Is Columbus Celebrating Columbus Day at Jackson Park Lagoon?

Replica of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, 1893. Benjamin Andrews

Replica of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, 1893.
Benjamin Andrews

A fantasy Halloween ghost story based on some historical fact.

by Kathy Warnes

After the World’s Columbian Exposition closed in October 1893 , the replicas of the Christopher Columbus ships Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria  were moved to Jackson Park. Is Columbus still sailing them?

The World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1893 after Chicago beat out New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco for the honor of hosting the fair. The Exposition officially closed in October 1893, but it has left a lasting fingerprint on history with buildings, social customs, legacies, and- ghosts?

A Cyclist Sees a Ghostly Mariner in Jackson Park’s South Lagoon

According to the Chicago Chronicle, on a clear morning in early August of 1900, just after dawn, a cyclist sped along the path around the south lagoon in Jackson Park in Chicago. Just as he reached the Santa Maria, which lay tilted to the north yards away from her sister ships the Nina and the Pinta, he spotted a shaggy head covered with mats of snarly hair rising slowly above the gunwales close to the Santa Maria’s prow.

The cyclist immediately stopped peddling and watched the rugged body that was attached to the head materialize. The ghost wore a tattered coat clinging closely to his shoulders and the early morning breeze caught the pieces of the coat and waved them like flags as the ghost slowly seized the rotted stays still clinging to the mast and pulled himself up. Then, the ghost shaded his eyes with his hand and scanned Lake Michigan as if he were searching for some distant land or an approaching sail.

The cyclist gave a startled exclamation and with that, the ghost disappeared. The cyclist, who lived near Jackson Park, told other cyclists who rode around the south lagoon to see for themselves. Some people didn’t see anything, but others claimed that they saw the mysterious mariner at different times on the decks of the Nina and Pinta as well as the Santa Maria. Everyone who saw the mariner reported that they saw him scan the lake far and wide, and when he felt them looking at him he would disappear into the hold of the ship.

Is the Mysterious Mariner the Ghost of Christopher Columbus?

All of the people who saw the ghostly mariner saw him only on clear mornings, just after dawn. Many people believed that a harmless recluse was living on the three ships which had been in the lagoon since the end of the World’s Columbian Exposition in October 1893. The Jackson Park policeman insisted that no one could be living on the ships because every night policemen visited the boats to make sure that one stayed on board.

The World’s Columbian Exposition Opens in May, 1893

The World’s Columbian Exposition which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in America, actually took place in 1893, a year later than its founders had plannedThe Exposition’s founders included Chicago shoe tycoon Charles Schwab, and Chicago Railroad magnate John Whitfield Bunn and many other industrialists and financiers across the United States. Dedication ceremonies were held on October 21, 1892 to adhere to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World commemoration, but the World’s Columbian Exposition didn’t open to the public until May 1, 1893.

The World’s Columbian Exposition Area Includes Jackson Park and its Lagoons

The World’s Columbian Exposition was situated on 630 acres of land that included Jackson Park and its lagoons, the South Shore, Jackson Park Highlands, Hyde Park and Woodlawn. The Exposition featured nearly 200 new buildings crafted in the classical architectural style, canals, and lagoons. Frederick Law Olmsted created the layout of the grounds and Daniel Burnham directed the architecture of the buildings.

People from forty-six nations participated in the Exposition, constructing exhibits and pavilions. The Exposition attracted nearly 26 million visitors during its six month run and it far outshone other world fairs, becoming the symbol of American pride, unity, emerging empire and industrial optimism.

Patrick Prendergast Assassinates Chicago’s Popular Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr.

On October 9, 1893, more than 716,881 people attended Chicago Day, commemorating the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and symbolizing Chicago’s rising from its ashes. The exposition closed on October 30, 1893, with the Exposition goers and the entire country in shock. Patrick Eugene Prendergast, a disappointed office seeker, assassinated Carter Harrison, Sr., Chicago’s popular mayor and Exposition directors cancelled closing ceremonies for a public memorial service.

The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria Come to the World’s Columbian Exposition

When the World’s Columbian Exposition ended, the organizers returned Jackson Park to its public park status in much better shape than its original swampy state. The Exposition organizers reshaped the lagoon to a more natural appearance, but retained the straight line northern end which still laps against the steps on the south side of the Museum of Science & Industry building. During the World’s Columbian Exposition, the replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were moored in the south lagoon of Jackson Park and crowds of people visited each ship.

Two years earlier in 1891, William Curtis, an official with the U.S. State Department in Spain, had proposed the idea of building replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria to Queen Maria Christina of Spain. The Queen endorsed the idea and established a commission in Spain to build the ships and sail them to Chicago as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in America.

Building the Santa Maria went smoothly, but the construction on the Nina and the Pinta which Americans in Spain were building, went more slowly. Instead of building new ships, the builders used the hulls of two rotting ships for the replicas of the Nina and Pinta. Initially, Congress refused to appropriate the money for the ships and by the time Congress finally passed legislation to finance the construction, it was hopelessly behind schedule.

The Santa Maria was finished and sea worthy by July 1892, but officials ruled that the Nina and the Pinta were not sea worthy. The Santa Maria sailed for Puerto Rico under its own steam, while two United States Navy ships towed the Nina and Pinta from Spain. All three of the replica ships were towed through the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where they drew large crowds.

The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria After the World’s Columbian Exposition

After the World’s Columbian Exposition, the three replica ships remained in the south lagoon of Jackson Park. In 1901, they were turned over to the City of Chicago. Tourists still came to see and tour them, but the city of Chicago didn’t maintain them. By 1913, the three ships had deteriorated terribly, but the city of Chicago decided to use them in the ceremonies for the opening of the Panama Canal. They planned to sail the ships from Chicago to the new Panama Canal and then on to San Francisco.

The three ships ran into rough seas on Lake Michigan near Milwaukee, and the Pinta and the Nina nearly sank. The Nina and the Pinta managed to reach the shores of Lake Erie, where they had to be beached and eventually towed back to the Chicago docks. The Santa Maria struggled on to Boston, where a crew from Harvard University took over operating her. Backers had scheduled the Santa Maria to stop at ports along the East Coast, gambling that curious sightseers would tour the ship in droves. Almost no one showed up.

In 1917, the Santa Maria finally headed back to Chicago, but Canadian authorities impounded it because its owners couldn’t pay wharf charges. In 1918, the fees were settled and the Santa Maria returned to Chicago.

The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria weren’t reunited for long. The Pinta sank at its moorings and in 1919, the Nina caught fire and sank. In 1920, the Santa Maria was rebuilt and drew tourists until 1951, when it, too, burned.

A Cyclist Sees a Ghostly Mariner in Jackson Park’s South Lagoon

On a clear October morning just after the dawn of another new century, a cyclist speeds along the path of the south lagoon in Jackson Park. Just as he reaches the Santa Maria, he spots a shaggy head covered with mats of snarly hair rising slowly above the gunwales close to the Santa Maria’s prow.

The ghost shades his eyes with his hand and scans the lake, searching for some distant land or an approaching sail.


Appelbaum, Stanley. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. New York: Dover Publications, 1980

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World’s Science, Art and Industry, as Viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. New York: Bancroft, 1894

Buel, James William, The Magic City. New York: Arno Press, 1974

Larson, Erik. Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. New York: Crown, 2003

Brooklyn Eagle, “Mystery of the Caravels,” August 25, 1900

Chicago Chronicle, “Mystery of the Caravels,” August 4, 1900

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A Thanksgiving Break in Lake Michigan Breakers

grosse point lighthouse

Grosse Point Lighthouse National Archives

by Kathy Warnes

In the late 19th century, the lifesaving crew and keeper at the Life Saving Station at Evanston, Illinois on Lake Michigan were unique. The keeper, Captain Lawrence O. Lawson was the only official person on the lifesaving crew. The other members were students from Northwestern University, who when not on duty at the station were busy with their studies. The station itself was located on the grounds of the Northwestern University campus.

The Calumet Hits an Anchor in the Detroit River

On November 27, 1889, the steamer Calumet, a large propeller of over fifteen hundred tons and comparatively new, traveled from Buffalo bound for Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a cargo of coal. While navigating her way along a shallow part of the Detroit River she hit an anchor on the bottom and sprung a leak. Later, her captain and crew said that the leak happened when the Calumet struck a pile of boulders near Bois Blanc island which had become a hazard to navigation because of a year of low water in the Detroit River.

The damage was so serious that Captain Green, her commander, headed toward Detroit so he could repair as much damage as possible. There, he took a steam pump on board to keep the ship afloat and enable him to reach Milwaukee. This maneuver probably would have saved her if mother nature hadn’t intervened.

After the Calumet passed through the Straits of Mackinac and headed down Lake Michigan, a fierce storm blew up. The air boiled with blinding sleet and snow and the thermometer dropped to ten degrees above zero. The waves pushed up by the wind slapped the Calumet so roughly as she chugged south that the leak broke out again. The leak widened so quickly that even the pumps working to their full capacity could not stop it.

