Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Lake Superior's shipwrecked history on full display in 'Too Much Sea for their Decks'

Large waves on Lake Superior
Large waves on Lake Superior, where the Baptism River meets Lake Superior at Tettegouche State Park on April 5.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Lake Superior is historically home to some of the largest shipping enterprises North America has ever seen.

While the Great Lakes have been vital to the American economy, they’ve also shown the ships — and the crews of people on them — harrowing, sometimes life-threatening storms.

The power of Lake Superior is not lost on Michael Schumacher. He’s written multiple books about just how dramatic life can be on deck in the throes of Lake Superior.

And he’s got a new book. It’s called “Too Much Sea For Their Decks” and it’s chalk-full of short sea-stories and shipwrecks along Minnesota’s North Shore and Island Royale.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: If you've had the chance to visit the Lake Superior Marine Museum, which is next to the Aerial Lift Bridge in Canal Park in Duluth, there is some great information about past shipwrecks on the big lake. The power of one of the greatest of the Great Lakes is not lost on those who sail Superior on giant ore boats and freighters.

The power of Superior is not lost on Michael Schumacher. He's written multiple books on some of the most famous shipwrecks on the lake, including The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Schumacher's got a new book out called Too Much Sea for Their Decks. It's about shipwrecks along Minnesota's North Shore and Isle Royale.

Good to have you with us. How are you?

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: I'm great. Thanks for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Absolutely. Lake Superior-- here's an understatement-- is fascinating, ever-changing. But when she gets angry, it's pretty impressive. What is it about the lake that makes it--

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: She's pretty cold, too.

INTERVIEWER: She's pretty darn cold, too. You're absolutely right. What is it about the lake that makes it potentially so dangerous for shipping?

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: There's nowhere to go. In other words, with some of these lakes, Lake Erie has traditionally the worst storms. But the thing with Lake Erie is it's a small lake, so there are a lot of ports, places for vessels to ditch the storm and ride it out. You get on to Lake Superior, and the Edmund Fitzgerald is the perfect example.

There was nowhere for the Fitzgerald to go. It had to go all the way down to Whitefish Point. There was no place to ditch the ship. And so Superior's got big, long stretches where you can't go anywhere. And it's also a strange lake, like up by the Isle Royale where it's very shallow in some spots and very deep in others. And boats have traditionally gone in a little too close and grounded in the shallows. So it's a lake that's got a little of everything. All the other lakes have these things, but not like Superior.

INTERVIEWER: So in a sense, the ships are sitting ducks. And you're right about the long stretches because once those-- and those waves, like a nor'easter, once they get going, they can just roll all the way down the lake, in a sense.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: Absolutely. And Superior is interesting because a good portion of it runs east-west, and a good portion of it runs north-south, essentially.


MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: You know, and so you have all sorts of weather that can occur. Bernie Cooper, who followed the Edmund Fitzgerald-- he was right behind it, about 10 miles behind it-- said he'd been in worse storms than the one that took down the Fitzgerald. But he said he'd never been in one that was as locally dangerous.

In other words, there were parts, little pockets of Lake Superior that were just unbelievable to try to get through. And he said that was-- and he knew his stuff. He was a weather reporter and a very, very seasoned captain. And so that tells you something about Lake Superior.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. So Michael, you write that the lake's toughest storm was the one that led to the birth of Split Rock Lighthouse. What was that storm like?

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: Yes. Well, that was-- you know, it's really funny because the worst storm to ever hit the Great Lakes was in 1913, which was literally a hurricane on the lakes. But Superior managed to get away from the worst of it. The worst of it hit Lake Huron.

In 1905, this massive storm moved in and caught a lot of boats that were out already. And I call them boats, incidentally, because that's what you're supposed to do. If it's fresh water, it's boats. If it's salt water, it's ships.

But it was hitting the area, especially in Duluth and north of Duluth. It hit very, very hard. And as a result, these boats were stuck out in this maelstrom. And they had to just find ways to survive. Some did, some didn't.

INTERVIEWER: I wonder, too, about the Armistice Day blizzard. You wrote about that in 1940. Now, people don't exactly-- they were more focused news-wise, the coverage of that, on the hunters that got caught from--


INTERVIEWER: --really warm weather. And then, of course, the blizzard came in. So what happened on the big lake in 1940?

