Souls, Steam, and Steel: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Michigan Freighter

By Uriah Cervantes

It may be justly conceived that among all the geographic wonders of the world, the Great Lakes of North America reign supreme. For thousands of years, mankind has stood in awe of their ancient majesty. Spanning over 94,000 square miles and holding one-fifth of Earth’s freshwater; the value of these lifegiving treasures can never be overstated. But good things may still cast shadows. The power of the lakes does have a dark-side, as evidenced by the thousands of shipwrecks that have befallen its vessels. Since the first sailing ship upon the Great Lakes, the Griffin, was lost in 1679 on its maiden voyage, multitudes of sailors have faced the prospects of death and misfortune with dauntless hearts.1 In both fair and foul weather, these brave souls stayed the course for the coming of industry. The sacrifices of their labors and, for all too many, their very lives have left Michigan and the Great Lakes region forever indebted to their legacy. The tragic fate of the SS Daniel J. Morrell and her crew was one such sacrifice.

At over 600 feet long, the Daniel J. Morrell was a steel-hulled, steam-powered behemoth of the inland seas. First launched in 1906 out of West Bay City Michigan, she served 60 faithful years until one fateful November night, off the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, a storm took the ship to her final resting place in the watery deep of Lake Huron.2 Of the 29 men aboard, one survivor emerged from the wreckage: 26-year-old watchman Dennis Hale. His and the Daniel J. Morrel’s stories will be told in the following pages. But to begin, a brief history of Great Lakes shipping is appropriate.

Stretching 2,340 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the western shores of Lake Superior, The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway has been a vital transportation route in the heart of North America since before recorded history. From the time its ancient inhabitants were coasting upon birch-bark canoes to modern mariners now guiding giant ore freighters, this system of rivers, lakes and canals has been an enduring driver of destinies. It has shaped the lives and fortunes of explorers, fishermen, fur-traders, settlers, sailors, soldiers, merchants, lumbermen, miners, manufacturers and more.

 

 Map – St. Lawrence Seaway.  Source:  www.mybaycity.com/images/st_lawrence_seaway.jpg

In connection with the waterways, innovative technologies have spurred extensive development in transportation, commerce and industry. The building of the Erie Canal (1824), the Welland Canal (1829), and the Soo Locks (1855) eliminated the need for land portage, providing unimpeded passage for vessels traveling from the Northeast to the Midwest. The Erie Canal connected the New York cities of Albany and Buffalo and ushered in the hordes of settlers heading west that would plant roots at various homesteads along the way. Most of Michigan’s agrarian entrepreneurs coming from New England in the mid-1800s took to these waters to find better farmlands. Soon after, the Welland Canal linked Lakes Ontario and Erie by allowing ships to bypass Niagara Falls through its locks. Finally, the Soo Locks connected Lake Superior with Lake Huron and the rest of the lower lakes via the St. Mary’s River. The movement of peoples, goods and ideas could from then on flow freely to stimulate ever-growing societies. Small communities, cities, and entire nations have grown up around the beautiful and bountiful Great Lakes and rivers. Urban havens and ports such as Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Duluth, Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago are prime examples.

Michigan’s economic history is largely the history of its waters. Fishing and fur-trading have always been present, with the latter being the driving force behind the state’s early exploration. Michigan’s early farmers came in waves from Buffalo to Detroit aboard sailing vessels. Agriculture, Michigan’s first major industry, was and still is heavily reliant on farm products shipped to markets on the eastern seaboard.  Water powered the mills that ground the farmers’ grain and those that sawed the logger’s timber. Each spring the logs were floated downriver to the mills in a process called “booming.”3 With help from the railroads, ships facilitated the movement of the forests’ bounties. Tug boats could be seen doggedly pulling log rafts as large as 25 acres across the Lakes.4 At its peak, Michigan’s lumber output was the envy of the industry in America. Its value had exceeded that of all the gold from California’s famed rush of 1849.