A Storm Hits and the Leak Grows

To make the situation even worse, Captain Green could not find the lights of Milwaukee Harbor and had to decide whether or not to push on through the storm to Chicago. He changed course and started toward Chicago, but in the meantime the pump gave out. The steamer filled with water and it seemed like it was about to sink any minute. Captain Green decided to run her ashore to save the lives of the crew. By now, the Calumet was so heavy with water and coal that she grounded heavily on a shoal about a thousand yards or more from the shore, on the night of November 28, 1889, about half past ten.

To keep the Calumet from being pounded to pieces by the waves before morning, Captain Green ordered the valves in the bottom open so that she would completely fill with water and remain steady. The wind howled and the waves rushed against and over the Calumet, leaving a coating of ice in their wake. The eighteen crew members spent the long night clinging to their doomed steamer. They could not launch a lifeboat and no help could reach them from shore until daylight.

The Calumet Runs Aground Off Fort Sheridan

The Calumet had run aground off Fort Sheridan, a recently established military post about twelve miles north of Evanston and the nearest life saving station. Mr. A.W. Fletcher, a Highland Park resident, the first to discover the Calumet, quickly sent a message to the Evanston police. On November 28, 1889, Thanksgiving morning, about a half hour after midnight, Light keeper Lawrence O. Lawson received a message from the Evanston police. The message said, “There is a large vessel ashore at Fort Sheridan. Come!”

Keeper Lawson hurried to the railroad station and asked the night operator when the
next train would be going north. “Not before 7:30 in the morning,” the night operator told him. He thought for a few minutes, and then remembered that a freight train from Chicago would go by without stopping at about 2:00 a.m.

The night operator wired a request to the train dispatcher at Chicago to tell the train engineer to stop at Evanston and take the station crew to Highland Park. The train was due to reach Evanston in 35 minutes, so there was no time to couple on cars that could carry the lifesaving equipment. Keeper Lawson sped through the snow to the nearest livery stable and hired teams to haul the surf boat and other equipment to Fort Sheridan. Then he hurried back to the life saving station and mustered his crew. He left one man behind to wait for the other patrol to come in and then hurried with the boat and other equipment down the snow-covered country road.

Keeper Lawson Makes Rescue Arrangements

The arrangements completed, Keeper Lawson and four other men raced to the railroad station. The police officer who had delivered the message joined them and they all boarded the train that had just pulled up. A mechanical problem on the train delayed their trip so that it was 4:00 a.m. before they reached Highland Park. Here Mr. Fletcher, the first man to see the wreck, met them and guided them the two miles to the scene. At this point the Lake Michigan shore consisted of a steep cliff about 80 feet high, split here and there by deep ravines filled with a dense growth of trees and underbrush that extended down to the water’s edge.

Mr. Fletcher became confused in the darkness and storm and lost his way. The rescue party had to climb down the bluff by making their way through several of the ravines, but finally at 5 o’clock they reached the shore. The surf men built a brush fire to serve as a beacon to the crew of the Calumet and to keep themselves warm while they waited for daylight and the arrival of the lifesaving equipment.

At 7:00 a.m. when the boat and gear arrived, it was light enough for the men to see that the Calumet was a large steamer, just like Mr. Fletcher had said. She was submerged almost to the main deck and the rescuers could see that the crew on board could not hold out very much longer. They had to act and act quickly or the men would die. The steamer did not look to be more than four hundred yards from shore, so Keeper Lawson decided to try to reach her by line instead of risking the lives of his crew or the destruction of the boat.

The waves pounded the foot of the bluff and left very little foothold on the narrow strip of beach. They fired two shots from the gun, trying to shoot the line out the crew of the Calumet, but the line fell far short of the ship. The steamer was much further out than Keeper Lawson had estimated and beyond the working range of the lines.
Taking a boat out to the stranded crew was the only thing left to do. The men got ready to launch a boat into the tossing waves.

Soldiers and Civilians Rescue the Calumet Crew

About fifty soldiers from Fort Sheridan, commanded by Captain C.G. Penny, and a group of civilians headed by Mr. Fletcher joined forces and came up with a plan. They decided to slide the boat into the water from the ravine where they had built the fire. Willing hands grabbed axes and cut a way down the gully through the undergrowth and brush wide enough for the boat. The men also used picks and shovels to cut steps in the stiff blue clay to help the men climb down to the beach with the boat. Sturdy hands completed these two jobs, and the soldiers and civilians brought the boat to within a few feet of the water.

The gully was located about three hundred yards south and leeward of a point directly by the wreck. The men had to drag the boat well to the windward along the narrow shelf of beach at the foot of the bluff. A heavy surf rolled in, so the only way for the men to launch the boat was to watch their changes between the breakers. They had to progress slowly and most of the time waist deep in cold, icy water. They were in danger of being swept off their feet and out into the lake by the waves. Twice the boat completely filled with water and had to be emptied out. Often it partially filled with water that the men had to bail out. The waves struck the boat broadside and hurled it hard against the bank despite the efforts of those on the outer gunwale to prevent it.

Despite all of the dangers and obstacles, the men got the boat to a point windward of the steamer and as soon as its bow could be pointed lakeward, the crew sprang to their places at the oars. When the next waves lifted the boat, the soldiers pushed, the oars were put in motion, and the rescue party set off. As they crossed the inner bar, the rescue crew rowed into a huge breaker that nearly capsized the boat.

The shock of it hitting was great enough to almost throw Keeper Lawson overboard from his post past the steering oar. Before he could recover, a second wave dashed over the boat and filled it to the seats. This made the boat almost unmanageable and for a while the men had all they could do to keep the boat floating and steerable. Nevertheless, they kept up a strong and steady pulling on the oars and the stroke oarsman bailed until the craft was free of water. They managed to keep going and soon were beyond the heaviest breakers.

In the meantime, the current had pulled them far to the leeward, and they had to pull long and hard directly into the wind. Flying spray from every wave left a glaze of ice on everything it struck, and the men’s clothing was soon covered. The oars constantly slipped from the oarlocks and both the oars and oarlocks were covered with ice. The temperature had fallen to 22 below zero. The rescuers kept going, even though their clothing froze stiff and their boat became shrouded with ice.

Finally, their boat reached the Calumet. The crew of the Calumet was clustered forward in and about the pilothouse stiff and half dead from the cold after being exposed to it for so many hours. The Calumet too, was encased in an icy shroud which grew thicker and thicker as the waves battered her. At last the rescue boat drew close enough to the bow of the steamer for Captain Green to throw them a line. Every watcher on shore and those on board the steamer and the rescue boat sighed with relief as the rescue boat drew alongside the ship. Captain Green hastily secured the line to a seat to hold the boat in position.

A Fire on the Bluff and Hot Coffee

The rescuers took six of the Calumet’s crew into their boat. Each put on a life preserver and the boat started for shore. The strong current sent the boat far to the leeward and the boat had to land a full quarter of a mile south of the launching point. The people on shore helped the crew out of the boat, and the surf men and their rescuers were taken to the fire on the bluff. Here the ice was beaten from their frozen garments and they were given hot coffee.

While the rescued and the rescuers were reviving, the soldiers and civilians emptied the boat of the water it had taken in coming through the surf, and dragged it to a point well to the windward of the sunken steamer. They readied it for another trip. The surf men, much refreshed by hot coffee, again made their way down to the boat and launched it again. Learning from their previous error, they headed the boat more to the current and were not swept so far to leeward by it, reaching the wreck more quickly. Altogether they made three trips out to the wreck, rescuing six men per trip. They saved the entire crew of eighteen men and none of them were even seriously frostbitten. By the time the rescue was finished, the surf men were in almost as bad shape as the men they had rescued, and so numb they could hardly walk.

The soldiers took charge of the boat. They hauled it back up the bluff, carried it safely to the wagon and put it in charge of the teamster who took it to the railroad station. The surf men drank more hot coffee, and then took the first train to Evanston, arriving early on Thanksgiving afternoon. Under the humane directions of Captain Penny from the Sixth United States Infantry, the Calumet crew was sent to the barracks and comfortably provided for until they could be settled elsewhere. A few hours after her crew was rescued, the Calumet broke up completely. The following morning there was nothing left of her but her stem and stern post standing up out of the water.

Gold Lifesaving Medals for the Captain and His College Crew 

Everyone who witnessed the rescue of the 18 crew members of the Calumet and Captain Green was certain that if it had not been for Captain Lawson and his student surf men, every last man on the Calumet would have perished.

On October 30, 1890, the Marine Review reported the United States Life Saving Service awarded the first gold medals to an entire crew to the Evanston crew for its rescue of the Calumet crew. Each of these men received the gold medal from the United States Life Saving Service. Captain Lawrence O. Lawson, the lighthouse keeper, also won the gold medal. The crew members who received the gold medal were George Crosby, William M. Ewillg, Jacob Loining, Edson B. Fowler, William L. Wilson and Frank M. Kindig. All of them except Captain Lawson were students at Northwestern University.

