By BOB McCARTHY
The history of any community along the Great Lakes includes many stories about storms and the horrible losses in ships, cargo and lives that can result when these storms suddenly appear.
On October 4, 1869, there was a severe storm on northern Lake Michigan that caused a ship to become water-logged and capsize, resulting in the death by drowning of six members of the crew.
You might wonder why the sinking of a ship in Lake Michigan should be of interest here in Lambton County.
Well, this ship was on its maiden voyage, to Chicago and back. If this ship had returned, Corunna, rather than Sarnia, might have become the hub of the ship-building industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century here in Lambton County.
Kate Bully, the only commercial ship ever constructed at Corunna, designed and built by John Bulley in 1869-70, was that ship that sank in along the east coast of Michigan near to Sleeping Bear Point.
John Bulley, with his wife Catherine and eight children, came to Corunna about 1860 and opened a blacksmith shop south of Cameron Street. He branched off into wagon-making and then into timber, built a grist mill, a saw mill and a wharf for schooners to tie up and load his product.
After getting involved in repairing these schooners, Bulley figured that if he could build a wagon, he could surely build a ship. By the spring of 1869, he had built his own craft, Kate Bully, named after one of his daughters, and was ready to launch. The Kate Bully, a small timber drogher was schooner rigged and used a horse pulled windlass to load timber. After loading the new ship with green hardwood timber, the skipper of the new craft, Captain Henry McGlashan, an experienced deep sea sailor, took her out on her first voyage, headed for Chicago.
The month of October during year 1869 was one of severe gales on the Great Lakes. Off Sleeping Bear Point in Lake Michigan, one of those gales caught the Kate Bully. Designed to function as a schooner, the engine had not yet been installed. This voyage was to be by sail only. A number of factors, including lack of control because the captain was controlling the ship only by sail and rudder and the lack of buoyancy of her cargo of green timber, contributed to the ship’s floundering and eventually capsizing, leaving only a small part of the overturned ship above water.
Several ships were sighted but none approached over the next forty hours spanning two cold nights and parts of three days, the survivors two nights and part of three days. By the time they were rescued, only four of the original ten people on board would survive, holding tight to the overturned vessel until they were rescued by the crew of a ship named Black Hawk.
One of those four who survived was Elizabeth Mitchell, the only one listed on the ship’s manifest as a passenger.
A report from the Weekly Wisconsin, Milwaukee, dated October 13, 1869, one week after their rescue, stated:
“When taken off, the survivors were so nearly exhausted that they could not help themselves in the least. The passenger, ELIZABETH MITCHELL, had sustained herself and encouraged the men by words and deeds during the trying time, but all had to be lifted like helpless children into the boats and upon the deck of the Black Hawk. Had they been left upon the wreck another night, as all expected to be, every soul would have perished.”
Who was Elizabeth Mitchell? Why was she on board? Did she have some connection with John Bulley, owner of the Kate Bully?
Let’s go back to Wednesday, October 6, 1869. It is after six PM as the Black Hawk approaches the port of Manistee. It is just beginning to get dark. The four survivors of the upturned ship, second mate Sebor Turcott, seamen John Stone and Charles O’Connor, and Elizabeth Mitchell, passenger, are all now safely on board the Black Hawk, have been provided with warm dry clothes and food and a hot drink and are all now crammed into the captain’s quarters. Master of the rescue ship, Captain Thomas Clark, has just entered his crowded cabin.
Story of the sinking of the Kate Bully – 1869
“Ah! I am glad to see that you are all now awake. If you are able, I have some questions. My name is Thomas Clark. I am captain of this ship, the Black Hawk. A few hours ago, one of my sailors spotted what he thought was the bottom of an upturned ship. We rushed to the site and rescued the four of you. Thought you were all done for. None of you were able to help us. Had to drag each one of you aboard. But, you all look much better now, even the lady there. Amazing what a little food and drink and dry clothes will do, eh what.”
After pausing for a few moments to look at each one of the survivors, the captain continued “Now, I have some questions. But first, who among you is the senior man of your surviving crew?” asked Captain Clark.
“It must be I, sir. I be second mate. My name be Sebor Turcott” answered one of the men hesitating in a faltering voice after looking around. “We all thank ye for rescuing us. I must have been unconscious, don't know how any of us survive that long. By the way, captain, when was we rescued? How long was we out there?”
“Well, Turcott, I do not know how long you were out there. It is now past six o'clock in the evening of Wednesday, October 6 of 1869. We picked you up about two hours ago. Do you remember when your ship capsized?”
“Well captain, sir, near as I remember, it be just before midnight on Monday last, near two days ago.” Then, after counting on his fingers for a moment, he continued “Must have survived there in the cold water more than 40 hours. At first, there be ten of us. Near as I remember, that first night, we all clung on to the upturned boat. Oh, it was so cold in the water, the storm still fuming at us. Tough to hang on. We lost three of our mates that first night. George Kennedy, Ed Corbett and Merritt Boley just slipped away during the dark sometime.
“Then, the next morning, that storm was still raging. All of us wanted to give up at some time, ‘cept for Miss Mitchell, here.” He stopped and looked lovingly at Elizabeth Mitchell, the only female survivor, before continuing.
“Captain, just look on that face. It be the face of an angel, right boys” he continued as he looked at the other two survivors. “Wasn’t for Miss Mitchell here, we would all have given up, right boys.”
As they both nodded, the captain interrupted and asked “What do you mean? She is only a woman and an older one at that.”
