Steamship America – Full Documentary

[water] [music playing] JAY HANSON: Through the
water, you just kind of see the outline of a wreck,
and eventually it turns into this ship. You know, It’s kind of
a unique experience. [music playing] I enjoy historic sites. Just being able to
be there and touch them is, to me, part
of the experience. The biggest thing is,
is it’s tangible history. Something you put your hands on. It’s not somebody
telling you a story. It’s, you’ve heard
this story and now I can actually see the
physical manifestation depths to explore what
remains below the surface. Part of the experience is
just imagining, you know, what these– what the lives
of these people were like. This was my first
real, real shipwreck. I can remember looking up and
the ship listed a little bit to port, and my brain would
go, put, put, put, put. Whoa, this is really
hard on the brain. NARRATOR: The
experience launched I was probably only 16. Back then, the Model T
truck that was in there was still intact. And you You could see the keyboard. to see these parties going
on with people walking around in the salon. And you could go
down in the galley. And the pots and pans
are still down there. KEN MERRYMAN: It
helps form the picture of what it was like
on The America, you know, back in the day. It’s just a dynamic story. And it’s such a big
lake, and I think NARRATOR: The America steamed
through the Duluth ship canal in 1902. She cruised through the city’s
new and improved concrete piers and went right to work. The 164-foot long steamer was
billed as one of the finest and fastest freight and
passenger boats available. Duluth was a bustling
town of 70,000 citizens and growing fast. There were docks for
grain, flour, lumber, and coal everywhere
along the waterfront. Fleets of passenger ships
and Great Lakes freighters racked up nearly 3,000
arrivals each season. The city boasted more
than a dozen rail lines with connections to
Chicago, Omaha, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. The port was a busy place. A company executive who came up
on the America’s inaugural run, promised the ship would be
operated as a first class steamer. “She has a speed of
18 miles an hour, which will mean much in
the North Shore traffic. In fact, previous
trips had been tedious because of the average
slowness of the boats.” Booth Line Superintendent,
C.W. Turner. NARRATOR: Speed was her
competitive advantage. It ran around 19 miles an hour. Which is really,
that’s 21, 22 knots. That’s moving right along. NARRATOR: A. Booth and
Company, a Chicago-based fish wholesaler, brought
the steamer to Duluth to grab more of the freight
and passenger business at the Western end
of Lake Superior. Booth’s main rival, The White
Line, owned by Walter Singer, added The Iroquois to
its fleet within days of the America’s arrival. The two ships slipped
immediately into competition. [piano music] “The Booth Line people
are said to have a great deal of confidence
in the America’s fleetness. While the Singer Line people
aver their readiness to have a test of speed for money,
chalk, or marbles at any time.” The Duluth Evening
Herald, April 29, 1902. NARRATOR: Her schedule included
three round trips a week, with regular stops in two
harbors, Beaver Bay, Grand Marais, and Grand Portage,
Fort William and Port Arthur. She circled Isle Royale,
delivering passengers and collecting fish before
coming back to the mainland to return to Duluth. [music playing] You could almost say it
was a passenger liner. It would have a definite
time, say at Two Harbors it would be there. And at Grand Marais
it might vary a little bit between times. And arrival up at Fort William
and at Rock Harbor and then at Windigo specific times. But it was on a
pretty tight schedule. NARRATOR: The combination of
reliable service and stylish trimmings gave her a charmed
reputation along the shore. The America was built as
an excursion boat in 1898. More state rooms were added
when she took on freight duties on Lake Superior. An elegant spiral
staircase and skylights were part of the package. The roof of the boat deck
was raised a little bit, curved on the top, and then
skylights along the sides. So it would have
looked quite nice. [music playing] It didn’t look like
a working freighter. It had red carpet. It had some chandeliers. It had lovely table wear. It did its job, but it did
its job with a lot of grace. [music playing] NARRATOR: Deliveries
from The America were a critical lifeline
for remote settlements all along her route. Anything you needed,
from livestock to medicine to mail to clothes
to flour, sugar, staples– it all had to
come in on the boats. [music playing] As a package freighter, you
know, it could be furniture, it could be panes of
glass, crates of oil lamps. It could be just about
anything that you could either drag on or
wheel on or carry or load into a gunny sack. Anything was open and
fair game for cargo. My grandfather’s brother bought
a home from Sears and Roebuck. And I think it was $800 fully. And that included a
carpenter for a couple weeks. But it came up on
the steamer America, and it was unloaded
on the Tofte dock. And they assembled the house. So it was an honest to
goodness Sears and Roebuck home that came up
on The America. It’s just that kind of boat. If you could load it on
there, it was fair game. [seagulls] NARRATOR: Commercial
fishing was big business in the early 1900s. The Booth Company bought fish
from all around Lake Superior to sell in Chicago and beyond. The company was handling
more than 100 tons a month. That boat was extremely
