A Superior Menace: SS Mataafa

Great Lakes Freighter Duluth, Minnesota Courtesy Library of Congress

Built in 1899 and named the Pennsylvania the freighter was sold to the Minnesota Steamship Company and renamed the SS Mataafa. Throughout her career, which spanned from 1900 to 1965, the Mataafa suffered one mishap after another.

The shipping season had been dreadful and hardly any person could blame a captain for ignoring the meteorologists. After all one storm had already come and gone recently. Would another be so quick to follow? Some masters thought not and proceeded to steam out onto Lake Superior out of Duluth, Minnesota. It was November 27th, and meteorologists were expecting a big storm to hit soon. As time progressed the storm would gain momentum, forcing the lake freighters to seek refuge in Duluth. The waves were enormous, snow was falling, it was cold and visibility poor. Crews were also faced with the task of avoiding collision with land.

Freighter Duluth, Minnesota Courtesy Library of Congress

Captain Richard Humble was one of the captains who had decided to sail despite warnings. It’s not that he was a careless, bungling inexperienced captain. Humble knew his trade and felt it was safe to proceed. The Mataafa sailed on the evening of the 27th with the barge James Nasmyth in tow. The Mataafa was hauling iron ore. But some hours out on Lake Superior, the Mataafa was feeling the effects of the storm. Waves shattered windows and beat the boat up. Humble asked for full steam from the engine room and still found the storm made it difficult to maneuver. On the 28th Humble decided to return to Duluth. By the time he had neared Duluth the heavy hatch covers were being worked loose by the waves. It was time to “shoot the chutes” at Duluth.

Humble, reluctantly, made the decision to disconnect the Nasmyth from the Mataafa. It wouldn’t be safe to attempt to get into Duluth with the barge in tow. Still even without the extra baggage, accidents couldn’t be avoided. Lake Superior wasn’t ready to give up the Mataafa. A wave smacked the prow hard into the water, causing the Mataafa to bump the bottom. Then the Mataafa’s stern collided with the north pier and later the south pier. Aboard the Mataafa, Chief Engineer William Most informed Humble that they no longer had any power. The steering was also inoperative and the Mataafa was continually being slammed against the pier. This resulted in the loss of any means of escape. The lifeboat, yawl and raft were all destroyed. To make matters worse the anchors weren’t functioning properly. Eventually the Mataafa was run aground by the waves. (Note: By the time boats began returning to Duluth, townspeople had been gathering to watch the spectacle and cheer when boats arrived safely. Numerous bonfires were lit and dotted Duluth’s shore).

On the stern, the Mataafa’s crew was trapped. The boat was designed poorly in the event of a storm such as the one experienced in November 1905. There was no way for the crew on the stern to get to the forward part. The only way was to run across the length of the boat, hoping one wouldn’t get washed away by the waves or knocked senseless by debris. The crew trapped on the stern were mainly from the engine department, which was located aft. The bridge was forward and at the moment the more safer area. The Mataafa was cracking at Hatch Number 8, and the stern was ‘sinking‘ lower into the water. Water was spilling in and shelter was minimal. One man, Carl Carlson, tried to jump for the pier, but missed. James Early, William Gilchrist and Claude Farringer were swept away while standing on the stern.

Four others stranded on the stern decided to join the rest of the crew forward. They were unable to convince their fellow crewmen to also make the run. Second Mate Herbert Emigh went first. It was a task as the waves pummeled Emigh. As the second mate neared the end of his run, First Mate Walter Brown hauled Emigh in. Porter Fred Saunders followed and also arrived in one piece. Fireman Thomas Woodgate tried to make the run but took a major beating. He dejectedly returned to the stern. Fireman Charles Byrne gave it a go and arrived safely. Five men were still stranded on the stern.

The Captain started up the dune with the bedraggled body of the unconscious man Courtesy Library of Congress

Humble communicating with the shore through his megaphone and requested lifeboats. Unfortunately, the US Lifesaving Service was aiding another vessel in distress. The Mataafa would have to wait. In the meantime Humble tried his hand at his own rescue efforts. He was unsuccessful. When the Lifesaving Service did show up, Captain Murdoch McLennan shot a line to the Mataafa. At Humble’s orders he aimed for the stern in an effort to save the five men. A number of tries were made, all of them in vain. They had better luck with the bow, but very little. The line was eventually given up. As evening progressed McLennan and his crew were given rest although McLennan wouldn’t sleep a wink that night.