By the turn of the 20th century, mining had become Michigan’s major industry. The most efficient way to ship the precious ores was by water. Bulk shipments of copper, iron, salt, coal, gypsum, stone, gravel and sand all made their way from Michigan’s mines through the rivers and lakes to various processing and distribution destinations. Some companies who controlled mining operations, like the U.S. Steel Corporation, had their own fleets of ore carriers which hauled their ores to their own mills.5 Other fledgling enterprises benefited from this cheap form of transport. People came great distances by water to the bustling cities for factory and construction work.  Iron and steel trains and freighters delivered iron and steel ores to cities for the building of the first automobiles and skyscrapers. Ferries carried passengers, rail cars and automobiles over rivers and lakes to connect railroad traffic.6 Industrial supplies and goods were continuously shipped back and forth aboard various watercraft. Supported by Great Lakes shipping, Michigan enjoyed years at the forefront of the mining and auto industries.

The Frontenac, Painting by George Cuthbertson, 1930, Source: http://bobsnautical.com/pictures/GAC%20frontenac%20paintings004.jpg

Sailing vessels evolved drastically over the years. Until the first Great Lakes steamship, the 171-foot Frontenac, was launched in 1817, ships and boats depended upon oars, mast and sail-cloth to move them on the Lakes.7 The Frontenac was propelled by a steam-powered paddle-wheel, was of 740 tons burden, and only had masts, sails and rigging for auxiliary and emergency use.8 The earliest steamship on Lake Erie and the upper lakes was the Walk-in-the- Water, built in 1818 and wrecked in 1821.9 The Vandalia, 91 feet long and 138 tons burden, in 1841 became the first commercial propeller-driven vessel in the world.10 The Vandalia was better suited for bulk freight than its side-wheeler predecessors. In 1843, the British steam- gunboat the Mohawk became the first of the iron-hulled ships on the Great Lakes, and the USS Michigan the first those in the U.S. Navy.11 By this time, Congress had agreed to support the ships by financing public works around the Lakes. Dredging and the building of breakwaters, lighthouses and life-saving stations all assisted in making navigation safer and more manageable.12

The R.J. Hackett, built in 1869 out of Cleveland, Ohio, was a new type of steam freighter. It had a forward pilot-house and an aft engine room. The 211-foot wooden-hulled ship was designed without a large truss arch which was customary for the times.13 Its design allowed for bulk cargoes the size of which had not been seen on wooden steamers. In 1882 the Globe Iron Works of Cleveland built the first iron-hulled steam barge, the 282-foot long Onoko.14 At 2,164 tons burden, she had the largest carrying capacity of any ship upon the Great Lakes.15 The launching of the Spokane by the same company in 1886 marked the introduction of steel-hulled ships upon the Great Lakes.16 The Spokane boasted 310 feet in length and 3,400 in gross tons.17 Steel ships quickly replaced their short-lived iron counterparts, and their size and carrying capacity soon eclipsed even the Spokane.

 

The Onoko, 1920 painting showing port side profile as originally rigged; Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University, Source: http://www.mnhs.org/places/nationalregister/shipwrecks/onoko/cono1.php.

The Saginaw Bay Watershed, a longtime center for the lumber industry, also played a significant part in shipbuilding. It was from that region, on the Saginaw River in West Bay City Michigan, that the Daniel J. Morrel made its appearance upon the Great Lakes. The West Bay City Shipbuilding company was originally Wheeler and Crane, founded in 1876. From its inception, the shipyard went through a series of name changes: it was F.W. Wheeler and Company in 1880, Frank W. Wheeler and Co. in 1889, and it became West Bay City Shipbuilding when the Cleveland based American Ship Building Company bought it in 1899.18

West Bay City Shipbuilding constructed the Daniel J. Morrell for the Cambria Steamship Company.19 The ship’s launching on September 6th, 1906 was a monumental occasion.20 The Daniel J. Morrell and her sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend (built in Superior, Wisconsin by the Superior Shipbuilding Co. and launched on August 18, 1906), were at the time the longest vessels on the Great Lakes.21 Solid, proud, and defiant, the pair were the biggest and the best of the day. They would face the elemental forces of the inland seas until 60 years later when their illustrious careers were cut short by the same storm.

 

“Launching of the Daniel J. Morrell,” Source:
http://www.boatnerd.com/pictures/historic/perspectives/danieljmorrell/danieljmorrell-8-22-06-waf1.jpg.