valuable to the fishermen along the shore, as far
as hauling our fish. And it was also a passenger
ship for the fishermen, because they didn’t have
any other way of getting to their fishing houses. You had fish houses all
up and down the shore. Everyone that could
possibly crowd a fish house in on the shore, that
was their livelihood. so the ship anchored off shore
and relied on her customers to come get their orders
and bring out their catch. The fishermen would
roll out their barrels of fish, which were 100 pounds. And then they had a
cable winch scenario where the keg lifter
would grab the keg and lift it up to the boat. And that was the dangerous
part because if that broke in any way, it would land
right into their wooden skiff and they would clearly
have a broken boat. Yeah, pretty dangerous because
you have all that weight in a boat. And if you go hard into the
steel hull of The America, you know, that’s not a
good scenario for you in a wooden boat. The level of skill to make
that happen is phenomenal. You know, you want
everything to happen on the lee side of
the boat, so which side is that going
to be this time? Are you doing it at night? Are you doing it in the fog? Is it daylight? You tie it up
thinking, well gee, if you tie up too tight,
you’re going to lift it out of the water and then, you
know, have it splash down. So yeah, it is a dance. There is definitely skill. There’s partnership involved
in how these things work and work successfully. [music playing] TIM COCHRANE: America
is really remembered as the apex of maritime
trade on the North Shore. [seagulls] [music playing] NARRATOR: The
arrival of steamers like the America ushered in
the golden age of tourism on Isle Royale. Interest in travel
and outdoor recreation was blossoming
across the country in the early 1900s fueled
by seamless transportation links between railroads
and passenger ships. It was an escape from the
big city– the probably pretty dirty air, because everyone was
heating with coal and whatnot. And it was just a clean, fresh
air, sunshine kind of place to be. NARRATOR: The Johns
family was the first to offer cabins for rent
and soon needed to expand. TOM JOHNS: He had several
buildings over here that he accommodated tourists,
and our great grandfather, John F. Johns. But he ran out of room. The ships kept coming up here. And people, he said,
I can’t take anymore. So he had to turn
them away, you know. So then he built this place. They built a
one-story building. Then, a couple years later,
they took that roof off and added the second story. He had two bedrooms
in the back. Four bedrooms upstairs. So, six more bedrooms
plus what he had over here so he could
accommodate some more. But still by 1900, it was just
too many people coming up. NARRATOR: There was
so much interest in staying on the island, Walter
Singer, owner of the White Line, was motivated to build. His Singer Hotel
went up in 1902. And John F. Johns convinced
Mr. Singer, of Singer Sewing Machine Company, to
build the Singer Hotel on the other island. Because he had so
many guests here, he couldn’t handle them all. NARRATOR: The Island House
Resort, or Singerville, included a pool room and
barbershop in the main lodge, and a pavilion with a
bowling alley and dance hall. Plus 10 cottages with
private outhouses. He spent $80,000
and built the hotel across the harbor– great
big hotel over there. And then my grandfather,
then great grandfather got out of the business
and couple years later then sold the island to Mr. Barnum. NARRATOR: Just up the
bay in Washington Harbor, a private hunting and fishing
lodge, The Washington Club, was organized by a group of
wealthy Duluth businessmen. And summer communities
sprang up at both ends of the Isle Royale. There’s a photo of The America
coming around hotel island here. NARRATOR: At the northeast
end of the island, Gust Mattson, a member
of The Mattson Fishery, started his resort
across the bay from the family fish
camp in Tobin Harbor. The resort it was
coming to, well that was another Mattson–
part of the same family. Started fishing on
that island and then switched to the resort. He apparently liked dealing
with people rather than fish. I think once you went to Isle
Royale and had a good time, then you went back
over and over again. And you told other
people about it. And word spread pretty far. So, there was good coverage
of Isle Royale in the Chicago papers and really
in the Detroit paper and Duluth and
Minneapolis, St. Paul. It was just a place to go. NARRATOR: By 1904,
the remote island boasted four
full-fledged resorts and attracted thousands of
intrepid travelers, lured by the promise of fresh
air and fresh fish. If you could afford
it, it was fun. And you could enjoy the
voyage on the way up. There were the state rooms if
that’s what you could afford. Or the more steerage kind of
rooms, which were just a bunk room, more or less. But there was a
way to get there. There would be a place
for you at the other end. [piano music] I was told that you
could count on The America for many different reasons. Where the other
smaller boats couldn’t offer those possibilities. NARRATOR: At the turn
of the 20th century, Minnesota’s North Shore was
accessible only by water beyond a few tote roads
used by logging companies, and a fledgling
stagecoach operation. Anything north of Two Harbors
required a strong back and a rowboat. There are no roads. So you have this
little town that is clustered along the shore,
and that people know each other and help each other out. But the outside world is only
