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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: April 19, 2018

A Rough Day at Work

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

One of the periodicals I read is "Inland Seas," the quarterly journal of the National Museum of the Great Lakes. I have always been fascinated by shipping and boats, and find the scholarly historical content of this magazine extremely interesting. But the fall, 2017 issue held special interest, because it described the loss of a sailing ship on May 17, 1894, in a terrible storm. That ship was sailing from Menominee, MI to Chicago when she was lost, along with ten other sailing ships. At least 22 men and women aboard those ships died.

The old wooden sailing ships of this era called from port to port, hauling all the goods that are handled by trucks or rail now. This was still the period when lumbering was one of the major "exports" of Northeastern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the market for this lumber was mainly in the growing cities. So after filling the hold of the ship with lumber, and likely adding a deck load as well in port at Menominee, the 264 ton "Rainbow" sailed for Chicago.

I can't find anything online about this small, workhorse sailing ship. Like hundreds of her kind, she was nothing special, much like one of our over-the-road semi- trucks. The name "Rainbow" is very common. I have no way of knowing if Menominee was her actual "home port," but there is one clue in the names of the sailors on board " names that are familiar to me from living in the Marinette area. Pugh, Williams and Knutson are all mentioned as crewmember names " not proof of anything, but certainly names still present in the area today.

When the violent storm began to roil Lake Michigan, the Rainbow was nearly to Chicago. But the entry to the safe harbor was poorly protected, and a sailing entrance to the tricky port in the nasty weather was very risky " and the ship had no engine. The captain of the Rainbow, listed as John Pugh, elected to anchor his ship off the foot of 12th Street at the lakefront of Chicago. The anchor held, and it appeared for a time the ship would be safe until the storm calmed enough for them to make the narrow port entrance.

It was not to be. Numerous ships started piling up in this area, all driven by the storm. One of them, the "Jack Thompson" was unable to stop and anchor, and crashed into the anchored Rainbow. Once torn loose from her anchor, the Rainbow wallowed and then capsized. The crew, apparently seven men, clambered up into her rigging and clung to the mast as the waves continued to pound against their ship.

An extremely brave tugboat captain tried to come to their rescue. In what was described as a tremendous feat of seamanship, the tug was able to get a line to the ship and rescued four of the crew. But then a huge wave struck the tugboat, shattering her pilothouse. They had no choice but to flee back into the harbor.

The three remaining crew members " Capt. John Pugh, Sailors Tom Williams and Jack Knutson, were pushed closer to 16th street as their ship slowly sank beneath them. They courageously managed, in the icy water and hellish conditions, to fashion a makeshift raft from the wreckage of their ship. They tied themselves to it, and drifted in the freezing water toward shore. A brave citizen named William Havill waded out and pulled them to the beach, saving the lives of the last three Rainbow crew.

They were the lucky ones that day. As other ships crashed into one another, deck loads of lumber were swept into the waves, battering still more ships and luckless sailors who jumped or fell into the water. Many of them drowned, were battered to death by floating lumber, or died of hypothermia.

When the storm finally spent itself, shore side entrepreneurs began carting away the thousands of board feet of lumber that washed ashore, and selling pieces of the smashed sailing ships as souvenirs.

It is interesting to reflect on the lives of sailors in those days, including the seven on the Rainbow. There was little or no forecasting of such severe storms. Safety equipment on sailing ships was crude, if present at all. The modern clothing fabrics that protect those who work outdoors in severe weather were a hundred years in the future. There was no means of contacting ships by radio or telegraph; once sailing, the ship was isolated from all outside information. It was probably many hours, or perhaps even days, until those in the Menominee area would have become aware of the sinking.

Being a sailor at the turn of the century was a difficult, high-risk job. While May 17 may have been an unusually harrowing day for the seven men on the Rainbow, it was highly likely that within weeks they would have signed on as crew in another similar vessel. Commerce demanded cargo be transported; and families needed to be supported. Workplace safety regulations were decades in the future; along with the technology to make the Great Lakes a safer place to work.

I appreciate the research efforts of author Richard Gebhart in documenting this interesting, linked to our area, story. I wonder if there are any family recollections of this event in local residents or descendants, or with amateur historians of the Marinette/Menominee area?



You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com




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