Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Ice Skater Benjamin Langford is Rescued from Lake Erie Ice
Lake Erie Ice
Benjamin Langford strapped on his skates to pick up a package from his friend Darby at the Presque Isle Lighthouse and ended up marooned on Lake Erie ice.
At sunset on an early December day in 1838, Benjamin Franklin Langford had a rendezvous with his friend, an Irish boy named Darby. Darby was to meet him at the Presque Isle Lighthouse near Erie, Pennsylvania, with an important package and a letter. Benjamin bundled himself up against the cold, slung his skates over his shoulder and set out for the lighthouse. When he reached the bay, he noticed several sailing vessels and two or three steamers frozen in the ice near the shore. Out in the middle of the bay, waves tossed and rolled.
Benjamin Langford Misses the Presque Isle Lighthouse
As Benjamin sat on the beach and strapped on his skates, he felt the wind grow stronger. It snatched his scarf and waved it like a red banner. Pulling his woolen coat more closely around him, Benjamin skated slowly toward the lighthouse. He skated a straight line about a mile from shore, then turned and forged a course parallel to the shore. The wind gathered strength and punched him like a boxer. Pulling his scarf over his eyes, Benjamin skated blindly into the solid wind wall. Fighting for breath, he pulled the scarf from his eyes to see how far he had come. He had skated too wide of an arc. The lighthouse loomed farther away from him than it had been when he had started his skate.
The wind pushed Benjamin beyond the lighthouse and, bracing himself, he started toward it, fighting the wind. The entire surface of the ice quivered like an earthquake, and Benjamin landed flat on his face. A loud roar echoed in his ears and rumbled like thunder until it was almost lost in the distance and wildness of the storm. He scrambled to his feet and then he saw his danger. The great body of ice had yielded to the immense pressure of the wind and split along the shore close to him.
Benjamin Langford Plays Leapfrog with Lake Erie Ice
Thinking fast, Benjamin raced the wind for about sixty yards to get a head start. Gathering his strength, he leapt across the chasm between his ice floe and the sheet of solid ice. He cleared the patch of water by three feet, falling violently backward as he did so. He saw blurred images crowds of men, women, and children cheering him from the shore and from the lighthouse at the end of the pier. Getting to his feet with great difficulty, Benjamin heard another crack and a wider chasm opened between him and the shore. .
Again, Benjamin struggled until he reached the edge of the second chasm, and he saw that this time the winds had opened up even a larger chasm. The entire body of ice had parted from the American shore and the storm rapidly whipped it toward Canada. Benjamin faced nothing but inky black night and mountainous waves.
People on the Pier Try to Rescue Benjamin
The people on the now distant pier attempted to rescue Benjamin. They lifted a six-oarer boat from the inner side of the pier and launched it with a goodly crew. Benjamin didn’t see them launch the boat. Distance and the storm prevented him seeing what the people on shore were doing and so did his fear. He knew that he was lost, yet after a time, a pleasing glow stole through his body. He began to feel oblivious to the activities on land. He sank gently down and with stiffening fingers, undid the straps of his skates. He leaned back on his elbows, gazing languidly through the darkness and smiling with delight at the sensations creeping over him. He sank into a soft featherbed of sleep.
The Queen Charlotte Rescues Benjamin
When Benjamin opened his eyes, the first person he saw was a boy named Lathrop. Lathrop had run away to sea, and had been apprenticed to the captain of a ship that was renowned on the Great Lakes, the Queen Charlotte. The Queen Charlottehad been Commodore Barclay’s “flag ship,”taken from the British in Commodore Perry’s victory at the battle of Lake Erie in 1813. Now, in 1838, the Queen Charlotte carried staves in their rough state to Buffalo. Lathrop was older than Benjamin and Benjamin had always respected him.
At first, Lathrop didn’t realize that Benjamin had awakened. Lathrop carved a small figurehead with a coarse jack knife out of a piece of pine, whistling to himself very softly. Benjamin heard Lathrop whistling, but he lay still, trying to remember what had happened the night before and how he had wound up aboard the Queen Charlotte. At first he couldn’t remember, but then pictures came into his mind. He saw rescue boats and people lifting him onto the Queen Charlotte.
When he grew up, Benjamin became a sailor. He traveled the four quarters of the earth. He saw hickory and oak and pine trees slivered into matches with the lighting before his eyes. He saw the strong masts of a ship snapped off like pipe stems, and flung into the surf .He stood when an earthquake roared and scattered death and ruin above and around him, but never yet did he hear such a sound as the cracking of the ice sheet on the Presque Isle ice.
Benjamin Langford Stopped Ice Skating
Thirty five years later, recalling his adventure in the Oconomowoc Times, Benjamin said, “I have never had skates on my feet since that period and in all probability, never shall again. I have leaped over all ambition as regards the ice in that respect and have been quite satisfied with the sight of an iceberg in Newfoundland waters since, in the hot months of June, or of the smell of the cold mist which prevails when they are thick on a dark night in the Southern Ocean.”
Bates, Samuel, History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, 1884. Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1884
Mansfield, J.B., History of the Great Lakes, Volumes I and II, Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1884
Oconomowoc Times, May 7, 1873
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.