The Wreck of the Mataafa

Tragedy On Lake Superior

Just about everyone who visits Duluth, will enjoy a stroll along the historic pier to take in the majesty of Lake Superior and Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge. If you time it right, you’ll even get a chance to see a huge ore ship pass through the canal on its way to load cargo in the Duluth-Superior Harbor before heading out to destinations around the world. Lake Superior and the shipping industry play a huge role in our city’s identity.

Mary McFadden

Mary McFadden – Duluth’s first full-time female reporter was on the scene during the Mataafa Tragedy. Image: Duluth News Tribune.

Something that visitors to Canal Park may not know that they are actually standing within 100 yards of a famous shipwreck from 1905 – a tragic event that caused one reporter to write, “never in the history of Duluth has there been an incident so fraught with human interest, so compelling and absorbing”. These words, from Duluth News Tribune reporter, Mary McFadden, were written during one of the worst storms in Great Lakes history.

Warnings Go Unheeded

On the morning of November 27, Herbert Richardson a forecaster with The U.S. Weather Bureau, identified the early signs of a “nor’easter” that – he predicted – would slam Lake Superior for the next two days. Richardson ordered the storm flags near the Duluth shipping canal be raised to alert the captains of the ore ships to remain within the safe confines of the harbor for a few more days. The captains, however, ignored the warning with the hope of making one last run before end of the 1905 shipping season. Unfortunately, the forecast would prove correct and tragedy would ensue.

Mataafa Steamer

The Mataafa would experience tragedy during the Gales of November 1905.

Captain Richard Humble of Connecticut, Ohio trusted his instincts and decided to ignore the warnings from the U.S. Weather Bureau. In the early afternoon, the 430-foot Mataafa departed the Twin Ports through the Duluth shipping canal with a full load of iron ore destined for the blast furnaces in the lower lakes. Behind the Mataafa was the barge James Nasmyth also loaded to the brink with iron ore. By the time the boat reached the outer islands of the Apostle Island chain, Captain Humble knew he had only one choice; turn the boat around and head for the safety of the Duluth harbor. By noon on Tuesday, November 28 the men on the Mataafa sighted the skyline of Duluth, and knew that they were less than four miles from salvation.

Nine of the crewmen, unfortunately, would never make it.

Lives Lost While Onlookers Watch in Shock

As afternoon began to fade, Captain Humble ordered the vessel to full speed and brought the Mataafa in between the outer edge of the canal piers. Just as the Mataafa entered the canal, a massive wave slammed into the side of the ship and smashed it broadside against the north pier. As the Mataafa lay pinned against the concrete Captain Humble watched as the waves destroyed all the lifeboats and life rafts. As the crew of the Mataafa fought for survival, thousands of Duluthians gathered on the pier and along the shoreline to watch the unfolding drama while huddled around large bonfires to protect against the storm’s cold attack.

Luckily, three of the twelve men on the back of the ship managed to make the 370-foot dash to safety across the fractured deck from the stern of the ship to the relative safety of the bow situated above the high-water mark of the waves. Meanwhile the men on the back of ship fought to stay as dry as possible until the power of the waves collapsed the gangway causing water to flood the back of ship. Four of these men attempted to jump from the deck of the Mataafa to the stone pier just a few yards away. Carl Carlson was the first to jump but he missed the pier by several feet and was crushed between the Mataafa’s steel hull and the stone pier. Three other men behind Carlson were washed off the deck by a massive wave before they could attempt their own jump. They would not be seen again.

Mataafa Tragedy

The Mataafa is battered against Duluth’s north pier during the storm of 1905.

The lifesaving crew led by Captain Murdoch McLennan made several attempts to reach the ship with gunpowder fueled lifelines that could have been used to pulley the remaining crew to safety. The severity of the winds and rain thwarted McLennan’s efforts and he was forced to abandon the rescue until the next morning. The 14 crew members stranded on the bow of the ship managed to light a small fire in the bathtub of the captain’s stateroom and spent the night dancing and doing strenuous exercise to stay awake and ward off hypothermia until they were rescued.

Finally, the next morning Captain McLennan returned and managed to get a lifeboat out to the bow of the ship where his crew rescued the men located there. Sadly, when the rescuers reached the stern, they found the five stranded men frozen to the Mataafa’s deck. In fact, they were so frozen that they had to be broken out of the ice with hatchets.

After the storm ended the toll became shockingly clear. Nine men on the Mataafa had lost their lives while the community of Duluth stood helpless to rescue them. In all, twenty-nine vessels had wrecked up and down the Lake Superior’s North Shore, 33 men had died, and the Pittsburgh Steamship Company recorded a loss of over half a million dollars (over 14.3 million today). Two lighthouses were built because of this storm: Split Rock Lighthouse on the north shore and the North Pier Lighthouse in Duluth. The Mataafa was raised the next spring and sent back into service.

Hop aboard our History & Sightseeing Bus Tour to learn more about Duluth’s rich history.

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