Stormy weather caused historic shipwrecks

Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. This adage was used by mariners long before 20th century technology. It is certainly very far removed from apps on today’s smart phones which put upcoming weather at one’s fingertips.

Sudden storms on the oceans and Great Lakes have been the demise of many ships. Lake Erie especially has caused problems for sailors. Its relatively shallow waters are known to churn up some raging tempests. This week marks the anniversary of two shipwrecks near the shores of Dunkirk.

Flour, and a lot of it, is what washed ashore 120 years ago following the sinking of the Dean Richmond on Oct. 14, 1893.

An excerpt from the Dunkirk Lighthouse Keeper’s Log stated, “During a fresh SW gale the steamer ‘Dean Richmond’ from Toledo, bound for Buffalo, was wrecked about 10 miles west of this light and Captain Stoddard and a crew of 19 were drowned. The steamer was loaded with flour and other cargo.”

The Dean Richmond left port on Friday, Oct. 13, 1893 with freight including pig zinc (ingot or metal brick used for ballast), sacks of flour, bagged meal, and other cargo. The book “Erie Wrecks East” chronicles the events which led to the disaster. On a tight schedule, those in charge delayed some repair to the Richmond’s rudder and proceeded to load up and ship out. The vessel almost immediately encountered heavy wind, and as the crew continued east it worsened to 60 miles per hour with waves claimed to be three stories tall.

The Richmond was first sighted off Erie, Pa., struggling toward Buffalo with both masts and one stack down and later sighted farther east with both stacks down. Without a working rudder, the ship could not be controlled. At some time in the early hours it went down. According to the book, the captain’s body was recovered the next day wearing a watch that stopped at 12:20.

Local residents very soon were aware of the sinking of this ship. “Erie Wrecks East” notes that a farmer, Frank Boling, found wreckage washing ashore eight miles west of Silver Creek and the beach filled with paste from the cargo of flour.

The book “Point Gratiot’s Guiding Light The Dunkirk Light Station,” recounts how the author’s mother remembered this event when she was a child living at the lighthouse with her family. Many sacks of flour had washed onto the beaches. She said that the water had formed a paste around the outside of the flour, but the inside was dry which made them buoyant to float ashore. The family took the bags to the barn and spread them out on the floor and turned them until the paste was dry. The mother said that they were then able to chip off the outer part and salvage the dry flour.

“Friends and relatives came up from Dunkirk to assist them, and all got a share of the booty.” The same book also mentions that “a lifeboat was picked up by Dempsey” (lighthouse keeper at the time) with the name Dean Richmond inscribed on it.

Like so many events in history that become bigger than life, the wreck of the Richmond became legendary. Rumors grew about what it may have contained other than flour and common cargo. People conjectured that there was gold, silver, and copper in addition to the zinc blocks. Treasure hunters searched for her wreckage. In 1965 a group believed she was found and even dynamited the wreck to retrieve its riches. It was later determined this was another wreck, the Passaic.

“Erie Wrecks East” reported that the Richmond was finally found in 1983 and “all that was found was the pig zinc on her manifests; no copper, no gold, no fortune.” The authors of the book note that only experienced divers should attempt to enter the underwater wreckage and that many zinc ingots are scattered around the site. The Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum has one of these ingots on display.

October 14 is also the anniversary of another shipwreck off the shores of Dunkirk that occurred prior to the Richmond. In 1890, a ship called the Golden Fleece encountered a fierce storm while bound for Erie, Pa. It lost its steering capability and was forced toward land. The small crew was rescued by a cutter named the Commodore Perry.

It is said that even today parts of the Fleece are seen from time to time just east of the Canadaway Creek as the sand shifts during storms. The author of the lighthouse book mentioned that residents were able to salvage some of the wood from this wreck for firewood.

The same book also has another lighthouse keeper’s log entry that stated, “At about 4:30 P.M., the Schooner Golden Fleece from Buffalo bound for Erie stranded about one mile west of this station will prove a total loss. William Somervill, Master, and six of crew were all saved.”

With so much potential and danger at sea, it is easy to see why a red sky at night is a sailor’s delight.