References and Further Reading
Port Huron Daily Times

Marine Review

Great Lakes Shipwreck File

History of the Great Lakes, Volume II


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“I Have One More Hour of Fuel. Would You Please Rescue Me?” – Operation Frequent Wind and the USS Midway



USS Midway Wikimedia Commons

By Kathy Warnes

In April 1975, South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly made the critical decision to evacuate his wife and five children from Saigon into the unknown, knowing that if they stayed the Communists would kill them. He loaded them into a small two-seat Cessna O-1 Bird Dog airplane and took off from a small island off of Saigon. Flying out to sea, he reached the USS Midway – CVA-41- one of the American ships involved in Operation Frequent Wind.


Wikimedia Commons


April 29, 30, 1975, are two days that many Americans remember as the two days that forever changed their lives. During these two days, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces, leaving thousands of South Vietnamese and Americans to be evacuated during Operation Frequent Wind, an armada of aircraft and ships that comprised the largest helicopter evacuation in history.

In those desperate days countless South Vietnamese escaped by themselves in boats or airplanes. When South Vietnam collapsed, hundreds of boats and ships, VNAF (the official military of South Vietnam from 1955-1975) helicopters and fixed wing planes sailed or flew to the evacuation fleet off the coast of Vietnam. So many helicopters came that they clogged ship decks and many were eventually pushed overboard to make room for others to land. American military officials instructed many helicopter pilots to drop off their passengers and then fly off and ditch in the sea where they would be rescued.

The statistics for Operation Frequent Wind attest to its scope and effectiveness. A total of 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and people from other countries were evacuated by helicopter. The total number of Vietnamese self-evacuated or rescued in Operation Frequent Wind and resettled in the United States reached more than 138,869 people.

Statistics only tell part of the story of Operation Frequent Wind and the role that American ships and planes played in the mass evacuation, and statistics don’t reveal the human sides of the story.

The story of Major Buang-Ly and the Americans aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway who helped save him and his family evokes the whirr of helicopters, refugees crowding the decks of aircraft carriers and other ships, artillery fire on besieged Saigon, and the fierce determination of one man to save himself and his family.


Major Buang’s Story in the USS Midway Museum Photo by David Babcock


Major Buang-Ly flew his two-seat Cessna, searching for a ship to land on, and he finally spotted the USS Midway. He circled the ship two or three times and then he flew down the flight deck, attempting to drop a note to the crew. The first two notes blew over the side, but the third one landed on deck. The note said:  “I can land on your runway, would you please move the helicopters to the other side of your runway. I have one more hour of fuel, would you please rescue me?”  It was signed Major Buang, wife and five children.

In a 2010 radio interview by Maureen Cavanaugh and Natalie Walsh of KPBS Public Radio broadcast from the flight deck of the USS Midway, now a museum ship in San Diego,CommanderVern Jumper, then Air Boss of the USS Midway, and Admiral, then Captain Lawrence Chambers reconstructed the rescue. The USS Midway was positioned about 35 miles off the coast of Saigon and Air Boss Jumper and his crew at first decided to have Major Buang ditch the plane alongside the ship and put swimmers in the water and rescue him.

Instead, Captain Lawrence Chambers decided on a different course of action, fearing that if Major Buang ditched in the water the plane which was a tail dragger would nose over and it would have been impossible to rescue its passengers. Captain Chambers decided to take the plane and its occupants aboard the USS Midway and asked Air Boss Jumper to give him a ready deck.

According to Air Boss Jumper,  helicopters, mostly Huey helicopters, littered the entire flight deck and they had to clear the angle deck. The Huey helicopters were on skids with no wheels on them and they weren’t easy to move around, but the flight deck crew cleared the angle deck in short order. He remembered that it had rained that day and the deck was slick, but they finally cleared a no pitching deck, no deck movement at all.

After making a few passes over the ship to see if the deck was ready for a landing and at 30-40 knots down the angle deck, Major Buang started his final approach and made a perfect carrier landing without a tail hook. He touched down in the wire area which had been stripped of wires because they would have entangled the plane.


Wikimedia Commons

Major Buang landed in the right spot, bounced once, rolled up the deck. The flight deck crew rushed to grab the plane before it reached the angle deck, but it stopped in time. Major Buang and his wife who held a baby in her arms jumped out of the cockpit and pulled the backseat forward. Four children scrambled out of the back seat.

When Major Buang landed, the flight deck crew and other sailors in the ship’s company ran to the flight deck, cheering because they were so proud to have helped save the courageous major and his family. Major Buang-Ly’s aircraft carrier landing was even more remarkable because even though he had flown more than four thousand hours in his airplane, he had no carrier landing experience and he didn’t know for certain if the aircraft carrier would let him land. He had less than an hour of fuel when he circled the ship and he needed about an hour and a half to make it back to dry land.

The sailors escorted Major Buang to the bridge where Captain Chambers congratulated him for his outstanding flying skills and his courage. He so impressed the crew of the USS Midway that they established a fund to help resettle Major Buang and his family in the United States.

The rescue of Major Buang-Ly and his family provides indelible human images for the history of the Vietnam War.  Admiral Chambers and Commander Jumper sketched other haunting images of Operation Frequent Wind and the part that the USS Midway played in it. These images include lines of refugees following ropes off the flight deck into a safer part of the ship, helicopters being pushed into the sea to make room for refugees, and helicopters landing and taking off amidst the crowds of people.


Photo by David Babcock


Retired as an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway now operates as a Museum Ship in San Diego Bay.  Commissioned in 1945 a month after the end of World War II, and serving through the Cold War, Vietnam, and Desert Storm until 1992, the USS Midway’s mission has been transformed to serving as an educational, museum, and commemorative ship. Admiral Chambers and Commander Jumper recount their experiences aboard the USS Midway as part of the historical record of the ship and American History, and the personal history of Major Bung, his family, and other Vietnamese-Americans.

uss midway1

Telling the Story of the USS Midway Photo by David Babcock

Commander Vern Jumper considers the events of Operation Frequent Wind and the USS Midway’s part in it both sad and happy.

“The people we rescued, if you could have seen their faces on the ship, it was so sad. And can you envision taking your family and driving over to Lindbergh Field and put all your worldly goods in a pillowcase and then get on some strange machine and fly out to sea and know that you’re never going to see your country again? That was the atmosphere that we saw, and it was very sad…”

But he considers the events commemorating the anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, and the successful lives of the Vietnamese refugees resettled in America a happy outcome of the efforts of the sailors of the USS Midway.


Photo by David Babcock




Clayton, I.B.  USS Midway (CV-41). Classic Warships Publishing First Edition, 2005.

McGaugh, Scott.  USS Midway:  America’s Shield. Pelican Publishing, 2011.


KPBS Public Radio:

Operation Frequent Wind:

The USS Midway.

The USS Midway –

The USS Midway Statistics –

Video of Major Buang Landing.

World of Warships –

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Confederate Spies and Pirates in Ohio, Michigan, and Canada


Photo by John Duguay

Kathy Covert Warnes

No Civil War battles were fought on Michigan soil, but many Great Lakes mariners and ships fought for the Union Cause. It took the Union prison at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky to bring the Civil War directly to the Detroit River and Michigan.

Escape from Johnson’s Island, 1864

 Confederates had tried numerous times to escape from the prison at Johnson’s Island in the middle of Lake Erie off of Sandusky, Ohio, but the record shows only a few successful escapes before 1864. The year 1864 proved to be a successful year for escapes. The Sandusky Register reported the escape of six rebel prisoners on January 4, 1864. The Register said that six Confederates – Major Stokes, Captain Stokes, Captain Robinson, and Captain Davis, all Virginians, Captain McConnell of Kentucky and Major Winston of North Carolina made a crude ladder by tying the legs of a bench with a clotheslines across a board at spaces of about three feet, about four feet short of the desired length.

The fugitives gathered as much civilian clothes as they could from friends in the prison. With Major Winston leading them, they crept on their stomachs past the stakes or “dead line” to the bottoms of the fence. The changing of the guard made this move even more dangerous. First Major Winston got over the fence, and next came Davis, Robinson, Major Stokes and McConnell. Captain Stokes went last and a sentinel spotted him, but thought he was a Federal officer.

At about 10:30, the men ran, slipped, slid and tumbled across the ice to the shore of the Peninsula. They could hear the sentries cry “all’s well” as they made their way through fields and woods and over fences. A few hours before daybreak they found shelter in a frozen straw stack. They discovered two horses and bridles in a barn, mounted two men to each horse, and galloped toward freedom.  The cold affected Captain McConnell so severely that the finally decided that he could not continue. Captain Stokes had not been able to get enough warm clothing and he too, decided not to go on with the others. He stayed outside the prison for a few days, but then returned. He refused to tell the names of the others.