“Well captain” John Stone added “Wasn’t for Miss Mitchell, I’d ‘ave given up that first night. All through that night, she just kept on telling us to think about our families, our loved ones. I remember her saying ‘John, don’t you dare give up. I taught both you and your wife Grace and she would never forgive me if I came home without you. And mark my word, I am going back home and so are all of you.”
Then Charles O’Connor spoke for the first time since being rescued “Captain, my wife be expecting our first child and Miss Mitchell kept reminding me and kept me strong and wanting to live by reminding me about our unborn child. She would not let me quit.”
“Well, Miss Mitchell, I am so sorry. Seems like I misjudged you. It sounds to me like you are the heroine in this incident. Please, tell me more about yourself.”
“Captain, I did nothing more than take charge just like I would have when I was teaching some of these boys if there had been some accident. I was a teacher until a few months ago when I retired. I have always wanted to go on a sea voyage and this seemed to be the closest I would ever get to one. You know my sister is married to John Bulley. So she suggested that I go along as a passenger and to represent his interests in Chicago when the Kate Bully arrived there. I looked at it as a holiday after thirty years of teaching. Little did I know it would be such a big adventure.”
Then, Elizabeth Mitchell paused, a tortured look on her face, waiting a moment before continuing in a soft monotone. “But we lost six souls while we drifted out there in the cold waters of this treacherous lake. Three slipped away in the dark of that first night, as Mister Turcot has already told you. Then, all that first day, after the wind and waves had receded and we had some warmth and light from the sun, when anyone talked about giving up, I just tried to encourage them to hold on. But it was not the Lord’s wish. That first day, He took our captain, Mister Henry McGlashan and young Thomas as well as that good woman, Mary Wilson. May the Lord have mercy on all their souls and welcome each one to a better life in a better place than this.”
As she paused, her head slipped down on to one shoulder and her eyes closed.
John Stone took up her story “Captain, sir, if it was not for our Miss Mitchell, none of us would be here with you today. She kept us talking and thinking about what we would do when we got home. I have known her most of my life, as a school boy and later as a young man. She is the only reason any of us survived our ordeal. I am not catholic. Nor is she. But if ever there was a saint in our hometown of Corunna, she would be the one as far as I am concerned. Right boys.”
As the two other men nodded vigorously and responded “Hear! Hear!”, John Stone turned back to Captain Clark and finished “Now, captain, sir, with your permission, we have not slept for more than forty hours. With your permission, we could all use some shut-eye, if you know what I means.”
“Certainly, men and lady. You have all earned a rest. I will see that you are not disturbed before we dock at Manistee in an hour or two.”
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
The Weekly Wisconsin, a Milwaukee newspaper featured the following story on October 13, 1869
Little Sable Point, MI (Lake Michigan) Schooner Kate Bully Lost, Oct 1869
SERIOUS MARINE DISASTER.
THE SCHOONER "KATE BULLY" OF CANADA, WATER-LOGGED AND CAPSIZED — THE CAPTAIN WITH THREE SEAMEN AND COOK LOST — NAMES OF THE OFFICERS AND CREW LOST AND THREE SAVED.
From Mr. Henry Niedecken, of this city, who has just returned from the Eastern shore, we have the details of the loss of the Canadian schooner Kate B ully with part of her crew.
The vessel was two years old and is known on the lakes. She has been to this port several times and loaded grain here for Canadian ports. She was bound from the river St. Clair for Chicago, and was laden with ties and splices for Chicago. In the great gale of October 4th, the vessel was water-logged in Lake Michigan, and at 9 p.m. of the same day, when off Point Sauble, she capsized.
At the time the sea was breaking over the unfortunate vessel and it was with the utmost difficulty that the crew could cling to the wreck. All night long they floated in the sea, vainly hoping for relief, and one by one a part of the unfortunate crew dropped off and were swallowed up by the waves.
During the night of October 4th, the first mate G. KENNEDY and ED. CORBETT and MERRITT BOLEY were lost, and on the following morning Capt. H. M. GLASPIN, seaman THOMAS DUREM and MARY WILSON, cook, were lost, making in all six persons lost.
All day long and the next night, up to 4 o'clock of the afternoon of the 6th, the crew clung to the wreck. At least half a dozen vessels passed them but did not see the wreck. Some of the vessels passed so closely that the unfortunate men could see those on their decks, but no offer of help was made.
At 4 p.m. of the 6th the schooner Black Hawk hove in sight, and her noble-hearted commander, although some distance off when he saw the vessel, bore down to it, and while the sea was running high, succeeded, after more than one gallant effort, in rescuing the second mage, SEBOR TURCOTT and JOHN STONE and CHARLES O'CONNOR, seamen, with ELIZABETH MITCHELL, passenger.
When taken off, the survivors were so nearly exhausted that they could not help themselves in the least. The passenger, ELIZABETH MITCHELL, had sustained herself and encouraged the men by words and deeds during the trying time, but all had to be lifted like helpless children into the boats and upon the deck of the Black Hawk. Had they been left upon the wreck another night, as all expected to be, every soul would have perished.
The second mate of the Kate Bully arrived at Manistee on the 8th, and from him Mr. Niedecken had the information given above. The tug Williams at once went in search for the vessel. The second mate informed Mr. N. that he had passed through many trying scenes during his life on the lakes, but never anything like this. He said he hoped never to witness anything like it again. The crew as they clung to the wreck tried to sustain each other, but every time one was washed off and sunk at once beneath the waves, it sent a thrill of horror through the hearts of all. The survivors were shown every attention and comfort on board the Black Hawk, and owe their lives to the courage and humanity of the officers and crew of that vessel.