Cadavers and chocolate slabs

The telling of old and chilling tales comes more naturally with the arrival of cold weather, ominous dark clouds, and the holiday of Halloween creeping up in just a few days.

Truth be told, real life can sometimes be more frightening than fiction. A particularly haunting story deals with the sinking of the Idaho in Lake Erie off Dunkirk 116 years ago. Two survivors and a handful of local citizens lived to tell the story of hungry waves swallowing up the ship, frozen hands clinging to life on its mast, and surprises washing ashore for many days.

The EVENING OBSERVER used the headline “The Badly Frightened Finder on Nov. 30, 1897 to describe what one man saw after the shipwreck. A Dunkirk resident, he was rowing in a small boat in the harbor the prior evening. The account did not leave much to the imagination, citing grisly detail in the style of writing common to the time.

“With the aid of a strong constitution and a few bottles of nerve cure, Elias Allenbrand of Eagle Street may, with good luck, recover from the shock received last evening when he found the body of a man floating just under the northwestern corner of Alcott, Ross & Scully’s lumber dock. Allenbrand had been rowing in a small boat during the early evening over the smooth bosom of the harbor and was on his return to shore when he saw something resembling he could not tell what, floating a few inches above the surface. He sent the boat carefully towards it and in the uncertain light of the young moon, made out the body of a man. He looked in his boat and found he had no rope with which to tow it ashore. Then to be sure there could be no mistake in what he saw, he reached carefully over and let his fingers tangle themselves in a mass of hair. Then slowly he lifted and the man’s face, slimy and bloated, looked full into his. Ugh! Such a gruesome companion and with it all alone; he almost fainted, letting go his hold at the same time. The body slid once more into the water and like mad, Allenbrand seized the oars and tore through the water to the land.”

The EVENING OBSERVER continued with the story of Allenbrand’s rushing to the morgue to report what he had seen to Mr. Blood, the County Coroner. After a search, they determined the body had floated away, but it was believed to be one of the crew of the Idaho. A reward of $500 was offered for the body of the Captain. The Buffalo News reported on Nov. 30 that a party of boys in Westfield were out hunting for wild ducks and found a blue coat on the beach. In one of the pockets there was a small testament with “Silas R. Lynn, 1877” written on the cover. It was credited to “one of the unfortunate sailors who perished in the Idaho.”

The EVENING Observer also reported on Nov. 13 that wreckage from the foundered Idaho continued to drift ashore and that the beach was literally strewn with it. C. E. Adams and Harbor Inspector Elbridge found a portion of her stern bearing her name, “Idaho of Buffalo,” which was put on exhibition in the window of Jno. A. Stapf’s jewelry store. Near the west pier of Washington Avenue that morning, workmen found two chairs, a couple of mattresses and a few articles which were part of her cargo, including an Old Testament with the letters “F.E.G.” written on the inside of the cover.

So what happened earlier in the month on Nov. 5, 1897 to cause the Idaho’s demise? An article in the EVENING OBSERVER from Nov. 8, 1897 and other sources such as “Maritime History of the Great Lakes”, which is heavily dependent on accounts published in local papers, provide the information.

The Idaho was a steam ship built in 1863. Owned by the Western Transit Company, she was out of commission for some time prior to this date and was used as the lodging and meeting place for naval veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) from the Civil War. The Idaho was supposedly overhauled and made ready for commercial voyages. She left Buffalo for Milwaukee and Chicago on that day with general merchandise as her cargo at an estimated value of $75,000 to $100,000. One of Lake Erie’s infamous gales of November began.

According to the newspaper article, “She encountered a violent storm and sank off Long Point, 19 of her crew going down with her.”

Two survivors were rescued the next day after spending the night in pounding hail and waves while clinging to the mast which was several feet above the surface of the water. Their frozen hands had to be pried away as they were rescued by the Mariposa, a brave feat tin such dangerous waters. One of the survivors said that it was the worst storm he had ever seen. The ship was tossed into the air like a top with the first big breaker. It was already too late when the captain decided to turn and take refuge at Long Point (across the lake on the Canadian shore). The engine fires went out with the encroaching water and all power was lost.

In an interview, one of the two survivors further described what it was like to be in the trough and to see how hopeless it was when bailing out water and using the anchor would not work. Much like scenes from a movie, the crew became frantic with some “drowned like rats” in the hold and others washed overboard and lost at sea. There were scenes of the last light going out, all becoming black, and some sobbing.

“Soon the cries ceased and the sweeping of waves and the breaking of combers as they fell on the hulk were all we heard.”

At the time, the Idaho shipwreck was said to be the deadliest on Lake Erie since the Dean Richmond in 1893 when 17 crew members were lost.

Concerning the aftermath of the wreck in “Point Gratiot’s Guiding Light, The Dunkirk Light Station,” Jean Russ tells the story of how her mother, while living at the lighthouse at the time of the Idaho wreck, recalled large slabs of chocolate washing ashore along with some other items. It was believed the chocolate was en-route to a candy company in a mid-western city for making Christmas candy. The outside formed an airtight coating and the buoyancy of the dry center enabled them to float ashore.

Russ wrote, “Relatives and friends came up from town to help in rescuing the sweets, and they were dried out on linen cloths on the barn floor. When dry, the outer part was chipped off, and the inner unharmed confection was divided among those who assisted. Many chocolate pies, puddings, cakes and candies were on the menus that winter.”

On a side note, so much history can be retold by viewing old newspapers on microfilm. While researching for this column, it was very difficult to not get side-tracked with all the other news and advertisements of the day that were in the EVENING OBSERVER.

There were so many businesses in Dunkirk, which now seem like sad ghosts of the past in light of the last few decades and our economic problems. Make it a good week and support our local businesses.

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