Crossing the Detroit River at Trenton

The remaining fugitives crossed the Maumee River at Toledo Ohio, about daylight, joining workmen on their way to work. At noon they bought and devoured cheese and crackers at a country store, the first food they had eaten in thirty hours. The night of January 4, 1864, they passed through Monroe, Michigan during a snowstorm, and about ten o’clock they found a French Canadian who gave them shelter. They resumed their journey the next morning and after traveling about a mile, Captain Robinson discovered that he had left his wallet behind. The wallet contained papers revealing him to be an officer in the Confederate army. Major Winston went back to the house and retrieved the wallet without incident.

The fugitives arrived safely at Trenton, Michigan, and inquired of an old man about crossing the Detroit River. In the course of the conversation, the old man remarked that in eighty winters he had never seen such a cold snap. After dark the men ventured out onto the river ice. At first the going was smooth, but briers and marsh reeds made for slow progress. After about a mile, the ice turned dangerous. A storm a few days earlier had broken up the ice and the men had to scramble over piled up blocks of it. Major Winston felt the ice giving away and one of his feet broke through. He saved himself by leaning on firmer ice and his friends Davis and Winston knelt and pulled him out. His trouser legs immediately froze stiff.

The men did not know what to do. The sweeping north wind would eventually freeze them to death if they stayed out on the ice, but a return to the United States would be equally fatal. Davis moved ahead about ten feet and took a bearing from the North Star. The men could see a light burning on the Canadian shore and moved toward it. Near the shore they ran into another air hole in the ice. They slid up and down looking for firm ice, but found none. Desperate, they ran across the section one at a time. The ice creaked, but it held.

Finally, the fugitives stepped safely on Canadian soil. Davis bent over and kissed the ground as he had vowed to do if they ever reached Canada. They found a French Indian woman who gave them food and a warm place to stay. Then they were taken to Windsor where an innkeeper gave them room and board in exchange for their work as laborers. During their stay in Windsor and Montreal, they encountered C.L. Vallandigham, the copperhead leader who President Lincoln had ordered deported to the Confederacy and several of John Hunt Morgan’s men who had escaped to freedom.

Major Winston wrote to a New York merchant and received a $200 check to defray expenses and pay the passage of the fugitives to Montreal where they had other Southern friends to help them. They traveled up the St. Lawrence River to the ocean and Bermuda. Then they sailed on the blockade runner Advance to North Carolina and home.

The Johnson’s Island Conspiracy

One of the earlier 1863 escapees returned. Captain Charles H. Cole of Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry had been brought to Johnson’s Island in September 1863. Days after he arrived the Yankees sent him and some companions into a steamer hold to get straw for bunks. The other men collected the straw and left the ship, but Captain Cole hid in the straw and stayed there as the guard lost count of the prisoners. He huddled under the straw as the ship stopped in Sandusky for the night. Eventually, Captain Cole crept off the ship and posing as a civilian worker, escaped to Canada. The next year Coe came back to Johnson’s Island as a Confederate agent.

The Johnson’s Island Conspiracy is one of the names for the Confederate plan to capture the United States gunboat Michigan and lake transports like the Island Queen and the Philo Parsons of the Detroit, Island, and Sandusky Line. Various accounts of the conspiracy give various reasons the Confederates wanted to capture the Michigan and free the 4,000 Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island. These reasons included burning the buildings on Johnson’s Island, invading, terrorizing and burning Great Lakes cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo and striking terror into the heart of the North.

With the blessing of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the active, on-site participation of Lt. Colonel Jacob Thompson, former U.S. Congressman, Secretary of the Interior, later Confederate legislator and presently trusted advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the plan took shape. Lt. Colonel Thompson arrived in Canada in May 1864, and quickly marshaled his forces. Their primary objective, said Commander Thompson, was to send out peace feelers through contacts with influential Northern businessmen and politicians. If the peace efforts were unsuccessful, the alternate plan calling for subverting the Union forces using several methods, including capturing the Union warship Michigan guarding Johnson’s Island, freeing the Confederate POWS from Johnson’s Island and terrorizing port cities around the Great Lakes.

Other Confederates and Confederate sympathizers involved in the plot included Charles Cole, formerly of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, John Wilkinson, CSA, who commanded the Johnson’s Island expedition, John Yates Beall, of the Confederate Navy, Bennett G. Burleigh, a comrade of Beall, and Charles H. Cole, formerly of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. Captain Thomas Hines was recruited to be military leader of the conspirators.  The remainder of the conspirators was “Confederate prison escapees, refugees, soldiers of fortune, Kentucky cavalrymen, rapscallions and a few Union detectives and spies.”

Altogether, about twenty men had the responsibility of carrying out the plot which had been simmering for at least three years before it finally came to a boil. A letter to James Gordon Bennett of New York City from Canadian, dated Sandwich June 6, 1862, described the plot a full two years before Lt. Colonel Thompson arrived in Canada. Canadian requested Bennett to forward the letter to the Secretary of War if he saw fit.

The Conspiracy Downriver

Canadian described a scheme hatched in Sandwich and on the American side of the river by some Southern sympathizers and Marylanders to liberate the rebel prisoners on Johnson’s Island who had been there since April 1862. They first planned to charter a steam boat which had to be fitted up specifically for running, since she had not been in commission for some years. Then the conspirators had to abandon that plan because it would have been necessary to let the crew in on the secret, the expenses and danger to the owner would be too great, and a steamer entering the bay would draw more attention than a sailing vessel.

Instead, the conspirators decided to purchase an old sailing vessel and place it at some point in or near the Detroit River. One of the conspirators would be disguised and sent to engage a powerful tug to go for this vessel and arrive alongside it after dark.

Next, parties from the vessel were to board the tug, make prisoners of the crew, take charge, tow the vessel to Sandusky Bay, surprise the guard, liberate the prisoners, who are to be informed beforehand if possible, place them on the vessel, and tow her to Canada where they will be landed. This vessel will then be set adrift, the tugs crew liberated and the tug given up to them again. This plan will be carried out as soon as things can be gotten in readiness.

Canadian added in a postscript that for prudent reasons he had to use the nickname Canadian. He assured Bennett that he would call at the New York Herald office in the fall when he came to New York on business. He said that he would mail the letter at Detroit or Niagara Falls.

John Yates Beall and Charles Cole planned to capture two ships, the Philo Parsons and the Island Queen which he would use to overpower the USS Michigan. Then he would free the prisoners on Johnson’s Island and they could commandeer trains and begin an overland escape to Columbus, Ohio.

In preparation for his plan, Cole endeared himself to some of the Union officers on the Michigan and became their onboard guest. From this vantage point, he intended to send vital signals to guide Beall’s attack. According to local historian Theresa Thorndale, Colonel Cole was supposed to have possessed wonderful coolness and courage and ample resourcefulness, although she wrote “to outward appearances he was a coarse, uncultured man.”

Charles Cole Moved the Johnson’s Island Conspiracy Along

One version of the story said that “coarse, uncultured” Cole arrived in Sandusky Ohio in August 1864, dashingly dressed and smoking expensive cigars, with an equally stylish wife on his arm. He claimed to be a Pennsylvania oilman and sweet talked a meeting with Jack Carter, the Michigan’s captain. Charming Captain Carter into a detailed tour of the Michigan, the expansive Cole said that he would treat the crew to a champagne dinner to repay the Captain’s kindness when he really intended to put knockout drops in the champagne and commandeer the Michigan.

Cole had someone on his trail. John Wilson Murray, a Union Detective who supposedly uncovered the plot, published his version of the story in a memoir after the Civil War ended. Murray wrote that Commander J.C. Carter of the United States Navy sent for him and detailed him to special duty. He had heard talk of a plot to blow up Johnson’s Island, liberate all Confederate prisoners and take them across Lake Erie to safety in Canada. Commander Carter gave Murray an unlimited commission to get to the bottom of the plot.

Murray first went to Detroit to confer with Colonel Hill who gave him what meager information he had. The information included the fact that Clement Vallandigham, a member of Congress from Ohio who sympathized with the South, lived in exile across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Dressed like a civilian, Detective Murray crossed the River to Windsor and found a place to live near Vallandigham’s headquarters. He settled down to learn all he could about Vallandigham and the plot, closely observing everyone who called on Vallandigham.

A dapper, energetic little man who frequently visited Vallandigham’s headquarters soon captured his attention. Murray learned that the little man’s name was C. Cole and that he was supposedly a Confederate agent. Murray described Cole as about 38 years old, five feet seven inches tall, and weighing abut 135 pounds. He had red hair, long mustachios and grey eyes so small and sharp and bright that the first thing Murray noticed about Cole was his eyes.

Murray managed to overhear part of a conversation between Cole and Vallandigham that firmly convinced him that Cole stood in the center of the plot. Murray advised Commander Carter and prepared to follow Cole wherever he led. Cole left Windsor, with Murray close behind. First Cole went to Toronto, stopping at the Queen’s Hotel where a number of other Confederate sympathizers joined him. After long conferences Cole continued on to Montreal and Murray followed him on the same train.

