At one time the Great Lakes were the only major “freeway” in the midwest. Thousands of vessels once brought settlers, freight and merchandise through this vast inland waterway. It is consequently, not surprising that accidents were very commonplace. Today we are shocked to hear of a marine accident every decade. One hundred years ago however, serious marine accidents were a daily occurrence. So many schooners and steamers were lost on the lakes that it is nearly impossible to chronicle each accident. The losses of many obscure vessels have consequently, faded into history. The following account details one of the many little-known vessels which were swallowed whole by Lake Michigan.
The schooner Jo Vilas was a typical two master of the Civil War era on the lakes. She was a trading schooner carrying all manner of cargo between Lake Michigan ports. The Jo Vilas was built at Manitowoc, Wisconsin by Rand & Brothers and was named for Joseph Vilas, a prominent Manitowoc merchant. Launched in September of 1857 with enrollment number 12767, she was an average sized schooner for her day. At 106.75 ft. long by 26 ft. wide by 8.75 ft. deep, she could hold 149 gross tons beneath her deck. The Jo Vilas had many owners during her 19 years on the lakes and was sold six times. She ended her days under the ownership of George Wiegland of Chicago, Illinois where she held her last enrollment. She had previously sailed out of Manitowoc and Milwaukee and was a fairly well-known vessel along the Wisconsin coast.
In her final years, the Vilas was used as a lumber vessel and could reportedly carry 150,000 feet of lumber above and below her deck. It was in this capacity that she arrived at the sawmills of White Lake, Michigan to take on a cargo of lumber which was badly needed to rebuild the fire charred city of Chicago, Illinois. On Sunday morning, October 8th, 1876, the Vilas finished loading and set out for Chicago on the other side of the lake.
Almost immediately, the Vilas’ hull began to leak. Hull leakage was very common among old wooden schooners and the Vilas carried hand pumps to combat the slow, persistent flow of water into her hold. However, a fierce southwest gale blew up when she was in mid-lake, adding significant stress to her already tired hull. Water now began to pour in as her caulking started to give way. Every available crewman was put to the task of pumping as the cold water began to rise higher and higher in the Vilas’ hold.
For Captain Richard Johnson and his crew of five, a race between the pumps and the rising water had begun. The men in turn kept up the grueling contest for 24 hours until they were exhausted. Finally, at 8:00 AM on Monday the 9th, the water and wind conspired to lay the Vilas on her side. She quickly fell into the trough of the waves where the icy mountains of water washed clear over her. In the freezing October gale, some 30 miles from the nearest land, the men had little chance for survival. The huge combing swells began to strip the deckload of lumber from the Vilas, sweeping her five man crew over the side with it.
In an amazing feat of endurance born of desperation, the five exhausted men in the water were able to gather together a quantity of floating lumber and lashed it together with a length of rope. Within minutes the Vilas began to settle in the water and Captain Johnson was forced to abandon her. The men on the raft were able to throw a rope to him and he leaped into the foaming surge, pulling himself along the line to the flimsy raft. For five minutes the crew watched as the Vilas struggled in the boiling sea. Then she slowly righted herself and paused as if bidding them farewell. She let out a deep sigh as her deck cabin blew off and the Vilas then ducked beneath the maelstrom into the serene silence, diving for the bottom some 50 fathoms below.
The six men were now totally alone in the middle of Lake Michigan in a howling October gale. As the whitecaps swept over them, pieces of their raft began to break free. The men occupied themselves trying to keep their precarious float from breaking up, but it seemed a futile task. The exhausted men had now been awake well over 24 hours and were waist deep in 45 degree water. It would be only a matter of time. For six hours the men endured the lashing spray and freezing surge. Then, in what must have seemed either an act of divine providence or a cruel mirage, the men saw the masts of a schooner through the waves and the spray. The odds of the little raft being spotted in the roiling tempest thirty miles from shore were almost nil, and the men must have been in a state of disbelief when the schooner Andrew Jackson hove to alongside their makeshift raft.
The mens’ troubles were still not over however. There remained the difficult task of getting them out of the water and into the pitching schooner. The men were too cold and exhausted to grasp and climb lines. The ropes had to be tied around the men who were then hoisted into the Andrew Jackson. Before half of the men were taken on board, the raft totally disintegrated. Had they been in the water even a few more minutes, the men would have undoubtedly perished. Before being hoisted aboard the Andrew Jackson, crewman William Cook smashed and broke his left hand and crewman Frank Folger broke one of his fingers, but remarkably, all six men were saved.
The gale remained so intense that the Andrew Jackson was unable to put into harbor until the next day. Tuesday afternoon, the men were landed at Racine and recounted their harrowing tale for reporters. “Their suffering was terrible,” the Milwaukee Sentinel reported, “The waves were constantly breaking over them and at every moment they expected to go to the bottom.” Another surreal fact came to light after the men reached port. The Vilas was lost on the 9th of October, 1876, the anniversary of the Chicago fire. Exactly five years before, during the conflagration, Captain Richard Johnson of the Jo Vilas had rescued the crew of the Brig Hampton which capsized under similar circumstances in almost the same spot - a remarkable coincidence indeed!
In the end the Vilas amounted to a loss of $2000 for her owner, Mr. Wiegland. For Captain Richard Johnson, first mate John Minnig, and crewmen William Cook, Herman Klein, Frank Folger and Fred Schleiff the harrowing experience undoubtedly left an indelible impression. The Vilas went down about 30 miles off shore midway between Racine and Kenosha. She lies today in the cold inky darkness over 50 fathoms down and will probably never give up the secret of her location.
References: The Herman G. Runge Wrecklist, Milwaukee Public Library, Marine Collection
The Milwaukee Sentinel of October 11, 1876
Note: This article originally appeared in Inland Seas, the Journal of the Great Lakes Historical Society, 1997.