stress on the boat from the foul weather.”

“We were in a serious predicament ourselves now. All the time we searched for the barge we were making water in the steamer rapidly, though we had started the pumps as soon as the tow line parted. We tried to keep her free but the water kept gaining on us and with the seas piling over the deckhouse with terrific force we were unable to turn her again in the trough of the sea for fear that her house and everything else would be washed overboard.”

“It was about seven o’clock in the morning on Monday and we could not see or hear anything outside our own vessel. We continued to keep her headed into the wind with the pumps going, heading her for the north shore. At about e1even o’clock the Impoco of the Imperial Oil Company fleet hove in sight about a mile north east of us and I signalled her to standby us as. At that time we had about six feet of water in the Rappahannock. At 11:20 a.m. the sea lessened so I concluded it would be going north and we ran the steamer full speed for Jackfish and we arrived at the bay about 10:30 on Monday night. At the entrance to Jackfish Bay, the steering gave out but we managed to beach her in the extreme shoal water of the bay. All along I had been figuring that I could save the boat and cargo and the crew knew of my design in making for the north shore.”

 “At eleven o’clock we were in the bay and at 12:40 we had to abandon her as she was settling by the stern. I had soundings taken and found 18 feet of water at the bow with 24 feet amidships and 42 feet at the stern. We took to the boats at 12:40 and at 1:05 she sank. We got safely to the shore and camped on the beach and we all thanked our lucky stars that we had a stone pillow to sleep on. We lit a fire and the crew dried themselves out as well as they could.”

“All this time we could see the steamer Impoco off the Slate Islands still searching with their lights in and about the entrance to the harbour to see if we had made it. The vessel had stood by us well and I have the greatest respect for Captain Scott of that vessel for he stayed by us in our time of distress and by doing so encouraged my crew to stand by the ship longer than the average man would have. I cannot speak in too great praise of my crew. When our decks were awash the men asked “How much longer Captain?” and I explained the position and promised to give them timely warning when to make for the boats. Everyone worked in a seamanlike manner and eve~ man stood to his post no matter how much water there was in the boat or coming over her. I could never have made the north shore without them.- I remembered those steamers in the past that had tried, while tackling a gale similar to this, to make the south shore and have been lost. I remembered the Iosco and the Olive Jeanette and many others I could site and some of the funerals I have attended and these influenced my action. We started away to make or break”

“The engineers stood by the machinery until the water was above the cross heads of the engines, this being when we had struck the harbour. The firemen never deserted until their job was finished for the fires were put out by the water. They all stood together striving to save the ship until only a few minutes before her sinking.”

“The cause of the vessel leaking was on account of the stress of weather for we were always in. deep ·water and never touched any bottom.”

“All I can say as a sailorman is that all hands displayed the outmost coolness and even when the steering gear gave way, and the auxiliary gear that was rigged up did not work very well, the crew continued in their splendid work and the crew had taken a chance on the ship that long and did not leave her then.”

“When the vessel struck l/8 mile from land it nearly fell to pieces. As the vessel sank the wheelhouse and upper structure broke away and floated off. Only one of the crew, the ships mascot and the captain’s dog Rex who although the first in the boats, decided he could swim for it.”

Source: Wrigley, Ronald. Northern Superior Shipwrecks, Unpublished Manuscript;
Thunder Bay, Ontario, 1979

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