The cat and mouse game began. Murray wrote that he felt somewhat like the underdog or the mouse, being only 24 years old, inexperienced as a detective, and untrained in shadowing, running down clues or solving mysteries. On the other hand, Cole made a good cat, being and experienced and trained agent who knew all of the spy tricks.  Murray followed him, learning and accommodating as he went along. The chase took place in Canadian and American cities.

When Cole alighted from the train in Montreal, Murray hovered a car length behind him. Murray followed Cole to the St. Lawrence Hall Hotel and watched a woman join him. Murray described the woman:

“She was an elegant looking lady, big and stately, a magnificent blonde with clothes that were a marvel to me. I did not know her then, but later she turned out to be the celebrated Irish Lize. The contrast between her and Cole was striking. She was big, stout and fine looking; he was a little, sandy, red-haired fellow, but smart as lightening.”

From Montreal, Cole and Irish Lize as Muarry heard him call her, traveled together to Albany. Murray wrote that he fiercely debated with himself whether or not he had enough evidence to seize them as Confederate sympathizers, but he knew that he did not yet have any evidence of a plot. He decided to follow them, expecting to be led South.

Instead, after stopping overnight in Albany, they traveled on to New York City, and Washington D.C., Murray trailing them from city to city, hotel to hotel. Cole and Irish Lize met several strangers in each city, evidently by previous appointment because they were always there waiting for the couple. In Cleveland, Charles Robinson, son of a former judge, joined them and they stayed there for two days before traveling to Sandusky. They arrived at Sandusky about June 20, 1864 and Murray arrived with them on the same train.

At Sandusky Cole posed as an oil prince and Irish Lize as his wife. They registered at the West House and appeared to plan on staying for a time. Soon after their arrival, they began to get company. A young man known as G.C. Bear and another called John U. Wilson of New Orleans joined Cole. The young men and Cole drank together and seemed to be well acquainted with each other. Cole bought fast horses and chartered a yacht.  He cultivated the acquaintance of the officers of the U.S.S. Michigan which lay off Sandusky and of the United States Army officers in charge of Johnson’s Island.

Murray reported that Cole appeared to be a free spending fellow who loved to have a good time. He became a favorite with both the naval officers aboard the Michigan and the army officers on the island. He sent baskets of wine and boxes of cigars aboard the Michigan and over to Johnson’s Island.

Murray reported the events of the past weeks to Commander Carter and Carter advised him to continue his surveillance.  In late summer 1864 Cole arranged for a party at the Seven Mile House, seven miles out of Sandusky and invited all the officers of Johnson’s Island and all of the officers of the Michigan. John U. Wilson of New Orleans helped Cole prepare for the party. Early on the morning of the party, Cole received a telegram from Detroit that said, “I send you sixteen shares per two messengers.”

The First part of the Conspiracy Ran Smoothly

 The first part of the plot ran smoothly. On September 19 1864, Beall and Burleigh boarded as regular passengers on the Philo Parsons, a ferry making its regular run from Detroit to Sandusky, making stops of Windsor, Ontario. This particular morning, sixteen men got aboard at Amherstburg, in Canada at the mouth of the Detroit River, carrying their luggage with them. They were the “sixteen shares” that the two messengers were to deliver to Cole at Sandusky.

About ten miles north of Sandusky off Ohio’s Marblehead Point, the 18 Confederates- 16 shares and 2 messengers – opened their luggage boxes and took out braces of revolvers. They took over the Philo Parsons and captured the captain and crew. Immediately the hijackers discovered that the Philo Parsons needed wood, so they headed back to Middle Bass Island. While they were there wooding, a second ferry, the Island Queen, appeared. Since the Parsons occupied its dock space, the Island Queen tied up to the Parsons.

The Confederates sent some of their men aboard the Island Queen, and caught the few of her crew aboard unaware. They ordered Engineer Richardson to get the Queen underway and when he refused to obey, they shot him dead.  As soon as Captain George W. Orr, master of the Island Queen realized that he was being hijacked, he resisted forcefully, but finally yielded at revolver point. The Island Queen captives also included 25 Union soldiers on leave.

At gunpoint, their Confederate captors forced the soldiers and the Middle Bass Island locals to load wood onto the Philo Parsons. Then, since they had captured one more ship than they needed, the Confederates made the soldiers and their other prisoners promise not to fight against the South and put them ashore. They towed the Island Queen out into Lake Erie, ran her aground on Gull Island and abandoned her. Then they steamed off in the Philo Parsons to capture the U.S.S. Michigan. Beall, Burleigh and the other conspirators pulled the Philo Parsons within sight of the Michigan and waited for Charles Cole to signal.

Charles Cole Captured and Exposed

 Captain Cole hadn’t been as successful as Yates and Burleigh. Cole watched and waited in Sandusky with his party that would take practically all oft he officers on the Michigan and on Johnsons Island to the Seven Mile house, well away from the center of the action. Cole and his deputy Wilson waited for the officers who were supposed to start from Sandusky early in the afternoon, to appear. They waited and waited. Finally, growing impatient, Cole told his deputy Wilson to see what was keeping the officers.

The two men discussed how to proceed and then walked down to the dock together. The spotted the Philo Parsons and Coe handed a ten dollar bill to the coxswain of the boat’s crew and told him to take the boys up for a drink. All went except the boat keeper who waited with Cole and Wilson and James Hunter, an officer of the Michigan who was ashore. When the crew returned they willingly pulled off to the U.S.S. Michigan which lay three miles off Sandusky.

About half way out, Cole, who seemed to have a premonition of trouble, decided to turn back. Wilson remarked to the coxswain that the pennant of the Michigan was flying. The coxswain said that he would have to continue the trip but that he would bring them back as soon as he had reported to the Michigan. They went on to the Michigan and the officers aboard greeted Cole cordially and invited him to have a glass of wine, apologizing for disarranging his plans or delaying his party.

According to Murray’s account, his friend Wilson turned to the orderly. “Tell Mr. Cole Captain Carter wishes to see him,” he said.

Coe appeared, smiling and merry. Young Wilson met him on deck. “The Captain wants to see you,” said young Wilson.

At the tone of his voice, Cole stopped short and looked at him, his eyes wary. Then he laughed and entered Carter’s cabin with Wilson.

“Captain Carter, this is Mr. Cole, a rebel spy,” said Wilson.

“Murray, arrest him,” said Carter to young Wilson.

Cole straightened and saluted. “I am not a spy. I am a Confederate officer.”

He thrust his hand inside his grey coat and pulled out his commission signed by Jefferson Davis, identifying him as a major in the Confederate Army.

“Take him and search him, Murray,” Captain Carter ordered.

Cole, accompanied by his former friend Wilson of New Orleans, now Murray of the U.S.S. Michigan, went to a cabin and a sentry was placed at the door. Murray searched him and found $600 in currency, some letters and papers, and ten certified checks for $5,000 each on the Bank of Montreal, Canada, payable to the bearer.

Murray laid them all out in front of Coe. Coe laughed.

“You served me well Murray Wilson or Wilson Murray or whatever the deuce your name may be,” Coe said.

“I served you the best I could,” said Murray.

“Sit down,” said Coe.

Murray and Coe sat down.

Coe told Murray that he was a pretty smart young fellow and concluded his remarks by asking, “You wouldn’t like to see me hung, would you?”

Murray said that he wouldn’t and that he hoped he had not been responsible in bringing about Coe’s hanging.

Murray wrote that Coe had the best nerve of any man he ever saw, not making a fuss or even changing his tone of voice. According to Murray, Cole offered him $50,000 if he would not reveal enough information to put a rope around his neck. All Murray had to do was give him $500 or enough money to get to the South. For a moment, Murray considered the possibilities that amount of money could open up in his life, but then reconsidered. He told Cole that all Cole had to do was send for Captain Jack Carter and suggest that Murray or Wilson be searched and that would reveal who had sold out his country. “Mr. Cole, would you sell out the Confederacy?” Murray asked him.

Cole considered his question thoughtfully then put out his hand and shook Murray’s hand. Murray left Cole a prisoner on the U.S.S. Michigan, “smiling in the little cabin with the sentry at the door.”

Confederates Aboard the Philo Parsons Downriver from Detroit

Meanwhile aboard the Philo Parsons, the Confederates anxiously awaited Cole’s signal. As the minutes on the ships clock tickled by, they grew more and more nervous. Finally the crew voted on whether or not to attack the Michigan without a signal. Beall and Burleigh voted yes, but the other 17 conspirators voted no. The Parsons turned around and steamed for Detroit. The Confederates dropped most of the crew and passengers on Fighting Island and docked at Sandwich, Ontario. They scuttled the Parsons and began walking toward Windsor.

In a letter to Captain C.D. Horton, Colonel Charles W. Hill, Commandant of Johnson’s Island Prison, reported the aftermath of the conspiracy. Along with a United States attorney, marshal and commissioner and Captain Horton of the Michigan, Colonel Hill evaluated the conspirators. They agreed that evidence was pretty strong against Merrick, Rosenthal, Cole and Robinson, and issued a warrant for their arrest.

