The Gales of November: George Herbert Shipwreck

  • November 16, 2014

weatherIt was a typical Monday morning for the crew of the flat-bottomed scow, George Herbert. Captain Charlie Johnson and lumber clerk William Hicks were discussing their trip one-hundred miles up the north shore of Lake Superior with provisions for the M.H. Coolidge Lumber Company. Three other crew members, Ole Nelson, George Olson, and Ole Miller were loading shovels, axes, smoked meats, coffee, whiskey, and lard into the scow’s hold. The lake was calm, and the weather was fair for November, but a steady northeast breeze made the temperature feel like it was below zero. The unpowered scow was loaded quickly. Captain Johnson rang the F.W. Gillett, their tug for the trip, to let them know the scow was ready.

As the George Herbert and F.W. Gillett made their way east along the shore, the wind began to blow harder, and the temperature began to fall. Hoping they could get past the edge of the storm, Captain Johnson stayed on course. By about 1:00 in the afternoon, the wind and the waves had increased to an alarming level. Johnson continued to press eastward hoping to find relative safety from the wind behind a group of islands near present-day Taconite Harbor. After two hours, the scow and its tug dropped anchor on the lee side of Two Islands. The George Herbert and F.W. Gillett  were the first boats to encounter the storm that would become known as the Big Blow of 1905.

The islands offered some protection from the wind, and even better protection from the large waves that were stirring Lake Superior. Johnson and his crew felt optimistic that they would safely ride out the storm as long as the towline to the tug held. Throughout the evening and night, the crew of the George Herbert rotated two-man teams to check the line. The storm had become so powerful that the men weren’t able to face the lake because of the driving wind and ice pellets, so they stood with their backs to the storm and gripped the towline with their hands to ensure they were still connected.

Around 1:00 Tuesday morning, Ole Nelson and George Olson felt the line between the George Herbert and F.W. Gillett snap. Without warning the scow began to drift away from the F.W. Gillett and the safety of the islands. Within a couple of minutes, the end of the scow caught the brunt of the wind and waves and crashed into the rocky shore. The scow bounced off the rocks and hit again. And then again. Each time moving farther up the shoreline and further away from its tug. Feeling the scow breaking up, Hicks took a running leap off the back of the scow on the third collision with the shore and landed on an outcropping of rock. Johnson followed, but before he could scramble to higher rocks, a wave grabbed him. He was swept off the rocks and out into the frigid lake. Soon, another wave came in and tossed him to a higher group of rocks. This time Hicks grabbed hold of him and the pair scrambled to the top of a rocky bluff before the next set of waves crashed over them.

The two men shouted for Ole Nelson, George Olson, and Ole Miller to make the jump with the next set of waves. The three men ran up and down the deck of the scow but weren’t able to find the right timing for a jump. Knowing that their fates were sealed on the crumbling scow, the three men shouted their farewells to Johnson and Hicks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe two survivors hunted for shelter from the brutal cold, wind, and snow. They came across a settler’s cabin and were invited in by a mother and her son. They provided the men with warm blankets, steaming hot coffee, and homemade soup. The fire in the cabin roared all night as the men slept next to the fire.

The next morning Hicks and Johnson scoured the shoreline for their crew mates. All they found was small pieces of wood that had once made up their scow, a piece of the towline, and the anchor. After searching for any sign of Ole Nelson, George Olson, and Ole Miller, the two men reluctantly gave up their search. They walked six miles south to Thomasville, where they ran into the crews of the George Spencer and Amboy, which had also wrecked nearby. Eventually, the tug Crosby arrived and gave the men a ride back to Duluth.

Johnson and Hicks finally made it home on Thursday, November 30. Thanksgiving Day. Their families rejoiced in the good fortune of having them home safe. A few blocks away, the families of Ole Nelson, George Olson, and Ole Miller weren’t so fortunate. Word had finally come from the owner of the scow, Louis Martin, that the boat had cashed on the rocks 80 miles up the shore. The boat had crumbled. He had no hope that the men would be coming home.

The F.W. Gillett weathered the storm at Two Islands for several hours after George Herbert broke free. Although the tug was damaged, and the hull was leaking, it limped back to Duluth under its own power. On September 26, 1915, the hull sprung a more severe leak, and the F.W. Gillett sank near Two Harbors.

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