accessible through the water. So, where we get
in our car and we turn on the key in the
ignition and we drive, you get in your boat
and you start to row. And you maybe rowed several
miles to the next town. NARRATOR: When a group
of Norwegian immigrants came from Tofte, Norway to join
relatives in Tofte, Minnesota, The Steamer America
was a logical choice. The Mesabi Range had
opened up for iron ore. So there was a tremendous
demand for railroad ties. And then Duluth and Two
Harbors were growing, so was the need for lumber. So our family quickly built
logging camps, employed 60 to 70 men, had
12 teams of horses. And then, in 1902, my
grandfather and his brother went back to Norway to entice
the family in Tofte, Norway to come over now. Because they had farming,
fishing– a real opportunity. NARRATOR: Their arrival doubled
the population overnight. They brought their
traditions with them. Logging and fishing, that
they’d earned and learned in Norway or Sweden or Finland. They just adapted them. When they first came here,
they’d fish with hook lines. And so they would go far out
into the lake– 5, 10, 15 miles out– to fish for trout. But they came back in. And Hunts questioned
why they came back in, and they said they came
in to get fresh water. When they first came
here from Norway, they had been fishing in
the sea their whole life. And they went right to work. They didn’t even
think that they could drink the water from the lake. It looks like what you left in
Norway, that same rocky coast. But it smells different, because
its fresh water, not salt water. But you know that nets
caught fish in Norway and nets will catch ’em here. And you can learn. And you can apply those
skills you had before here to survive in this land. And they did. [music playing] NARRATOR: The captains entrusted
with running boats on Lake Superior face a daunting task. They have to provide
regular and reliable service on one of the world’s most
challenging bodies of water. There’s always an
element of danger out here just because
of the lake itself. You know, our average
water temperature is around 42 degrees. And things can happen
even on calm days. NARRATOR: The captains
in charge of The America we’re well equipped
to handle mighty Lake Superior in all her moods. Her first, Captain
Jacob Frederick Hector, had a knack for navigating
the beautiful and treacherous shore. His skill earned him an
excellent reputation. Captain Hector had a nickname. His nickname was the Fog King. And he could sound
the ship’s horn. And he could hear the echo
come back from the North Shore. And depending on if
it was echoing off of rock or just the
hillside, he could get a feeling for where he was. THOM HOLDEN: He
knew, and I think he could sense how far
he was along the shore. And the shore it’s just
pretty much sheer rock. [horn playing] NARRATOR: Captain
Edward Smith served as Hector’s First
Mate for eight seasons before taking over the top job. By then, the duo’s exploits
had reached a legendary status. Captain Smith and the myth that
he could essentially, you know, echo locate where
he was by tooting his horn– you don’t hear that
about any of the other vessels. NARRATOR: Bill
Wasbotten, a wheelsman with firsthand knowledge,
confirms the story. When we got up to Port
Arthur and Fort William, we went up what’s
known as Mission Creek. We had to go up that
channel, and if it was foggy he blew the whistle and
listened for the echo of a certain elevator and
he could tell where he was. I thought that was– [chuckles]
I didn’t like that naturally, but we made it. NARRATOR: The captain’s
skill allowed The America to keep running on
time, day and night, in fair weather and foul. A huge accomplishment
with the navigation tools he had on board. What you have to navigate
with was pretty mundane stuff. You know, you had a
thermometer, a barometer, probably an anemometer, magnetic
compass, your experience, and a little spit in
the wind and see what’s happening with the weather. Today we’ve got GPS,
radar, depth finders, and our charts are
far more accurate. You know, like I
always tell people it’s the world’s largest lake. And it took them
a long time to get all of those little rocks and
points marked on those charts. And luckily for us,
those are the guys that came before and found
the rocks, ran aground, did those things so now
we know where they’re at. There’s plenty of times The
America went up on rocks, too. But, obviously, never enough
to put it out of commission for a whole lot of time. Its route was lots of reefs,
lots of rocks, lots of islands, lots of fog. And it is lucky it
survived because, you know, one little wrong turn in Isle
Royale and you’re into a reef. So they had to know
what they were doing. You look at it back
then and the amount of tonnage that they
were carrying on the lake wasn’t that far off
of what we do now. But when a 1,000-foot freighter
can carry over 60,000 tons of iron ore at a time, that
was literally 10 or 15 boats. So, there were far more
ships navigating the lake. So it wasn’t that
hard to imagine coming around the corner,
around the end of the island, and somebody else trying to cut
the corner at the same time, where they’d get a little bit
closer or bump into each other. Mother Nature is in charge,
and you’re along for the ride. And it’s best to smile, and say
please and thank you, and deal with what you’re given. Don’t try and stretch
beyond your means or beyond the means of
the craft that you’re on. [ocean waves] NARRATOR: In November
of 1905, The America survived one of the deadliest