Both ships were named after former top executives of the Cambria Iron Company: one for vice president Edward Y. Townsend; the other for general superintendent and manager Daniel J. Morrell.22 Morrell was born in Maine on August 8, 1821 to a Quaker family of English descent.23 In 1837 he moved to Philadelphia to work as a dry-goods clerk, and he later became an associate in the same business with his brother David Morrell.24 After that business failed, Daniel Morrell took a clerk’s position at another dry-goods firm, which he eventually became a part-owner of, and stayed with that firm until his mercantile career ended in 1855.25 Morrell would later serve as president of a bank and a utility company.26 He managed the Cambria Iron Company from 1855 to 1884, the year before his death.27 In addition to his successful business career, he served two terms as a Pennsylvania Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1860s. The great ship had been aptly named after a great American.

The Daniel J. Morrell had a gross tonnage of 7,239 and was originally propelled by a triple expansion 1,878-horsepowered steam engine with two coal-burning boilers.28 She boasted a beam of 58 feet and a depth of 32 feet.29 Her pilot house and crew quarters were positioned towards the bow; her engine room, galley, and more crew quarters towards the stern; and 18 cargo hatches were lined down her spar deck, each covered by a sliding plate of 36 by 12 feet, at midship.30 During the Morrell’s first two decades of service, the Cambria Steamship Company was managed by the M.A. Hanna Company. To represent her management company, the Morrell’s hull was painted a classy black and white with her smokestack solid black.  Representing the number of ships built by her shipyard, her hull number was 619, while her official number was 203507.31

 

“Downbound and loaded” (From the Russ Plumb collection), Source:
http://www.boatnerd.com/pictures/historic/perspectives/danieljmorrell/DJMorrell-rp.jpg.

The Morrel was a steel-hulled bulk freighter intended to mainly carry stone, coal, and iron ore. She broke load records early on, including a cargo of iron ore weighing a staggering amount of 12,000 tons!32 On August 13, 1909, the Morrell had an unfortunate accident in the midst of a dense fog in Whitefish Bay. Due to the adverse weather conditions, the Morrell and another bulk freighter, the Henry Phipps, sideswiped each other, costing the former $10,000 in damages and the latter $5,000.33 The Henry Phipps, built in 1907 and bearing hull number 623, had also came out of the West Bay City Shipbuilding company.34 Both ships were soon repaired and put back into service, with the Henry Phipps going on for nearly 70 years until finally being scrapped in 1976.35 It had been a close call with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The Daniel J. Morrell was well equipped with the latest technology of the time. Radio was still a developing medium, and the Morrell was of the earliest ships to use it. Used to communicate with ship or shore, radio could be accessed in the ship’s pilothouse or captain’s cabin. WWI (1914-1918) was a major impetus for technological advancement, including improvements in water navigation for warships. In 1922 the Morrell made history when she had the privilege of being the first Great Lakes vessel endowed with the new and highly accurate gyrocompass, the significance of which is honored by a display at the Smithsonian Institue in Washington D.C.36 The ship was again managed by the Cambria Steamship in 1927, until the Bethlehem Transportation Company (of Bethlehem Steel) took those reigns in 1930, although the former retained ownership. To reflect her new management company’s colors, the Morrell’s hull was painted a vigorous red and white, and its smokestack a vibrant yellow. Her double pilot house was also replaced.37 The aging beauty had been given a stunning makeover.

“Daniel J. Morrell downbound the St. Clair River near St. Clair Mi. November 25, 1966 about 5 p.m.” Source: http://www.mhsd.org/fleet/m/morrellpic.htm.

In 1944 the Morrell’s gross tonnage was increased to 7,763.38 In 1945 her boilers were replaced with new Babcock and Wilcox models.39 In 1956, the year of her golden birthday, she was gifted with a three-cylinder 3,200 horsepower Skinner Unaflow Steam Engine as well as a larger shaft and a bronze propeller.40 The new engine meant more power and a speed increase of 20 to 25 percent.41 This investment indicated there was still much faith in the old freighter, and for another decade she would serve her masters well—up to the day she made her final mark on history.

Dennis Hale was born on a snowy Cleveland night in 1940.42 Regretfully, the world introduced him to sorrow on his very first day. His at-home birth was a complicated one, and according to Hale, his eleven-pound weight likely contributed to his mother suffering a serious hemorrhage.43 She died bringing her son the precious blessing of life, and the event betokened a troubled path for the future sailor.

