Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Captain Delos Smith Says Rescues Are All in a Day's Work
Captain Delos Smith rescued drowning mariners from the Mary Ludwig and the Atlanta with his skillful seamanship, his beach horse Frank, and his tug Tessler.
At the mouth of a little brook flowing into Lake Michigan between Port Washington and Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Captain Delos Smith, his brother Herbert, his young wife and his five year old son, Lester, lived in a house on the beach.
One September night in 1895, a furious wind blew and swayed and shook the house. The roar of the breakers kept everyone awake except Lester. During that dark, stormy September night, Captain Smith and his brother thought they heard cries for help and when it grew light outside, they hurried to the beach. There lay the schooner Mary Ludwig with its canvas in shreds and one mast gone. Two men were on the deck and they seemed to be trying to launch a small boat in the mountain high breakers.
Captain Smith grabbed one of the log oars leaning against the house. He shouted to his wife to give him her apron and fastened the scarlet apron to the oar blade by its string. The wind caught it and flapped it as a red flag of danger. The men on the schooner didn't heed the signal. Instead, they dropped into the small boat. For a few minutes, they battled the high waves and dreadful undertow, and then the wind overturned the Mary Ludwig and dumped the men into the lake. They bobbed around in the water like corks and Captain Smith shouted to them that rescue was coming if they could hold on.
Captain Smith Recruits Oscar Guenther and His Rescue Horse Frank
Five year old Lester Smith was awakened by the shouting going on outside. He ran outside just in time to see his father and Uncle Herbert launch their own small boat into the water. The two men tried to row to the shipwrecked pair, but the high waves repeatedly threw their boat backon shore. Suddenly Captain Smith had an idea. He shouted for Lester to get their beach horse Frank.
Frank was a true fisherman's horse. Besides hauling boats and pile drivers along the water's edge for the Smiths, Frank walked along the beach without a harness, bridle or saddle, and enjoyed the water. He was a big bay coach horse and if given a slack line, would swim far out into thelake.
Since Captain Smith was rather hefty himself, he got one of his men, Oscar Guenther, who was more of a bantam weight, to climb on Frank's back. The Captain fastened a light buoy line around his waist, Oscar kicked Frank in the ribs, and they plunged into the roaring lake. Frank snorted at and attacked the waves. He headed for the Mary Ludwig without deviating one degree from his course. One of the wrecked sailors, Captain Reynolds, lost his hold on the wreck and drowned before Frank could get to him.
Frank kept swimming and reached the other sailor, Hogan, who grabbed his tail. Frank turned and swam back to shore, showing about as much exertionas if he had just tossed his mane.
Captain Smith and the Tessler Help the Goodrich Liner Atlanta
Eleven years later on March 18, 1906, Captain Smith and his crew on the fishing tug boat Tessler conducted another harrowing rescue effort. That morning as they were fishing off the Tessler, the Captain observed a Goodrich liner, marked by its distinctive red smoke stack, appear on the horizon from the north then suddenly stop, start up and then stop again. Captain Smith and his crew decided to investigate the strange ship which lay about two miles away.
Captain Smith and his crew didn't discover it was burning until they were close enough to see flames leaping over the side ofthe ship. "When a boat is afire it seems that it always drifts broadside to the wind. And it drifts fast!” The fire seems toact like a sail," Captain Smith said later.
The burning steamer was the Goodrich liner Atlanta, which had been traveling its regular run from Manitowoc to Chicago, with stops at Sheboygan and Milwaukee. Earlier that morning she had left Manitowoc and arrived at Sheboygan at 6:30 a.m. to load her southbound cargo of furniture and inflammables. When she departed for Milwaukee about 10:15 a.m., the weather was clear and cold and the wind gusty.
Captain Smith Maneuvers the Tessler to the Rescue
At about 11:30 a.m., when the Atlantawas about fourteen miles south of Sheboygan, fire was discovered in the aft hold. Thefire gained headway rapidly because of the inflammable cargo. The fire had first burned its way into the fire hold, and then the engine room, driving the people on board topside. Since the fire centered around the boilers and engine room, the firemen couldn't stoke the boilers. This made the Atlanta run out ofsteam and the fire pumps couldn't operate.
Despite the efforts of the Atlanta's crew to save her, new fires continually broke out as soon as old ones were extinguished. Finally, Captain Con McCauley gave the order to abandon ship. The passengers and crew, about 65 people in all, prepared to take to the lifeboats which were still undamaged by the fire.
At this point, the Tessler approached the burning Atlanta and Captain Smith saw that badly over crowded lifeboats were being swung out and ready to be lowered. He also noticed that some people were trapped on the hurricane deck close to the bow.
The Captain had a difficult time maneuvering his tug close enough to the Atlanta to make a rescue, since it couldn't go alongside or leeward. Finally, Captain Smith and his crew managed to pass three lines to the hurricane deck of the Atlanta. One by one, people slid down the lines. Some jumped and bones were broken in a number of cases.
The Tessler Transfers the Survivors to the Georgia
As the Tessler was about to pull away from the burning Atlanta, several of the people heard screams for help and rescued a Negro cook from the pantry where he had been trapped. Altogether, only one life was lost. A seaman, Mike Hickey, boarding Lifeboat Number One, missed his step, fellinto the lake and drowned before anyone could reach him.
The survivors were taken aboard the tug and Captain Smith sent the people with wet or scanty clothes to his engine room so they wouldn't freeze to death. Captain McCauley reported that all who had been aboard the Atlanta were safe on the Tessler except for the drowned sailor Hickey. That meant that there were over 70 people on board the Tessler which made her badly overcrowded. Captain Smith decided to make a run to Port Washington.
The Tessler had just gotten underway when the northbound Georgia of the Goodrich Line came into view, having left Milwaukee at 11:00 a.m. The Tessler signaled the Georgia and she stopped and took all the survivors aboard. The Georgia steamed to Sheboygan where the injured were taken to hospitals and thesurvivors given food, shelter and clothing.
Captain Smith and the crew of the Tessler were honored in the national and local press for their brave rescue. "It'sall in a day's work," said Captain Delos Smith.
Mansfield, J.B. History of the Great Lakes, Volumes I and II. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899
Sheboygan Press, October 6, 1895
Evening News (Nebraska) September 17, 1895
Buffalo Evening News, August 6, 1903
Sheboygan Press, March 23, 1906
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.