storms in Lake Superior history. She was returning from
Port Arthur in heavy seas when she passed the Steamer
Mataafa at Two Harbors. The lake was already wild
enough to be dangerous. America continued to Duluth. The Mataafa turned
around to follow her. “Several times, the waves
almost carried our ship into shore sideways. The America was lighter
than The Mataafa and rode high in the water,
which might have made it easier for us to sail to safety.” Thor Hagen, Wheelsman. They said that the waves
were so high at some points that the whole ship
canal would disappear. And then, you know,
they would come back up and then you could
see everything again. But it was up and
down, up and down. NARRATOR: The America fought
her way through the ship canal amid storm-tossed timbers. But The Mataafa was
destined for disaster. The Mataafa started to
come into the harbor. And just as the nose of the
boat got in between the two ends of the piers, a wave
pushed it and it smacked up against the north pier. NARRATOR: Then another giant
wave slammed her mid ship against the opposite pier. The next spun her around
and grounded her 600 feet from shore. The helpless vessel got
stranded in the pounding waves within sight of
horrified spectators. The nine crewmen who took
refuge in the rear of the boat either froze to death or
were washed overboard. The America relied on the sheer
strength of her wheelsman. “My arms were so tired
from gripping the wheel, that they ached for
a week afterwards.” Thor Hagan, Wheelsman. The America was
just a rough trip and they were successful
in getting in, getting out of the weather. They couldn’t get
to their own dock. They ended up going
right straight into the harbor to
where the freight sheds are over there now. Quite an experience for them–
on The America is a survivor, and then to basically watch
what happened with The Mataafa as it was trying to
get into the canal. [ocean waves] [sea birds] [voices] [boat whistle] [music playing] HOWARD SIVERTSON: It was
a great day at Boat Day, especially the one day–
Sunday was Boat Day. And that’s the one they
got dressed up for. They all took baths. And they got dressed up
for the Sunday Boat Day. And that was kind of fun. Boat Day on Isle
Royale was a wild mix, part social gathering,
part marketplace. NARRATOR: The America brought
orders of fruit and vegetables, basic supplies, and
served as a magnet for friends and neighbors. HOWARD SIVERTSON:
It was the lifeline. It was the connection
to civilization. LOU MATTSON: If they
needed groceries, you had a list in one trip. And they’d pick it up and
bring it out for the next one. If we didn’t have ice
here, the ships normally brought ice out in 100-pound
cakes, which by the time they got here were 50 pounds. But you still bought 100 pounds. NARRATOR: The ship gave summer
residents and fishing families a reason to gather and to
share the news of the day. A simple post office
at Tobin’s Harbor played a critical
role in the community. MALE SPEAKER 1: Jimmy Lawrence
is connected to the Connollys. Lichtes and Daslers
were connected. So that’s our harbor. ELLIE CONNOLLY:
There was something about the America coming around
that corner that made them feel not so isolated and alone. And that was really
important for my grandmother. She wrote 32 letters
to one person, 39 to somebody else, 9 to
Mrs. Rugg, 11 to Bessie. Boat Day was huge because
people were coming and going and then, of course, the
mail, and then the supplies, and then everybody
from Tobin Harbor, and it’s a pretty big
community, is down there. You’d go down there
and meet everybody. And then I’d say, oh, come
on over for cards on Friday. And you’d say, OK, if
the weather’s good. I’m sure you’d say something
like that, because that would be important. If it was bad,
you wouldn’t come. NARRATOR: Wherever there was
a dock deep enough for her, the America would pause to
exchange mail and freight before continuing on. In Grand Marais
and elsewhere, it was a big event to go down and
meet the boat when it came in. In Tofte, it was the
wildlife that greeted her. [train whistle] VIRGINIA REINER:
Every time the America gave three blasts of
its whistle to announce it was coming close to the
dock, the wolves in the hills would hear it. And they’d start howling. And the passengers would
get excited no the ship. And you would too. Even today, you’d
get excited I think. When you had the
America, it brought with it not only supplies. It brought family. It brought businessmen. It brought tourist and elegant
ladies looking along the store. That was a real exciting thing. TIM COCHRANE: There was
never any lingering. There was never hanging out. So the exchange would be made. A lumberjack would get off– the
mail going both ways whenever freight was going,
and then away it went. It’s kind of like VIRGINIA REINER: You
were prospecting. You wouldn’t know
what you’d find. There was always
something to talk about when the boat landed. NARRATOR: In 1908,
extremely dry weather sparked devastating forest
fires across the upper Midwest. Tinder-dry slash left over from
decades of lumbering operations fueled ravenous fires
along the shore. By early September, large
fires threatened towns and burned homesteads. MALE SPEAKER 2: “Grand Marais is
in great danger of being burned and no avenue of escape. Forest fires rage
within a mile of town. And the fate of the place is
in doubt– the Duluth Evening Herald, September 8th, 1908.” NARRATOR: The fires
were large enough to prompt the governor of
Minnesota to order steamers like the America to stand