Cole and Robinson were arrested and Captain Horton of the Michigan held them while Colonel Hill arrested and held Merrick and Rosenthal. Beall traveled as far as Niagara Falls where he was arrested, brought back to Port Clinton, Ohio and jailed. Eventually he escaped and returned to Scotland. The Philo Parsons was refloated, but burned to the waterline in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Island Queen was raised, put back into service and finished her career as a cargo carrier. Cole went to prison once again on Johnson’s Island, and his “wife,” Annie, returned to her profession on the Buffalo water front.

Professor Gil  Stelter Has the Last Word

Charles Cole managed to have the last word- at least an etched one. More than a century later, as Sid Jordan, a songwriter and volunteer guide at the abandoned North Quarry, clambered around a rocky ledge on the north shore of Kelley’s Island, Ohio he found an inscription scratched into the stone. The inscription read:  “CC 1864.”

A Canadian history professor emeritus Gil Stelter of the University of Guelp in Ontario feels that there are deeper dimensions and ramifications to the conspiracy then have been realized. Through three years of extensive research, Stelter discovered that a Scottish immigrant, Adam Robertson, established two iron foundries and a factory in Guelph. Bennett Burley, a cousin of Robertson’s and a Confederate officer and several of his friends, including John Yeats Beall, persuaded Robertson to make several cannon, cannonballs and grenades in his foundry. Robertson’s son, speaking in 1917, said that the conspirators planned to ship the weapons to Lake Erie to help free the prisoners at Johnson’s Island and capture the USS Michigan.

Dr. Stelter found copies of the conspirator’s correspondence in the Robertson home an asserts that everyone knew that the foundry was making more than plows. The Union Army discovered the Johnson’s Island plot and a parallel scheme to burn New York. It failed, but after an intensive reading of the correspondence and other documents, Dr. Stelter theorizes that the plot had a second dimension. He believes that the conspirators purchased a boat in Toronto and hoped to outfit it with cannon cast in Robertson’s foundry.

Robertson’s clandestine activities did not seem to affect his fortunes. His foundry continued to prosper and eventually he became mayor of Guelp. The only surviving cannon from his factory now overlooks Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay.

The unfolding of the Confederate conspiracy threw the United States War Department into a frenzy. Shortly after Beal and Cole and their fellow conspirators were arrested, Major General E.A. Hitchcock wrote Secretary of War Stanton a letter from Sandusky dated September 23, 1864. In his letter he strongly advised Stanton that the U.S. Government should have several armed vessels fully manned on the Great Lakes, so the Confederates could not seize commercial steamers and convert them into war vessels.

Major General Hitchcock reminded Secretary Stanton that Ex-Secretary Thompson was employed in Canada creating dangerous expeditions. He cited as his proof:

“The recent seizure of two steamers in this vicinity has indeed terminated disastrously for the projectors of the horrible scheme, but the demonstration actually made is a sufficient warning to induce our government to take immediate measures to guard against a repetition of it. It will be but an act of self dense, and from the disclosures made by Cole, now in arrest at Johnson’s Island, I earnestly recommend that not time be lost in putting afloat armed vessels upon Lake Ontario, and speedily upon the upper lakes also. We are engaged in war, rendering this step justifiable under the treaty of 1815, but it is my duty to speak only the justifying necessity of this case.”

Seven months later in April 1865, the Civil War ended, sparing Secretary of War Stanton the necessity of putting armed vessels on the Great Lakes.



Frohman, Charles E., Rebels on Lake Erie, Ohio Historical Society, 1965

Headley, John William. Confederate Operations in Canada and New York. New York: Neale, 1906. [Reprinted] Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1984.

Horan, James D., Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History, Crown Publishers, 1954

Kinchen, Oscar A. Confederate Operations in Canada and the North: A Little-Known Phase of the American Civil War. North Quincy, MA: Christopher, 1970.

Shepard, Frederick Job, The Johnson’s Island Plot: An Historical Narrative of the Conspiracy of the Confederates, in 1864, to Capture the U.S. Steamship Michigan on Lake Erie, and Release the Prisoners of War in Sandusky Bay, Cornell University Library, 1906

Starr, Stephen Z. Colonel Grenfell’s Wars. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Thorndale, Theresa, Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands, Ohio State Historical Society, 1898

The Sandusky Register


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Have a Happy Maritime Holiday Season!

copper harbor lighthouse

Copper Harbor Lighthouse- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Photo

Both fiction and non-fiction stories have been popular since sailors first started spinning yarns, so I hope you will grant me a little Christmas license in presenting some Christmas stories and some factual tales about how some of our most beloved Christmas songs came to be written.

Christmas Cheer

The November Abby Christmas Trees in Copper Harbor, Michigan


By Kathy Warnes

 Randy wasn’t looking forward to Christmas this year of 1930 in Copper Harbor, Michigan. Miss Bergstrom, his fifth grade teacher told him and his classmates that something called the Depression covered the entire United States and that’s why the mills and the mines had shut down. Randy knew from firsthand experience that the Depression had snatched Pa’s job in the mine away from him.  He knew that from firsthand experience that the Depression forced Ma to make him shirts out of flour sacks to wear to school and it forced her to pack blueberry jelly sandwiches in his lunch.

“Trade you one of your sandwiches for one of mine,” Randy’s pal Ben said one day at school in late November 1930. 

“What have you got?” Randy said.

“A bacon grease sandwich. Ma made it just this morning,” Ben said proudly. 

“I’ll trade you halfsies,” Randy bartered. “I’ll give you half a blueberry for half a bacon grease.”

“Done,” Ben said, handing Randy half a sandwich. “What are you asking for Christmas?” 

Randy didn’t even have to think about his answer. He forced a bleak, hopeless answer:  “Nothing.”

“Why don’t we go to the lighthouse after school?” Audrey said as she slid beside them on the wooden seat. “Ouch! I got a splinter!” she said, rubbing her leg and working it out with her fingernails. “Got it!” she said. 

Randy stared at her. “You are really a dumb sister. Why should we go to the lighthouse?”

Audrey stared back. “You are really a dumb brother. We should go to the lighthouse to ask Dr.  Vaughn for a job so we can buy Christmas presents this year.”

“Let’s go!” Ben said.

 They went to the Copper Harbor Lighthouse after school.

 “This is stupid,” Ben complained. “It’s Christmas time. Dr. Vaughn won’t be around now. He’ll be back in Chicago where it’s about twenty degrees warmer than 20 below zero.”

 “Dr. Vaughn has a caretaker and his name is Gandpa Cramer,” Audrey said.

 “You mean old Grandpa Cramer? What does he know that we don’t?” Randy said.

 “He knows a lot. He knows about the lighthouse and he knows about Douglass Houghton,” Audrey argued.

 “Everybody knows about Douglass Houghton. He discovered the copper here. So what else is new?” Ben muttered.

 “We need a job and Grandpa Cramer can give us one. That’s what else is new,” Audrey told him.

 “Well, here’s the lighthouse. Are you going to be the one to knock on the door?” Randy said.

 “Why do they call him Grandpa Cramer?” Ben asked.

 “Because his Grandma used to be the caretaker here before he took over,” Audrey said.

 “Why don’t people call him Grandchild Cramer, then? Randy wondered.

 “Stop being a smart aleck and knock on the door,” Audrey said.

 Ben had just raised his hand to knock when Grandpa Cramer flung open the door in their faces.

 “Gotta run, have an emergency in the harbor!” Grandpa Cramer exclaimed. “Come back later.”

 He hurried past them and ran down the dirt path that led down to the harbor.

 “What kind of emergency?” Audrey shouted after him.

 “Christmas trees,” Grandpa Cramer shouted back.

 Audrey, Randy, and Ben followed him down to the harbor that led out into the vast inland ocean of Lake Superior.  As they reached the harbor, sure enough they saw an army of Christmas trees bobbing up and down like summer swimmers soldiering in Lake Superior’s chilly water.  Several of them washed up on the beach and Ben ran over and pulled one of them further up the beach so it wouldn’t wash back out into the lake.

 Grandpa Cramer pulled several trees out of the surf and Randy ran to help him. Audrey ran over and stood in front of another batch of Christmas trees that washed up onto the beach.  “Leave them alone she shouted above the pounding of the surf. They don’t belong to us.”

 Grandpa Cramer kept hauling in trees and so did Randy. Ben was the only one that stopped and listened to Audrey. “Who do they belong to then?” Ben shouted at Audrey.

 “They belong to Lake Superior!” she shouted back. “They belong to a ship and the people that bought and loaded them on the ship.”

 “They belong to the people that pull them out of the water,” Randy said.

 “Tell him, Grandpa Cramer,” Audrey said.

 “They belong to us. It’s the law of Lake Superior,” Grandpa Cramer grunted and kept pulling Christmas trees out of the water. 

 Audrey turned around and ran from the harbor to the schoolhouse that stood a few blocks away from the lighthouse. Miss Bergstrom was still there washing the blackboards.