Hale’s father proved unfit to provide and care for his three children on his own, so they were sent to live with various relatives.44 Hale ended up staying with his Aunt Inez Harrison in Cleveland until they moved to Los Angeles in 1950.45 In the coming years, Hale’s school life was inconsistent at best, and he came in contact with the wrong side of the law at age 13 when he was arrested for grand theft auto.46 He moved back to Ohio to live on his father’s farm in Ashtabula not long after. There he learned work ethic and found religion in the Catholic faith.47 After two years he moved back to California to finish high school, and left again for his father’s Ohio farm in 1959.48

Hale served in the U.S. Army as a military policeman and a cook.49 After being honorably discharged, he worked as a cook and later as a chef at different locations in Ashtabula along the shore of Lake Erie.50 He married in 1961 his first wife, Bertha, and together, with two from her previous marriage and two of their own, they eventually had four children.51 It was during his time as a chef that Hale began to dream of a life on the Lakes. His wish was answered in 1964 when a call came from the Lake Carrier’s Association telling him to report to his new employer, Bethlehem Steel (who in 1963 had merged with the Cambria Steamship Co.).52

Dennis Hale started his time on the Daniel J. Morrell as a deckhand preparing it for the 1964 shipping season. It was an immediate match for ship and sailor, and Hale felt proud to be working upon her with his fellow crewmen. He had an admitted natural fear of the open Lakes, but his passion for adventure overcame those trepidations. Hale’s own words reflect his youthful enthusiasm for his newfound career:

The Morrell soon became my home and the men aboard her my family. For the first time in my life I felt I really belonged … I liked the life of a sailor pretty well. A deckhand does mostly manual labor … but I enjoyed it. I had a good time with my shipmates … When not working, we played cards, drank beer, and swapped the kinds of tales that sailors are known for. The food aboard was great … I used to raid the freezer where they kept a box of smoked chubs. Boy, there’s nothing better than smoked chubs!53

In his second year on the Morrell, Hale was promoted to deckwatch, received his able- bodied seaman certificate, and was promoted again to the title of watchman.54 Hale’s standard daily schedule was to be on watch from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., and again from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. where he’d “keep a lookout for ships, lights, buoys, distress signals, whatever.”55 Hale said of his routine, “While in rivers I usually stood right at the bow … When out on the lake, I usually stood my watch in the pilothouse, keeping one eye on the radar and the other on the lake.”56 In between those times he would eat, rest, and get in a little recreation here and there. Hale said of one of his favorite pastimes in those days, “I never saw a bar I didn’t like.”57 Sometimes he would get a  little too much recreation at the lakeside taverns, which on more than one occasion resulted in him missing the ship due to drunkenness after long nights of carousing. In other cases, it was just Hale’s own bad timing. This was the case on a November morning before the Daniel J. Morrell’s final trip in 1966.

According to Hale, the 1966 season “began uneventfully. We primarily sailed between Taconite Harbor, Minnesota, and Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, New York.”58 In August the Morrel’s Captain, Bill Hull, was replaced by Arthur Crawley. Late November saw the two sister ships, the Townsend and the Morrell, docked at Lackawanna (just south of Buffalo) to be relieved of what was supposed to be there last loads of the season. As fate will have it, Bethlehem Steel had other plans. Because one of their fleet’s other freighters, the Bethlehem, was experiencing engine trouble, both ships were ordered to sail to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota to pick up one last load of iron ore.59 The trip was to take between three and a half days; it would be their 34th of the season!60 Ever dutiful, the ship’s good crew would answer the call, and the old steamer would try her best.

Hale and thought he would have enough time to take the three-hour drive home to Ashtabula and return the next day to board the Morrell after it was unloaded and ready to sail. However, much to his chagrin, upon returning to the docks just before midnight on the 26th, he and John Groh (who had ridden there with Hale) spotted the Morrell’s lights leaving the harbor in the distance. Hale radioed Captain Crawley, and they planned for Hale and Groh to meet the Morrell at Windsor, Ontario where the ship would take on a 221-ton load of coal for fuel. It would be a call to forever change Hale’s life. Dennis Hale and John Groh had almost avoided the awful tragedy that was to come.