by for emergency evacuation. Communities like Beaver Bay,
Grand Marais, and Chicago Bay were literally on edge. MALE SPEAKER 3: “The
wind changed yesterday. And there is a
strong possibility that the town was
swept out by the fire before the America
reached the scene. No further news of
the situation will be received until the
return of the America. She is due to arrive in Duluth
at midnight tonight, Duluth Evening Herald,
September 12th, 1908.” NARRATOR: A young engineer
named Ralph Russell Tinkham came through Duluth that fall to
begin design work on a newly approved light station three
miles up from the Split Rock River. On September 12th, he booked
his passage on the America and took a stroll
along the canal. In his journal, he writes– MALE SPEAKER 4: “The fog
whistle at the end of the pier was blowing on account of
the heavy pall of smoke, so thick one could not see
the main shore of Duluth from the pier, Ralph
Russell Tinkham, engineer.” NARRATOR: The next morning,
Tinkham and 40 firefighters were among the
passengers heading up the shore to Grand Marais. MALE SPEAKER 4: ” There were no
fires that I noticed amounting to anything until we
arrived off Split Rock. Here they said they
were fighting fire to within a half mile
of the settlement. Conundrum Point and the next
point above that, the one Split Rock light station
is to be erected upon, were all burned over here
as well as the mainland back from there and still burning. Around Grand Marais, the
fire was close to the town. And they were fighting
day and night.” NARRATOR: The America
carried frightened settlers and
townsfolk from points all along the shore– people
forced to the water’s edge by the advancing flames. When suddenly the
wind shifted, the city was saved with no loss of life. And another chapter in the
America story became legend. [music playing] The America and
the Booth Company brought some perks to the
remote communities they served. The steamer operated as
an ambulance for many. HOWARD SIVERTSON:
When you got sick, they shipped to
Duluth on the America. And it was the lifeline. It was the connection
to civilization. NARRATOR: On the lighter side,
it offered the local baseball teams a chance to compete
for the American dream. MALE SPEAKER 5: The
Tofte baseball team, they would tell the
captain, Hector Smith, we have a ballgame next week. Can you bring us up to the game? And there’s no charge
for that, of course. And there were teams up and
down in Hovland and up and down the shore. But where else in
the United States did you take a steamship
to play baseball? [music playing] DIANE OESTERREICH:
Here is a picture. I’m so glad that
the family took it. That is the steamer America. NARRATOR: By 1920, the
crew of the America was a well-oiled machine. With a regular schedule
and Captain Smith’s fine leadership, the
passengers kept coming. Eileen Schubert hired
on as a female steward. DIANE OESTERREICH: I know that
my grandmother was assigned just to do general
cleaning of the rooms and see to the passengers. She had to clean out
women’s lavatory. And I guess she left. She said that when they
flushed the toilets, it was so loud that it
scared half of the passengers to death. Oh, here, this is some–
there is the women. There they are in
their blacks stockings. [music playing] BILL WASBOTTEN: We’d
always run in the evenings and had a real hard time. NARRATOR: Bill Wasbotten worked
his way up from deck hand to wheelsman and did a stint
on the America in the 1920s. BILL WASBOTTEN: Well, it was
one time the girls forgot to pull the shades. And I was standing on the dock
waiting for the stevedores to bring out the stuff. And they forgot to
pull the shades. And they looked out and saw me
standing right in front of them practically. And of course, I heard
about it at breakfast. [music playing] DIANE OESTERREICH: The food
there, from what I’d heard, was excellent food,
especially the whitefish. People always would say that
the whitefish was so good. There was the benefits of
all the ships, incidentally. Them days, why they really
pumped out the food. DIANE OESTERREICH:
This is the captain. And Eileen is the third
woman from the left. And Captain Smith
is the third man. NARRATOR: Eileen’s son, Duncan,
signed on as a pantry boy at age 14 and crewed on the
America with his mother. DIANE OESTERREICH: This is
Duncan standing by the gangway. He used to call
the steamer America that stout, little ship. NARRATOR: One of
Eileen’s daughters fondly recalls a ride on the
America from those early days. The experience
left an impression. DIANE OESTERREICH: “I was curled
and ruffled from head to toe and I was passed along
from lap to lap all through the social salon. It was so beautiful. It was like an extra,
extra long living room. It was very, very charming. I would go to the
cook and get bread. And Jesse and I would go
to the bow of the ship. It had a very pointed bow. And we would feed the seagulls
that would trail along. The ship was always
something very special to me. It was so white. I used to think it was
the most beautiful ship. And I was so happy that
mama and Duncan were there.” THOM HOLDEN: It was a
nice, friendly group. And it was often referred
to as the happy ship. The crew got along. And I think if
you didn’t fit in, I think you found there
was a way following for you to fit no more. And someone else who
did fit in had a chance to work on the America. [music playing] NARRATOR: At Split
Rock, lighthouse tenders delivered most of the supplies
needed to build and maintain the station. But mail service was handled