 “Miss Bergstrom, “what are you supposed to do with things that wash up on the shore of Lake Superior? she asked. “

 Miss Bergstrom brushed a lock of her blonde hair away from her forehead and touched the wrinkles in her forehead thoughtfully. “The tradition says that anything that Lake Superior washes up can be claimed by the person who found it.”

 “What about something  like Christmas trees,” Audrey asked her.

 Miss Bergstrom put down her washing rag with one hand and pulled her coat from the back of her chair with the other hand. “Oh dear,” she said. “It sounds like another Christmas tree ship has gone down. November is such a terrible time for Christmas trees on Lake Superior. Where are the Christmas trees?”

 “Down at the harbor. Ben and Randy and Grandpa Cramer are watching them.”

 “Let’s go rescue them,” Miss Bergstrom said. She didn’t say whether she meant Ben, Randy, and Grandpa Cramer or the Christmas trees.

 Audrey and Miss Bergstrom hurried down to the harbor where Grandpa Cramer and Ben and Randy had collected a huge pile of Christmas trees. Some of them were wet, but most of them were light enough to float and soon the water that had collected on their branches froze in the cold air.

 “Christmas trees with ready made icicles,” Miss Bergstrom said.

 As soon as Grandpa Cramer saw Miss Bergstrom he said, “I claim these Christmas trees by beach comer’s law.”

 “You can do that if you have to, Grandpa, but they probably came from a ship that’s still somewhere out in the lake. Maybe it’s still floating. What about the crew?  Are you going to take their cargo before you know if the Lake has taken them or not?”

 “It’s getting dark,” Audrey said. “Why don’t we pile up some of the trees and see if we can get them to burn. Why don’t we make a bonfire to guide the sailor’s into shore?”

 “You don’t even know that they’re out there,” Randy said.

 “I can see the money that we can get for those trees better than I can see the sailors,” Ben said.

 “I have four words to say to that,” Miss Bergstrom said. “Remember the Rouse Simmons?”

 “That don’t apply to these trees. That ship sank on Lake Michigan and nobody from the crew came in alive. The only thing left alive were the Christmas trees.”

 “Do you want the same thing to happen here?” Miss Bergstrom asked him.

 Grandpa Cramer put down one of the trees. “Well…

 Miss Bergstrom and Audrey glared at Ben and Randy. Together they said, “Do you?”

 Ben and Randy started piling up Christmas trees. Miss Bergstrom glared at Grandpa Cramer. There’s a firepot in the schoolhouse, Hezekiah.”

Audrey snickered. “Hezekiah??”

“Not now Audrey,” Miss Bergstrom said sternly. “We must get a fire going here. “You children pile  Christmas trees.”

She turned and hurried behind Grandpa Cramer.  Audrey and Ben and Randy had built a mountain of Christmas trees by the time Miss Bergstrom and Grandpa Cramer returned with half of Copper Harbor with them. Some of the women carried blankets and others pots of hot soup and hot tea. The men carried grappling hooks and a several lugged and tugged a skiff just in case the waves tamed down enough to allow them to launch it and rescue stranded sailors.

Miss Bergstrom searched the crowd with her eyes.” Hezekiah?” she said softly.

Grandpa Cramer appeared at her side with a firepot which was an iron pan with hot coals in it. Miss Bergstrom took the pan of coals and sat it directly under one of the tree branches. Then she put some small scraps of paper from her pocket on the coals and faced into the wind. The wind blew on the coals and the coals lit the paper. The wind blew the paper flames and fanned them into a strong, steady flame that caught the evergreen branches on fire and soon the pile of Christmas trees was a blazing mountain of fire.

“Anybody out there will see this,” Miss Bergstrom said.

“Nobody out there could have survived,” Grandpa Cramer said.

“Maybe somebody did,” Audrey said. “I think I hear something.” She ran to the edge of water straining to hear above the wind and the people sounds and the flames crackling in the Christmas trees.

“Be quiet everybody!” Audrey shouted. “Somebody’s calling for help.”

The people kept talking, the wind kept blowing, and the flames kept crackling in the Christmas trees.

Ben and Randy and Audrey all shouted together, “QUIET!”

The people stopped talking and moving around, but the wind still blew and the fire kept burning. Above the sounds of the wind and fire, Audrey and the rest of the people heard a faint cry. “Help!”

The men with the skiff hurried to the edge of the water with it and peered down the path that the flames made across the water.  Soon a huge wave swept a board raft carrying two men into the flame path. The men tried to paddle with their bare hands, but they were so weak that they didn’t make much progress against the waves. The men on shore quickly launched the skiff and rowed out to the raft. They pulled the men into the skiff and battled the waves back to shore. Just as quickly, the women filled the rescued sailors with hot tea and soup and dried them out by the Christmas tree fire.

 Audrey faded into the shadows beyond the Christmas tree bonfire, but Ben and Randy stayed by the fire long enough to discover that the two men had left Houghton for Copper Harbor on the Abby, carrying a load of Christmas trees to sell in Copper Harbor. The Abby had filled with water and capsized and the two men had managed to climb onto a wooden door and stay afloat until the people from Copper Harbor had rescued them.

“We brought you a load of trees, but we didn’t imagine that you would have to use them this way,” one of the men said.

“I’m glad you used them this way, but I have to explain what happened to the Abby to my wife. The ship was named after her,” the other man said.

Some of the women took the two rescued sailors up to their houses for some clothes and a good night’s sleep before they went back to Houghton to explain what happened to the Abby.

Grandpa Cramer walked over to Ben and Randy. “What did you boys want to see me about?” he asked.

“We wanted a job to earn Christmas money, but you probably don’t have one now,” Randy said.

“I have more than one,” Grandpa Cramer said. “See those Christmas trees burning?

“They’re still burning,” Ben said.

“When the fire goes out we need to collect bucketfuls of ashes for the outhouses. You know ashes are necessary to keep the outhouses cleaned out,” Grandpa Cramer said.

“Yes, we use our ashes at home for the same thing,” Randy said.

“We’ll have enough ashes for the school and the post office and the lighthouse for a long time,” Grandpa Cramer said. “We just need to haul them off the beach.”

“There are still trees coming in,” Ben said.

“That’s another job,” Grandpa Cramer said. “We need to collect all of the trees that wash in and dry them out. Then we can give them back to their owners,” he said, looking at Miss Bergstrom out of the corner of his eye. “Then, maybe they will sell them to us.”

“I already talked to them about that and they said we could have all of them that we can rescue.” Audrey appeared from behind Miss Bergstrom. “They are very grateful to us for rescuing them and they want their trees to be rescued too.”

By Christmas time, one of the Abby’s trees stood in the center of the town square with decorations made and hung by the children of Copper Harbor. Many of the Abby’s trees decorated parlors and sheltered gaily wrapped packages underneath their boughs. At Ben’s house, the Abby tree ruled over the kitchen, its boughs strung with popcorn chains and paper ornaments. Randy’s Abby tree stood on the front porch with suet ornaments, cranberry chains, and birdseed bells. Randy’s mother and sisters wanted to help the birds survive the Depression, too.

Audrey’s Abbey tree had the strangest fate of all. She put up her Christmas tree by one of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse outbuildings. Audrey set up her tree by the outhouse with the children’s seat because she wanted them to remember the Abby trees when they grew up.  They did.







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Veteran’s Stories – Charles Wedel

Charles Wedel of Wisconsin was just one of the soldiers and sailors throughout American history who faithfully served their country. We honor them all on Veteran’s Day.

Kathy Warnes

charles wedelCharles Wedel’s Submarine Service, World War II

The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company made submarines during World War II and helped the United States win the war. Charles Wedel served on several of them. Submarines during World War II comprised only two percent of the United States Navy, but managed to sink 55 percent of all Japanese ships sunk by the Armed Forces. Over fifty U.S. submarines were lost and over 3,506 men gave their lives for their country on U.S. submarines. Four of the lost ships – the Tobalo, Golet, Kete and Lagarto – were built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Charles Wedel Receives Submarine Training

Motor Machinist Mate 2/C Charles Wedel of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, embarked on most of his World War II cruises without even knowing where he was going until he was at sea. Then the ship’s captain would open the sealed orders and inform the crew where the submarine was headed. Unlike much of the Navy, the Submarine Service was voluntary and Charles explained his reasons for volunteering: “Either I come back all in one piece or not at all.”

In 1942, after he graduated from Submarine School in New Haven, Connecticut, the Navy sent Charles to Great Lakes Naval Training base in Illinois to go to machinist mate school. The machinist mate’s job was to make sure the engines on the submarine were always in running condition and the auxiliary equipment worked.

Charles Serves on Six Manitowoc Submarines

Charles served on six of the submarines built in Manitowoc for the United States Navy: The U.S.S. Icefish, the U.S.S. Sablefish, the U.S.S. Tautog, the U.S.S.Conger, the U.S.S. Sardia and the U.S.S. Cobia.

