A Fateful Ferry in the Duluth Harbor

Dangerous Waters in The Duluth Harbor

Lake Superior and The Duluth-Superior Harbor play important roles in many of the stories we weave into our tours. This particular tale comes from the archive we’ve build for our Dark History Bus Tour.

Compared to the open lake, the Duluth Harbor offers protection from the wind, the seiche, and is usually calm setting for on-the-water activities. The relatively protected harbor is why early Duluthians chose to dig a canal in 1870 and why we offer kayak tours in the harbor when Lake Superior get a little choppy. However, Duluth’s Harbor can still be dangerous for small craft, especially if the people aboard don’t have their wits about them.

Such was the case on the evening in October 1895 when two men – one a local “Pointer” called Fred Wise and the other a crew member from the Hiram R. Dixon named Frank Janux were standing on Culver dock located just inside the harbor and south of Buchanan Street. As the story goes, Janux’s ship was taking on coal directly across the slip from the men. The men wanted to board the vessel, but apparently had no easy way to do so. Perhaps they were trying to conceal “large jugs” on their persons, presumably filled with alcohol, that they wanted to sneak on board the ship.

Hiram R. Dixon

The Hiram R. Dixon. Photo: Historical Collection of the Bowling Green State University.

Related: Duluth’s Dark History Bus Tour

Luckily for Wise and Janux (or perhaps not so luckily) a small row boat entered the scene – piloted by a local woman of several names; residents of Park Point knew her as “Trixy” while those in the rougher areas of Superior knew her as “Topsy.” Regardless of the woman’s true name, she offered to ferry the men across the slip for 25 cents apiece. They agreed and climbed aboard her boat.

Duluth Evening Herald 1895

1895 Duluth Evening Herald article on the Fateful Ferry.

According to witnesses, things went horribly wrong soon after they boarded Trixy’s boat. The men, clearly drunk, began to mess about and eventually caused Trixy’s boat to capsize. Wise and Janux were able to take hold of the overturned vessel, but made no attempt to help Trixy who was floundering nearby. She went under once, came back up, then went under again, disappearing into the Duluth Harbor. The two men were rescued by several tugboats but Trixy’s body wasn’t recovered until the next morning.

Wise and Janux were ultimately charged with drunkenness to which Fred Wise plead guilty. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail. Frank Janux maintained his innocence and it’s unclear if any verdict was passed on his involvement. Given that Trixy – a young woman of 20 years – died in the incident, it seems that their punishment should have been more severe. Based on the eye-witness accounts something closer to negligent manslaughter may have been more appropriate than a simple verdict of public drunkenness.

As I investigated further, there may be a reason why the two men didn’t receive a stiffer penalty. As the 1895 Duluth Evening Herald article headline stated, Trixy was a “colored girl.” and the strong racism of the time often prioritized race, especially in the “colorful” journalism of the time (which can be seen over and over including the reports that covered the 1920 Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie lynching). Further demonstrating this point, was the label given to Frank Janux, which described him as a “half-breed” (whatever that means…). Given that these folks were presumably members of the working class, it’s not surprising that due justice for Trixy seems missing. Perhaps now with this blog post, some minor justice has been done.

Related: The Ghost Fleet of Lake Superior

A few years later, in 1903, the Hiram R. Dixon was destroyed by fire while carrying miscellaneous cargo off the coast of Michipicoten Island. One has to wonder if Frank Janux served a sentence no stiffer than Fred Wise’s, and returned to the Hiram R. Dixon. If so, perhaps he was still going about his careless ways, destroying another vessel in the process. This time, fortunately, all crew escaped. Barely…

So don’t be like Frank Janux and Fred Wise. This summer, drink responsibly and boat responsibly. Don’t mix the two – save the celebratory pint for after you’re done boating. Otherwise, you might end up as the next story in our Dark History Tours…

Join us for The Dark History Bus Tour and explore Duluth’s Dark History with fun, expert guides from The Duluth Experience this October.

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