by collection steamers like the America. The daughter of keeper
Franklin Coville describes how it worked. FEMALE SPEAKER 1: “If
they, the America, had mail, or
passengers, or whatever, they would blow their whistle. The fog signal would
be started to answer. Then the America would
anchor on the lake and wait for the launch to come
out– Elaina Coville Meyers.” Improvements to Highway
61 continued the effort to connect Duluth with towns
on up to the Canadian border. Automobiles ushered in
a new wave of tourism. Independent-minded
travelers began to move on their own schedule. Fishing families along the
route took the opportunity to supplement their income. They built more cottages
and lodges along the road. BRIAN TOFTE: Every cabin,
you could say condominium to this day, you can attribute
to the commercial fishermen, because they built
the first cabins. VIRGINIA REINER:
Especially after the road was connected from
Duluth up to the border, they built little
tourist cabins. The idea was we could
promote tourism here with this fresh, healthy air. BRIAN TOFTE: Godines that
owned cabins here in Tofte, or were building cabins at
the time, they bought a car. And a car was delivered
under the Tofte dock in the mid 1920s. But the roads weren’t open
completely from Duluth to Thunder Bay. So you could only drive 20
miles either side of Tofte before you ran into the woods. NARRATOR: Fishermen
along the shore began to move their
catch to market by truck. For ships like the America,
both freight tonnage and passenger numbers dropped. But she still held
value on Isle Royale and was a link between
cities along the lake shore. THOM HOLDEN: Yes, the
Highway 61 had been extended. They were starting
to be automobiles and trucking and whatnot. But the America was
still pretty viable, important to a lot of places
along the shore and especially as the big communication,
dependable communication thing between Duluth
Superior Harbor and Fort William
and Port Arthur. The 1928 season started like
so many others for the America. She was ready. And one of the first ships to
begin service up the shore. The crew roster included a
new first mate, John Wick. He was a Norwegian
immigrant with plenty of experience on the ocean
and on the Great Lakes. MARK WICK: John
Wick sailed on what was called the poker fleet. And he sailed on the
Jack for eight years until he took the
job on the America. THOM HOLDEN: So he had a
license, a captains license for unlimited tonnage
on unlimited waters and could sail anywhere
around the United States. Where Captain Smith was
pretty much a coastal license. He couldn’t really go more
than probably about 25 miles offshore with his license. So there was a difference. MARK WICK: Apparently,
he was getting a bit frustrated
because he wasn’t being promoted to be captain. And I think he knew the
captain of the America was going to be retiring soon. And so he figured
if he switched over to the America, which was a
much smaller boat, that he might be able to get the
captain’s job on the America. THOM HOLDEN: As they were
talking in the pilothouse are getting to know one another
better, Wick kind of kept , I think, bringing up that
he had better papers. NARRATOR: The America
sailed from Duluth that Wednesday morning June
6th heading up the shore. But her guests had
requested a slight deviation from her regular route. MARK WICK: Instead of going
right up the shore into Canada, they made a trip out to
Isle Royale in the dark. THOM HOLDEN: They had some
special passengers on board. They had business people who
belonged to the Washington Club. They decided because these
people were on board, they wanted to get fishing
as early as they could. They would run them into
Washington Harbor on the way up the Fort William. NARRATOR: The plan
shaved 15 hours off the fishermen’s journey,
but landed the America’s new first mate in
unfamiliar territory in the middle of the night. MARK WICK: I don’t believe
that he’d even been up there during the day prior to that,
because the ship that he had been sailing on the
previous eight years wasn’t the kind of boat that
would go into that area. NARRATOR: A Duluth
banker, George Barnum, and three members
of the John’s family were among the passengers
returning to Washington Harbor. BILL JOHNS: They
got off at 2 o’clock in the morning from the
America, perfectly clear night, beautiful night, you see. And then they came over here. And my dad and his mom
and dad, our grandfather and grandmother, and
Mr. Barnum went down to his place to go to sleep. NARRATOR: Sam
Sivertson and his wife, Theodora, stayed
on the boat so they didn’t have to risk
getting off in the dark. HOWARD SIVERTSON: He had
broken his leg at the island. And so they had to go
to Duluth for the doctor to get his leg set. Grandpa was supposed
to get off there. But he couldn’t get
down the gang plank. So he was going to
ride around the island. And when he got
back the next day, they were going to be
at a different dock. And he could get off the boat. So that’s the reason
he was on there for the trip around the island. NARRATOR: Captain Smith
retired for the evening, leaving First Mate
Wick and Wheelsman Fred Nelson at the helm. THOM HOLDEN: By the time they
got to Isle Royale, the version that I’ve enjoyed
the most, I guess, has been that Captain Smith
had kind of heard enough that Captain Smith said,
basically, if you’re so good, take the boat. And all he told them was
to stay off the rocks and keep it away from the shore. Well, that night with a full
moon and the trees growing right up tight to the
