||Feb. 7, 2003
Remembering Great Lakes marine
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
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
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
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
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
||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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