Each of the 28 submarines built in Manitowoc was named after a fish and any of them carried their own emblems. Generally, each Manitowoc submarine weighed 1,526 tons on top of the water and displaced 2,424 tons of water. Their dimensions were 311 feet by 27 feet by 15 feet. They usually carried 118,000 gallons of fuel, used diesels on the surface and electric engines under water. For weapons they used anti-aircraft guns, a 3-5 inch deck gun, six torpedo tubes in the bow, and four aft. They carried 24 torpedoes on long cruises.

mantowoc ships

Sideways Submarine Launchings Effective but Undignified

But before the Manitowoc submarines could fight the Germans and Japanese, they had to be launched and the topography of the Manitowoc River made this difficult. The Manitowoc River is shallow and too narrow for the traditional “down the ways” launch. In the past, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company had managed to overcome this drawback by constantly dredging the river, but they had never before launched a submarine.

A submarine sideways launch posed an entirely new set of complications. What about a broadside launch? Traditional ships had been launched broadside into the river, but never a submarine. These were un-traditional times. The workers made a model basin of the Manitowoc River, a twelve foot submarine model, and practiced broadside launching.

The launching of the first completed submarine, The Peto, occurred on April 30, 1942, when she flopped sideways into the Manitowoc River. A submarine commander called the sideways launch “effective but most undignified.”

Charles Becomes a Submarine Crew Member

An unforeseen benefit of the “most undignified” sideways launch soon became apparent. The sideways launch allowed submarines to be built on a level keel, so that torpedo tubes, intake valves and periscopes could be lined up with extraordinary accuracy. This benefit helped make the Manitowoc submarines the best in the American fleet and eventually defeated the German and Japanese Navies.

The submarine crews usually consisted of 80-85 men and officers. Charles remembers layers and layers of canned good stacked in the men’s sleeping department that they walked over until they ate their way through the layers. He also recalls that the showers of the enlisted men were filled with potatoes, but since they could take a shower only once a week, they usually ate the potatoes faster than the water could get them.

The Manitowoc Submarines Set Records

The U.S.S. Icefish served in the Southwest Pacific from the Hawaiian Islands to Southwest Australia. It spent the daylight hours submerged, surfacing only after dark to recharge it its engines and to escape the danger of enemy detection. Charles recalls that the Icefish sank six Japanese ships and did pick up survivors. These survivors were handcuffed to a skid and marched back and forth to the mess and other functions until the Icefish returned to port.

Charles and the other Manitowoc submarine crews accumulated an amazing record with just 17 Manitowoc submarines sinking 130 Japanese ships and a total of 486,000 tons of Japanese shipping. The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company built a total of 28 submarines, the 19th and 20th being cancelled as the sea war wound down. Four of the submarines, the Robalo, Golet, Kete and Lagarto were lost at sea. Many of the submarines remained active after World War II, and the Hardhead and the Jallao remained in the fleet until 1973. During the Falklands War, Argentina used the Lamprey and Macabi for parts.

Manitowoc Submarines were “the Finest of All”

Richard Ward Peterson, the first commanding officer of the U.S.S. Icefish, summarized the vital role and dangerous missions of Charles and his submarine mates when he said that the first patrol of the Icefish almost turned out to be her last. He said in his first patrol report that because of Japanese attacks and depth charges “all hands were thankful that we were in such a fine, sturdy ship. It is no secret that the finest submarines ever built were the U.S., World War II submarines and it is my own personal opinion after many years experience that the Manitowoc submarines were the finest of all.”

Charles Wedel Spends Twenty More Years in the Navy

After surviving the World War II Submarine Service, Charles Wedel spent twenty more years in the Navy, finally retiring with the rank of Chief Petty Officer, the highest enlisted rank in the Navy.


Gali, Fred, Gogats, James, Manitowoc Submarines, Manitowoc County Historical Society, 1995.

Nelson, William T., Fresh Water Submarines, Wisconsin Maritime Museum, 1986.

Keith, Don, Final Patrol: True Stories of World War Two Submarines, NAL Trade, 2006

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Gun Fight at the Cape Florida Lighthouse – the Seminoles Fight Three Wars to Keep Their Land


Light House at Cape Florida, Key Biscayne – Wikimedia Commons


by Kathy Warnes

During the Second Seminole War, James Thompson and his black assistant Aaron Carter, were at Cape Florida Light on Key Biscayne. They didn’t expect the Seminole attack.

Only July 23, 1836, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, Seminole Indians surrounded the Cape Florida lighthouse, howling and waving rifles. Inspired by Chief Osceola, the Seminoles were attempting to drive the Americans off of their Florida lands. .Assistant Keeper Thompson spotted the Indians as he walked the path from the kitchen shed to the main house. He ran for the lighthouse, shouting for his assistant, some versions of the story say his slave, Aaron Carter to follow.

The Seminoles Attack Cape Florida Lighthouse

The Seminoles fired a shower of rifle balls, but neither Thompson nor Carter was hit. They reached the safety of the lighthouse and locked the door behind them.

Next, the Seminoles set fire to the lighthouse. Soon the flames worked their way up the inside of the tower and burnt the wooden staircase. Thompson and Carter were in danger of being roasted alive, so Thompson decided to take desperate measures. He hauled a keg of gun powder, an axe, some loose shot and one of his muskets to the top of the tower, leaving Carter below to guard the door. Thompson grabbed his axe and ran to chop the stairs. He called Carter to help him and together the two men chopped through the timbers holding the staircase. It collapsed with a crash, providing a pile of extra fuel for the fire.

Fed by the extra wood, flames roared up the shaft under the lantern room. Thompson and Carter inched their way to the edge of the lantern platform which measured about two feet wide. Flames licked at the lantern and its lamps and the glass burst and flew in all directions. The clothing of the two men caught on fire. Still, they couldn’t move away, because as soon as they stood up they would be clear targets for the Indians.

Thompson and Carter Throw a Powder Keg on the Fire

Then Thompson decided that a quick death was better than being slowly roasted. He and Carter slid over, pushing the powder keg ahead of them. They reached the scuttle and opened it. They threw the powder keg into the fire below. There was a deafening blast and the tower shook from top to bottom. The force of the explosion extinguished the fire for a few minutes and piled up more wood at the bottom of the shaft. Revived by this new fuel, the fire soon started up again. Dense clouds of smoke billowed up into the lantern room, and the temperature soared.

Aaron Carter decided that he didn’t want a slow, fiery death either. He stood up. A bullet whined and Carter slumped over and lay still.

Keeper Thompson crouched alone. He discovered that no matter how small he tried to make himself, his feet stuck out. Bullets hit his right and then his left foot. He pulled himself up and climbed outside the iron railing that surrounded the platform and stared at the Seminoles below. He decided he would leap head first down onto the rocks rather than let the Seminoles get him. He started to jump, and then a premonition made him lay down again.

Thompson Waves Bloody Trousers

The next morning, Thompson watched the Seminoles take his belongings from the base of the lighthouse to the beach where his sloop lay anchored. They loaded the sloop with booty and sailed away. Thompson estimated there were about 12 Seminoles in the sloop. Other Seminoles hiked along the shore, obviously planning to meet the sloop at the other end of the island. According to Thompson’s watch, it was 10:00 o’clock before the last Seminole left the island.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, Thompson’s perch grew hotter, but he couldn’t escape. He was stuck at the top of the lighthouse, because he had destroyed the stairs. His assistant Aaron Carter, lay dead beside him, and he had no way to summon help. About noon, Thompson thought he saw a sail near the beach. He took a piece of Carter’s blood soaked trousers and pulling himself up to a half standing position, he waved the trousers vigorously. The sail passed out of sight.

Late that same afternoon, Thompson saw two boats approaching, but he was too tired to wave the trousers again. He watched one of the boats come right up to his mooring and he saw that a group of men in a sloop was towing his own boat. They put in at his landing and for a horrible moment, Thompson thought the Seminoles had returned. Then he saw that they were white men.

Bloody Trousers Bring Rescuers

Thompson shouted weakly and held the trousers up in the air. The wind caught them and flapped them loudly enough to catch the men’s attention. The men surrounded the lighthouse tower. They shouted to Thompson that they were returning to their ship for the night, but they would be back in the morning to rescue him.

The next morning the men returned and one of them carried a kite. The man tried to fly the kite across the top of the tower to get a line to Thompson, but he couldn’t get the kite high enough. Next, the man fired a musket with twine attached to the ramrod. The twine reached Thompson and he tied it to the tower. A tail block was hauled up and fastened to the lantern room around the iron stanchion. The men threw up a two inch rope and two of them climbed it, They treated Thompson and lowered him to the ground.

Captain Armstrong and a detachment of seamen and marines from the United States schooner Motto rescued Assistant Keeper Thompson and retrieved Aaron Carter’s body.The men took Thompson to Charleston, South Carolina, to recover from his wounds and he returned to the lighthouse service. The Seminoles continued to fight and gradually withdrew deep in the Everglades to avoid being sent to reservations in the western United States. Many of them still live there.


Brooklyn Eagle, July 29, 1851.

Mahon, John, History of the Second Seminole War – 1835-1842, University Press of Florida, 1990

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