shoreline, what he did was stay off the
South Shore figuring that the shoreline
was really where the edge of the dark shadow was. And there’s really
hardly anything blacker than a moon shadow. MARK WICK: On the way
out of Washington Harbor, they clipped an underwater rock
and put a hole in the hull. THOM HOLDEN: So she
started taking water. And they were still,
of course, going down Washington Harbor ready to
turn into the North Gap. And that’s when Captain Smith
said to beach her, beach her. And as they turned
into that little cove where the shallows were,
they ran over another reef, and it literally stuck. [bell] NARRATOR: Eileen Schubert
and her son Duncan were on board that night and
asleep in their respective crew quarters. DIANE OESTERREICH: She was
worried about her son, Duncan. Everybody out of her way. She went down to the men’s
quarters in the front. The lights went out. She was all alone down there. And she’s feeling around. And she found his bunk. And then she reached down. And she felt that hair. And she pulled it and then
realized it was a jacket. And I’m sure she
said to herself, what am I doing down here? And meanwhile, the whistles
are going, the evacuation. And she had to go through
that freezing cold water and make it all the
way out of there again. And finally, a
bedraggled, wet mother came on the freezing
cold boat deck. And I imagine he probably
said, mother, what did you do? But they got on the lifeboat
and made it to shore. NARRATOR: In all, some 30
crew members and 10 passengers were evacuated, many of them
delivered to Singer’s Island View Resort on
Washington Island. The only fatality
was a dog tied up at the stern whose owners
were unable to rescue him. The captain returned to
Duluth to report the details. All accounts gave
he and his crew high marks for a calm
and swift evacuation. Meanwhile locals
salvaged what they could. TOM JOHNS: Sam Sivertson
had his belongs on the boat, on the America. And my grandfather went over. And they had long pipe
poles in those days with hooks on the end. And he was able to fish that
trunk of Sam Sivertson’s off the America. And he got all his belongings. MALE SPEAKER 6: They had a
cargo of fruits and vegetables on board the America. And they all
floated the surface. And they drifted around
Washington Harbor for weeks. Whenever a fisherman wanted
a piece of fruit or anything, he just dipped his
gaff down in the water. And he’d take bananas,
and strawberries, and cantaloupes, and whatever. It was the bright
side of a sunken ship. NARRATOR: In the
aftermath, an investigation cleared Captain Smith
of any wrongdoing. Mate Wick received a reprimand. MARK WICK: For reckless
navigation or something like that, because he
was in charge at the time that the grounding happened. And so when you’re in
charge, you’re responsible. NARRATOR: Rumors surfaced
almost immediately. GRANT MERRITT: There
was strong suspicion that it was an
insurance sinking. Because the opening of Highway
61 along Minnesota’s North Shore had cut drastically into
Booth’s passenger and freight business. THOM HOLDEN: But was
it literally sunk for the insurance? I really, really doubt it. MARK WICK: I guess I’d like to
think that my cousin would have more integrity than to do that. THOM HOLDEN: I
don’t really think there was insurance money
for a big settlement. Booth did not make money
on the loss of the America. The America was
never truly replaced. It was a page that was
torn out of the book. It was gone. NARRATOR: The first winter
she was stranded, ice and wave action cut away at the
“America’s” forward cabins and pilot house. Gravity pulled her hull deeper
into Lake Superior’s icy grip. A hard hat diver named Cornelius
Flynn bought the salvage rights to the America in 1929,
confident that the wreck could be raised. His plans crashed
with the stock market, and stalled as the Great
Depression deepened. Scuba divers started the next
chapter for the “America.” In the 1950s and
’60s, Jacques Cousteau and a wave of new technology
made sports diving popular. Lake Superior shipwrecks
were a new frontier filled with treasures. KEN MERRYMAN (VOICEOVER):
We found a perfume bottle, a cigarette box. Um, let’s see. Oh, we found a watch. An actual pocket watch. NARRATOR: In Duluth,
an entrepreneur named Jim Marshall was
enthralled with diving. He expanded his
outfitter business to include a dive shop. And when he met a commercial
diver named Paul Flynn, they started talking
about the “America.” Paul Flynn inherited the
salvage rights from his dad and knew the wreck firsthand. So he knew the condition
of the ship at the point it sank, before the
superstructure was taken off, and before it shifted
downwards in the ice. NARRATOR: In 1965, Marshall
purchased the salvage rights with an eye toward cashing in. The hull was constructed
of Swedish steel. And the number I
recall is $250,000 worth of Swedish steel,
which in the early ’60s was a tremendous
amount of money. So I think that was
the original motivation for thinking about it. But then as he
got more intrigued with the story of the “America,”
he learned more about it, he talked to more people
who sailed on it, I think he became hooked
on the history of it and the value it was
to the entire region. The hope was that
the cabins could be restored and,
you know, turn it into a sort of a
floating hotel, and be able to eat in the dining
room and whatnot on the boat to make it kind of a
dockside sailing experience. NARRATOR: Marshall gathered
a team, made a plan, and secured the appropriate