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: Not a whole lot. I mean, there was some damage. But I included that chapter, of that portion of the book because I wanted people to see exactly how fast these things could develop. In other words, the people in 1940, the hunters that you were talking about, went out, the weather was very, very warm. I mean, they weren't prepared for it.

And then all of a sudden, this thing blew in. And in no time, temperatures dropped significantly. They were caught in the-- the wind and such kicked up the water so that the people that had gone out to go hunting onto those little islands, they were stuck. They could not get back to the mainland. They were stuck on the island without the proper clothing and so forth.

Many of them died of exposure. And I just wanted people to see these things because, you know, it's funny. People are kind of cocky today. You talk to the captains of these thousand-footers, and I have, and they say, oh, well, we've got GPS. I mean, we got radar. We got all this stuff.

Well, first of all, they didn't have that in 1940 or in 1905 or 1913, the three storms that I included in this book. They didn't have that. But even with radar and so forth, these things can move at an incredibly fast pace. And when they do, this is what happens.

And then you have what they call the heavy weather captains, the people that go out no matter what. I just was studying an accident or a sinking that took place in 1929, a boat, the SS Milwaukee, had come from Michigan, crossed Lake Michigan in one of the worst storms Lake Michigan has ever seen. They barely made it into port in one piece.

They unloaded their cargo, and then they loaded up again. And the captain went out. Nobody could believe it.


MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: Three people missed the boat because they didn't think they would be going out.


MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: And so he goes out, he gets caught in this terrible, terrible storm. He tried to turn around and go back, and he couldn't. And the ship sank, and everybody on it went down with the ship.

INTERVIEWER: Oh my gosh. Say, I have about two minutes left, and you've got a lot of stories here, I know. What wreck intrigued you the most that few people know about?

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: You know, it's really funny. There were several that I thought were really big in this book. The one about the Wilson because that had happened right after the turn of the century in 1902. And it was a whaleback. And that was a special kind of boat. And it got sunk right outside of the Duluth Harbor. That was one.

Another one was the Kamloops, which went un-- that was by the Isle Royale, and it went undiscovered for many, many years. The people that were on the Kamloops got loose, got off the boat, and they went to the island. But nobody knew they were out there-- they didn't have radios or anything-- and they all froze to death.

And the one that really intrigues me is the most recent one, 1953, the Henry Steinbrenner. Everybody's heard of George Steinbrenner, the old owner of the New York Yankees. Well, this was his, I guess, grandfather. And the Steinbrenner, they're still looking for.

The captain was one of the people that was rescued from the boat, and no one has seen that boat. And I just talked to one of these shipwreck hunters who's been going all out, trying to find it. So the mystery of that, and the Steinbrenner had a tremendous rescue story connected to it.

So that's one of the things that happens for me. I'm trying to find a human angle to a lot of this. Who was on board the ship? How did they react to the circumstances? Because people ask me all the time, why are you interested in this?

And my take is pretty simple. I'm very interested in people who are just basic, blue-collar, hard-working people doing a tough job. And it is tough. I've worked on these boats. And all of a sudden, they find themselves up against something they had no idea how to deal with. And how do they do that?

How do they escape? Or how do they go down, for that matter? What are we working with? And that always fascinated me. And I think that's what draws people to these stories.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I'm always fascinated by shipwrecks because of-- you know, you want to know the story about why she went down, why they went down, you know. And you're right about who was on that boat. And who were they? And what prompted them to get out? Because, as you're right, it's a really difficult job.

Before you go, what ship did you work on? What boat did you work on?

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: I don't even remember the name of it, to be honest. It was that long ago. I had a job-- I live in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is in the far southeast corner of the state.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. I have a feeling-- I have a feeling that this might be-- I'm so sorry, Michael, this might be a story for another time. Shoot!



MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: --it was really weird because I just--

INTERVIEWER: I got to go, I got to go.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER: --got a job loading boats.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, Michael. I'll have you back, I swear I will. Michael--


INTERVIEWER: Michael Schumacher. The new book is called Too Much Sea for Their Decks. Thanks for listening to Minnesota Now, here on MPR News.

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