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Feb. 7, 2003

Remembering Great Lakes marine disasters


The Biggest Marine Disaster in Great Lakes History 90 years ago -- A Personal Perspective

Between 1679, when explorer LaSalle built Le Griffon, the first ship  (60ft-30 tons) and first wreck on the Great Lakes, until the sinking of the  Edmund Fitzgerald (729 ft-13632 tons) in 1975 there were between six to ten  thousand wrecks on the Great Lakes.  Many yelled the same call as the crew  of the Griffon -- "m'aidez" (help me in French) which became mayday, the  call used in disasters around the world today.  Most of the wrecks occurred  late in the shipping season, in what has been called "the November Gales."   Gordon Lightfoot recalls this in his song about the Edmund Fitzgerald: "and  the iron boats go as the mariners all know, with the gales of November remembered."

The largest disaster in Great Lakes history took place over four days, from  November 7 - 10, 1913, ninety years ago this fall, when fifteen ships sank  and thirty-one were stranded on rocks and beaches and two hundred and forty  eight crew died.

The weather in early November 1913 was remarkably balmy when three different  weather systems converged and ravaged 1,000 miles of the world's largest  freshwater body of water.  Freezing water, thirty-five foot waves, howling  winds, and lack of sophisticated communication and rescue plans and  equipment all played a part in the disaster.

Many of the ships went down on the American side of Lake Huron, with three  on the Canadian side.  Many families and the shipping trade were devastated.    Several books have been written about the storm, including Fresh Water  Fury (1960), Ships Gone Missing (1992), and a new book by David G. Brown  called White Hurricane, published last fall.  White Hurricane, being the latest, has the advantage of current research and the discovery of various  wrecks by divers, making the latest book the best.  Several films and  exhibitions have recorded the storm.

I read White Hurricane with interest because my wife's aunt, Amanda Dusome  (1877-1949) was married to Edward McConkey, the captain of the Steamer  Regina, which was one of the ships in the storm.  The McConkeys daughters  Amy (1906-1988) and Aileen (1911-) and their families have attended, as has  my family, many of the five-year Dusome reunions.  The story of the Regina  is an interesting part of our family history.

Aileen McConkey, front left, and Amy McConkey, right, with Doug  Mackey's mother-in-law Edna Dusome on the back right, with her father Joseph  who was the owner of the Northern Hotel in Penetanguishene about 1912. 

The Story of the Regina On Thursday November 6, 1913 the temperature was surprisingly hot when  Edward McConkey, the captain of the 247-foot Canadian Package Freighter  Regina oversaw her loading at Sombra, halfway up the St. Clair River on the  way to Lake Huron.  The Regina was scheduled to make a dozen stops, loading  and unloading carloads of canned goods, spoons, whiskey and a case of  champagne for a New Year's Eve party at an isolated lumber camp, along with  other "necessities and niceties of life for lumberjacks who would spend the  winter logging in the Canadian woods."  This was the last trip for the  Regina for four to five months, and the captain was anxious to get home to  see his wife and two-year old daughter Aileen and seven-year old daughter  Amy in Barrie.  Many other ships were taking their last run of the season.

At Sarnia, Captain McConkey took on a heavy load of iron pipe that had to be  lashed to the deck.  McConkey's diary showed no concern for the weather, but  broken communication kept him from knowing that a heavy storm was brewing on  Lake Superior.

The Regina headed into Lake Huron to its next stop on Sunday November 9th.   As the Regina was partly up the Lake Huron American shore at the mouth of  the notorious Saganaw Bay, the wind changed in direction and velocity.   Water began to freeze everywhere on the ship, and the crew worked to clear  some of it in critical locations.  The grates that let the necessary air  into the boiler room could not be reached and the boilers were failing.   With everyone working as a team, the crew got the Regina turned back.

The crew put on life preservers and readied the lifeboats.  Eventually there  was a thump that everyone immediately knew meant that they had hit  something.  The engine room reported a gusher of water.  The pumps were  pushed to full capacity but the captain knew the ship was in big trouble.   He could not see the shore.  He dropped anchor and shut off the engines,  except for the power for the necessary pumps.  It was time to abandon ship,  and the record shows that at least one boat got away.  Captain McConkey  returned tot he pilot house and jammed open the steam whistle, indicating  Mayday.  People on shore heard its whale until it died an hour later, but  were helpless in the monster ninety-mile an hour winds and huge waves.  

Edward McConkey, Captain of the S. S. Regina, back right, with  his brothers.

By  11 p.m. Captain McConkey was the only one left on the ship, bone tired after  18 hours fighting the storm.  He didn't know that in four hours Lake Huron  was claiming eight ships and 178 crew, including several wives of stewards.   Author Brown in White Hurricane imagined: "Pulling a blanket around him in the darkness, the lone man aboard the  Regina knew nothing of the other ships and shipwrecks around him.  His world  consisted of one tiny, dark cabin in the middle of the maelstrom….No longer  Captain McConkey, he was just Edward, a frightened 34 year old husband with  a toddler daughter Aileen." Captain McConkey's body was found nine moths later in August 1914, along  with his watch and diary, the last of the crew of twenty to be found.  The death toll for the Regina included Bert Dusome, the young son of Captain  McConkey's wife's brother who had worked on the Regina as well.

In 1986 three divers discovered the wreck of the Regina upside down in  eighty feet of water, with a fifty-six foot gash in its hull, and for two  years retrieved various artifacts, including the ship's bell.  The divers  found a brass hook from the pilothouse, and as Brown states, "with great  reverence the workers polished it carefully and presented it to Aileen  McConkey Reeves, the Captain's daughter at a ceremony in 1987.

McConkey daughters Aileen and Amy and their families were invited to a  ceremony in Port Huron and later at Sanalac Point Michigan, near where the  Regina went down, and had a trip to the exact spot of the wreck.

The Regina ship bell with a model of the Regina in the  background. All photos courtesy of Aileen (McConkey) Reeves.

Last year the Huron County Museum in Goderich Ontario, which has many  artifacts from the storm, including Captain McConkey's diary, mounted a  travelling exhibition, which after being at the Royal Ontario Museum came to  the Marine Museum in Kingston, where Aileen and her family live.  She was  asked to cut the ribbon to open the show, and Aileen, the family and her  guests remembered that tragic day almost ninety years ago.

A film on the disaster, in which Aileen Reeves is interviewed will be on  television this fall to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the event.

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