approvals and permits to race her. By September, his
crew was on site at Isle Royale with commercial
diver Chuck McClarnon as the project lead. The theory was that they
would patch any openings on the boat that
would allow them to pump the water
out and pump air in, and it would rise like a bobber. NARRATOR: By mid October,
patches were in place, and they were on
track for floating the wreck by October 20. Their process
seemed to make sense, and what amazes me is they were
going to try and accomplish it within about four weeks. They literally planned to go
up at the end of September, and by November, be towing
the ship back to Duluth. That’s ambitious. I think the patching and
the assessment of the boat went faster than they
planned, but then the weather started the set in. So it became harder for them
to even begin to work on it. And they ended up in dangerous
situations for the crew. It started to freeze. NARRATOR: The onset of winter
drove the team off the water and convinced them to
hang it up for the season. The pause gave divers
from beyond the shore the chance to weigh in on
Marshall’s salvage plan. He actually got threatening
letters and calls about it. Then people saying that he
was doing the wrong thing by actually trying to take
the wreck of the lake. History should leave it
preserved where it was. The diving community
in the Twin Cities so loved having the destination
of the “America” to dive. That community did not
want to lose their toy. NARRATOR: When spring
came, the salvage crew returned to Isle Royale. Their first dive was a shock. CINDY HAYDEN: The
patches had literally been blown off the boat. There was a hole torn
on the boat on the side, and apparently
someone had placed TNT or some kind of an
explosive, detonated it, and it absolutely
ruined all the work that had been down that far. Further, it weakened the
structure of the boat from what they could tell. They were no longer
sure that it had, you know, the integrity that
it would take to actually float the boat again. THOM HOLDEN: The question of
whether the boat was dynamited to prevent it from
being salvaged is to me still a question. The FBI came in and actually
did some investigation, and they were never
able to prove anything. NARRATOR: The National Park
Service reversed course and withdrew its approval. A park service lawyer,
Solicitor Redmond, issued an opinion that the boat
belonged to the Park Service. That it had been so much time
between when Captain Flynn had acquired the rights
to the boat to when the salvage was attempted
that it effectively had been abandoned. And it was within
the park boundaries, and so it belonged to the
National Park Service. And at that point, you
know, one of his partners was Pat O’Brien, who
was his attorney. And Pat just said, we just
don’t have the horsepower to go up against the
federal government. There’s no point in
arguing this with them. None of us have enough money
or time to actually argue it. And then so he gave up on it. But he always went
back and visited. THOM HOLDEN (VOICEOVER): You
wonder if it’s not better preserved where it is,
now enjoyed by maybe not as many people– it’s still the
most popular diving attraction at Isle Royale. Even if it continues to
slowly dissolve away, it will still be a
diving attraction. BENNY OBERG: All right,
here we go. [inaudible]. NARRATOR: The spirit
of the “America” lives on in the crew
of the “Voyageur II.” Captain Benny Oberg
pilots the boat around Isle Royale in the
path blazed by the steamer. He marvels at the skill
of the captains who’ve come before him. Running around this island with
none of this fancy equipment, and just a compass
and a stopwatch? That’s unreal to me. It wouldn’t feel like
courage to those guys. They didn’t feel brave. Just, it’s just what they did. That’s just what I learned. My dad taught me this, and
this is what I’m gonna do. come easy. You know, it was just fun on
boat day to see it come in. And you got your mail,
and you got the groceries, and whatever have you. And so it was– it
was a great boat. MALE SPEAKER: When it came up
over the horizon on the lake, people would get excited,
’cause they knew, you know, we’re gonna get whatever
supplies we were looking for, or grandma’s coming,
or whatever it was. THOM HOLDEN (VOICEOVER):
The “America” is really remembered as
the golden days of fishing and resorts on Isle Royale. KEN MERRYMAN (VOICEOVER): And
when did cars get invented? When did the
Northshore Road go in? You know, it was the
transportation up and down there. Before there were roads and
cars, everybody relied on that. CINDY HAYDEN (VOICEOVER):
It was the common thread through all the
families that settled. They depended on it for
their very existence. NARRATOR: The “America”
stocked growing communities and planted the seeds of tourism
on Isle Royale and the North Shore. It fostered a culture that
runs generations deep. It remains a North Shore legend.


  1. Gentleman has his knots and miles per hour reversed. Fascinating look back on a time long past, sadly.

  2. Another nicely done story of days past. Looking forward to Lost Superior, keep them coming! Thanks for your hard work and great storytelling.

  3. wonderful story, I was impressed with the early photos of the steamer. Many of those yellowish black and white prints are like art to me.
    The people setting up the shot waiting for the ship to get to the dock had the time and thought about the place the camera needed to be for that really great photo. Thank you for posting.

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