On the Mataafa, Humble and his crew settled in for the night. All 15 men crowded into Humble’s cabin and wrapped themselves up in blankets. Humble was afraid his crew would freeze to death and so scavenged around the ship. He gathered kerosene and bits of wood and started a fire in a bathtub. By the morning of the 29th, McLennan and his crew arrived to take them off in a lifeboat. Six of the men were taken on the first trip, while McLennan tried to keep his boat from capsizing. Before leaving, the lifeboat crew gave the Mataafa survivors food and drink.

Split Rock Lighthouse Built in Response to Mataafa Storm Courtesy Library of Congress

Afterwards Humble and Brown headed for the stern to see if the five men had survived on the stern. Regrettably, the pair found five frozen bodies, two of which had suffered injuries. Deckhand Thomas McCloud had sought shelter in a ventilator but had succumbed to the elements. Woodgate had also lost his life. McLennean and his crew returned to take off the rest of the surviving men that same day. The bodies would be retrieved later. Of the 4 who were swept away, only Carlson’s body would wash ashore. Divers would tramp around in the Mataafa wreck to locate the 3 missing bodies, but to no avail.

Ironically the Nasmyth had survived the storm and her crew were all alive and well. The storm came to be known as the Mataafa Storm.

The Mataafa was refloated in 1906 and continued to sail until 1965 when she was scrapped.

Source: Brown, Curt. So Terrible a Storm: A Tale of Fury on Lake Superior.

28 thoughts on “A Superior Menace: SS Mataafa

  1. Thanks, it is interesting to find out more about shipping on the Great Lakes. I have a cousin who was involved in Great Lakes shipping back in the 1800’s. I plan on doing some research about him someday.


    • No, I haven’t, but I’d like to get around to visiting a great many maritime museums! It’s to my great disappointment there aren’t many local ones within reasonable distance.

      Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post.


  2. Thanks so much for the visit. I find that my travels in Europe always awaken a renewed interest in history in me and I lament the fact that none of my high school history teachers breathed life into this amazing subject.Great to see a blog bringing history to life!


    • Yep, I think it’s a crying shame that people were criticizing him afterwards because he didn’t do what they thought he should have done during the rescue operations.


    • Yep. If I remember correctly McLennan wasn’t moving quickly enough for the spectators. ‘Course they weren’t the professionals and McLennan really did his best. Plus he had to look out for his own crew. Like you said, can’t please everyone. But it did hurt McLennan’s feelings.


    • It’s a pity. Here I am living in the Great Lakes region and haven’t even glimpsed any of the Great Lakes. Course I am a couple hundred miles away, so that might have something to do with it. Thanks for your support!

      PS: If there the library wasn’t chocked so full of wonderful books like “So Terrible a Storm”, I shudder to think where I’d be able to gather ideas up for posts 😉 It’s grand that there’s authors out there bringing little known events to our attention. Before reading the book I didn’t know about the Mataafa Storm.


    • Ive had only a glimpse of the Great Lakes, seen from a bridge from NY to Ontario. The song about the Fitzgerald got me interested in Great Lakes Shipping. Now the History Channel has a program about this. I would be unlikely to do the research to find info like you so eloquently depict in your stories. I hope to read more and more of them. I am a history major-history buff and this is a category which I have barely touched. All of your articles from different time periods are terrific. Thanks! beebee


    • Oh yes the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’ve been planning for some time to get a post together on that subject, but as of yet haven’t set a date for it.

      Thanks for the compliment! 🙂


  3. I found this an interesting read. I have a relative who died in the wreck of the SS Kamloops on Lake Superior December 6, 1927. A storm swept into Lake Superior on December 5. She and the 22 men and women aboard were never again seen alive.


  4. One does sometimes wonder about the decisions men and women of today take, and the disasters – not necessarily consequences, if you see what I mean – which follow. How many of these actions will end up as a hundred year old story.


    • Thanks for the Mataafa link. Although Captain Humble and the other captains had seen the storm flag,on the hill at the weather station, there was nothing else that indicated to them, that a storm was approaching from the Northeast. They had too often held back from sailing when Richardson posted his flag, only to be proven wrong. It was modern technology pitted against the gut instints of the captains. Sadly, gut instincts did not prevail in this case.


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