The last remaining building of the Life-Saving Station (LSS), in Eagle Harbor, Michigan, serves as a reminder of the heroic men and women who served in the United States Life-Saving Service. This station monitored a large swath of Lake Superior for possible shipwrecks and its members followed the motto “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” (8) Perhaps the most famous rescue of the LSS’s career was the shipwreck of the L.C. Waldo in November 1913. This shipwreck rescue wholly captures the mission statement of the Life-Saving Service and U.S. Coast Guard while simultaneously highlighting the bravery of the individuals who took up the call to protect Americans on the most dangerous bodies of water in and around the country.
History of the Life-Saving Service
The United States Life-Saving Service was born out of the U.S. Lighthouse Service during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, though many Americans today have no knowledge of either Services’ existence. Congress established the U.S. Lighthouse Service following the signing of the Constitution in 1789, in order to provide aid to shipwrecked crews along the country’s Eastern seaboard. Though the Coast Guard rarely sees military action versus enemy forces, their deadly battles against the elements on the oceans, lakes, and rivers around this country prove their worth as a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
After he was appointed to chief of the Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Division in 1871, a young lawyer, named Sumner Increase Kimball, recognized the severe lack of protection for ships and their crews within the country’s largest lakes. As a result, in 1875 with money appropriated from Congress, Kimball added Life-Saving Stations and several lighthouses throughout the Great Lakes region. In 1878, the U.S. Life-Saving Service became its own government entity, separating from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. (12) This precursor to the United States Coast Guard guarded the rocky points and bays of the Great Lakes protecting the earliest generations of ships as they traversed the massive inland bodies of water. The Service continued until 1915 when Congress created the modern-day U.S. Coast Guard by combining the U.S. Life-Saving Service with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Before its dissolution, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was responsible for several important missions across Lake Superior and its members received many awards from the U.S. government for their courageous actions. According to a Detroit Free Press article written in 1928, “In the entire United States coast guard service, there is no unit so well christened in active service as the Eagle Harbor coast guard crew on that stormy peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior at the tip of Michigan, where storms reach their greatest violence over Superior.” (2) The shipwreck and rescue for which the station received most of its highest accolades from the U.S. government was the wreck of the L.C. Waldo near Eagle Harbor, MI.
History of the L.C. Waldo
The L.C. Waldo, an ore-bearing steamer built by F.W. Wheeler & Co. out of West Bay City, MI, was launched on March 7, 1896 for Roby Transportation Co. (6) For the next seventeen years, the steamer made trips across the Great Lakes delivering iron ore from Minnesota and Wisconsin to downstate Michigan and Ohio. However, events changed quite rapidly for the boat and crew on November 8, 1913. As Gordon Lightfoot says in his song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.”(9)
A fierce storm with winds gusting over seventy miles per hour caught the Waldo as it attempted to round the point of the Keweenaw Peninsula in upper Michigan. Fearing for his crew’s safety, the captain attempted a daring maneuver. He chose to cut the Waldo between the point of the Peninsula and nearby Manitou Island to save time and shelter his boat in nearby L’Anse Bay. This proved an even more difficult task, as the ship lost its main compass in the storm. The ship’s captain retrieved a small compass from another part of the ship, tied it to a stool, and used a lantern to illuminate the needle. (5) However, the channel between the point and the island is quite narrow, the water very shallow, and with such gusty winds, the Waldo crashed into Gull Rock, an outcropping of rock and reef just off the coast of Manitou. An article in the Port Huron Times-Herald just days after the wreck stated that the waves were so high both the pilot-house and after-house on the top of the ship’s deck, rendering many of the ship’s navigational tools useless. (1) Stuck on Gull Rock, the Waldo was at the mercy of the winds and the ship was broken in two by the gale. The entire crew, twenty-two men, two women, and one dog, were all stuck in the forward part of the boat, with all rations in the galley near the stern. The crew waited in the wrecked Waldo for ninety hours, without food, waiting for rescue. Rescue would come for the crew, in the form of the members from the Eagle Harbor Life-Saving Station.
The following summer, salvage vessels removed the Waldo from Gull Rock and sold the remains to American Ship Building Co. The ship was rebuilt, purchased by the Matthews Steamship Co., renamed the Riverton, and served as a steamship from 1915-1934. The Riverton ran aground on Lottie Wolf Shoal, where its crew was again rescued by the Coast Guard. Rebuilt once more, and renamed the Mohawk Deer, the Waldo remained in service until 1967 when it was sold to an Italian scrap company. Unfortunately, the Waldo remained an unlucky ship and ran aground off the coast of Italy before sinking in eighty feet of water.
According to the wreck report filed by Captain Charles Tucker, keeper of the Eagle Harbor Station, at noon on November 9, he noted a white flag flying from the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse across the bay. This flag represents a distress call, and Tucker launched a surf boat across the bay to investigate. A phone message awaited him at the Lighthouse: A passing steamer saw the wrecked Waldo, and lacking radio equipment, put a man ashore to sound the alarm. The Waldo was approximately thirty-two miles from the station. But the crew was not prepared for a rescue mission. The largest boat at the station, a power life boat, was under repairs. At 2pm, the crew launched a rescue mission with the smaller surf boat. But by nightfall, the storm returned in full fury: wind and snow battered the small boat, and the boat was pushed nearly back to the station, forcing the crew to return and try again. Working through the night, the power boat was fixed by 3am, and the crew again left the station and arrived at the Waldo at 7am. (4) Some members of the crew held the power life boat as steady as possible, while others jumped across to the Waldo and began to force frozen doors open to free the crew. Hours later, the crew gained access to the Waldo.
Shortly after the LSS crew arrived at the Waldo, another powerboat emerged from the storm and arrived at the wreck. The Portage Life-Saving Station, in Houghton, Michigan, had also received word of the Waldo’s situation. They launched their powerboat in the Portage Canal, traveled out onto Lake Superior through the North Entry, and battled the wind and the waves the length of the Keweenaw Peninsula in an attempt to save the Waldo’s crew. With help from the Portage members, the LSS crew chopped away at ice that had formed around the freighter. One member from the Eagle Harbor Station removed his boots before jumping across open water from the surf boat onto the Waldo. Tucker recalled the sailor claiming his wool socks would provide better hold on the icy deck. The rescue attempt took nearly the entire day, but the crew eventually proved successful. The Waldo’s sailors were loaded into the Portage and Eagle Harbor stations boats and both crews returned to Houghton. All souls on board the Waldo were saved, including the dog.
As the crew returned to shore, newspaper headlines detailed the true horror of the storm they survived. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, particularly the Keweenaw, is known for its impressive amount of annual snowfall. The record for snowfall in the UP is 390.4 inches during the winter of 1978-1979. However, this snowstorm remains near the top of the list in the minds of many local historians. Known as “The White Hurricane of 1913”, this storm remains one of the deadliest early winter storms to affect the Great Lakes shipping community. In two days, the storm sank 17 ships on Lake Superior. Only 6 of those ships produced any survivors, and the Waldo was one of them. The remaining 11 ships sunk with all souls, numbering 244 confirmed deaths by the end of the storm. (11) Many ships were simply unaccounted for; washing up on shore days after the storm along with members of the crew. Scores of families were without loved ones in the upcoming Christmas season. However, were it not for stations across the Great Lakes region like the Eagle Harbor LSS, the death toll during this storm could have been higher. As a result of their daring and meritorious actions, the crew of the Eagle Harbor LSS received 17 gold medals on July 15, 1914. (5)
To many, a rescue of this magnitude and danger would be enough to call for retirement. Years later a his retirement party, Captain Charles A. Tucker, the commander of the Eagle Harbor Life-Saving Station during the rescue, was asked why he dared go out in the storm to rescue the crew of the Waldo, putting the lives of every man in his station at risk. Tucker replied that the life-saving manual clearly states “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back”. Other members of the Eagle Harbor LSS had heard Captain Tucker refer to the phrase several times before rescue missions. The person speaking with Tucker considered this response, then revised his question and asked “Weren’t you ever concerned about your own safety on such occasions?” (7) To this, Tucker simply replied, “The manual didn’t say anything about that.” (7)
The courage and resiliency displayed by the members of the Eagle Harbor Life-Saving Station during that rescue, as well as throughout their careers, was a testament to the importance of the Life-Saving Service, and stands as a reminder of the importance of the U.S. Coast Guard, today.
2) “Guard Defies Death to Save Shipwreck”. Detroit Free Press. December 2, 1928.
3) Smith, Rod. “Shipwreck! The wreck of the L.C. Waldo.” Copper Island Sentinel -9. April 4, 1978.
4) Tucker, Charles A. “Wreck Report”. Eagle Harbor Station, Eleventh District. U.S. Life Saving Service. November 14, 1913.
5)USCG. Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service. Dept. of Homeland Security, 1914.
7) Frimodig, Mac. “A Nice Warm Tub.” Shipwrecks off Keweenaw: Stories of Brave Ships and Brave Men. N.p.: Fort Wilkins Natural History Association, 1974. 31-35.
9) Lightfoot, Gordon. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. Eastern Sound Studios, Toronto, ON. 1976.
11) Stonehouse, Frederick. “‘An Ice-Covered Boat, Its White Bow Bearing The Emblem of the Life-Saving Service'” Wreck Ashore: The United States Life-Saving Service on the Great Lakes. Duluth, MN: Lake Superior Port Cities, 1994. 192-95.
13) Wolff, Julius F., and Thomas R. Holden. “1910-1919.” Lake Superior Shipwrecks. Duluth, MN: Lake Superior Port Cities, 1990. 148-49.
For Further Reading:
Special thanks to Mark Rowe, member of the Keweenaw County Historical Society. His research and presentations on local area history are vital to the preservation of our Nation’s greatest memories, particularly of our gold medal heroes.