When Hale and Groh arrived in Windsor, they had to wait sixteen hours for the Morrell to arrive because it had been delayed due to high winds just south of Detroit. The Morrell arrived just after 7 a.m. on November 28th, and by 1 p.m. that afternoon she was passing the Townsend, which was anchored on the St. Clair River.61 The Townsend headed out at 2:53, almost two hours behind her sister ship.62 Both were only carrying their crews, coal, and water ballast. At the start of Hale’s evening watch, the Morrell had passed the Huron Lightship and entered Lake Huron. As his watch ended, the weather was far from calm but did not portend the conditions that were to come. Hale was reading in his bunk by 9:30, and at 10:00 he was turning out his bedside light. Little did he know how long the darkness was going to last.

At the time Hale laid his head to rest, northerly gales of 50 mph were conjuring up waves of over 12 feet, and by 11:15 p.m. on the 28th the two sister ships found themselves in the midst of a worsening snowstorm.63 The seasoned captains’ Arthur Crawley of the Morrell and John Connelly of the Townsend, with their ships still miles apart, kept in contact on their radios. Just before midnight, the Morrell’s captain contacted the Townsend’s. “I will call you back,” said Connelly.64 The last contact from the Morrell was between the two ships at 12:15 a.m. on the 29th.65 The situation was dire. Both ships were struggling and being blown off course. The winds were then roaring at the rate of 65 mph, the waves were reaching as high as 25 feet, and the sister ships were as far as 20 miles apart. The harrowing conditions were more than the old vessels could take. Within hours, the Morrell would be doomed.

At around 2 a.m., Dennis Hale awoke suddenly to an intense and disturbing sound. He first thought the banging was only the anchors ringing against the bow, but when the noise became louder and his bookshelf spilled its contents across his cabin’s floor, Hale knew something was definitely wrong. He reached for his lamp and found that it would not turn on.  Sparks from the emergency alarm was the only light in the room. He hurriedly put on a life vest but wore nothing else besides a pair of boxer shorts. When he stepped out of his cabin and looked left to the aft of the ship, all his eyes could make out was the top of the smokestack. By the lights of the stern he saw the Morrell’s torn and misshapen deck raised across its middle to a frightening hump. The bow was in total darkness, and its crewmen in confusion. Amid the chaos Hale was hit with the realization that the Morrell was sinking fast, and there he was with next to nothing on his body. He rushed to his cabin and grasped in its blackness for his clothes and boots, only to find his wool pea coat and nothing else. Yet he was lucky to have found that, as within minutes he would be off the ship and plunging into the icy waters of Lake Huron.

Hale quickly joined his fellow crewmates between hatches two and three to prepare to board the life raft situated there. It was designed to hold 15 men, but not all 14 crewmen on the bow could fit. Most of the men, including the captain and first and second mates, waited alongside or on the raft for the Morrell to sink, while no one tried to reach the two lifeboats at the ship’s midsection due to the damage there. Norman Bragg and John Groh were lashing themselves to the raft. Hale could see that the crack in the hull had started on the starboard side, causing the bow to tear away towards portside. Hot sparks and steam flew into the air. As he heard the steel “crunching,” the wind “screaming,” and the engine “crying,” his worried mind called out, “God, don’t leave us now.”66

Captain Crawley announced to the men that he was unable to send out an SOS because the power cable had been severed when the bow and stern had split apart. The general alarm was.sounded by manually wiring it to a battery. Here is Hale’s description of the captain’s final actions aboard his ship:

He’s saying that we shouldn’t have been out here in this storm, that he didn’t know it was coming. Captain Crawley also states that the sister ship to the Morrell, the E. Y. Townsend, is within fifteen miles of our location and that there are other ships in the area. Now he’s telling us that once the raft gets into the water we have to get into the safety compartment and fire some parachute flares as soon as we can.67

Hale’s racing head was concerned with the raging elements around him. The threats of exposure from the weather, explosion from the boilers, and impalement from the flying steel rivets all passed through his thoughts. He feared that the aft section pressing towards them would rise up and crush him and the others on the bow. He feared for the men on the stern. As his desperate prayers ascended to the heavens above, the rocking bow sent the raft and sailors to the icy waters below. Hale’s words describe his next recollection:

The shock of the icy water made me open my eyes, and I found myself disoriented by the blackness all around me. I saw my bubbles rising upward, and with my lungs feeling like they were about to burst, swam after them towards the surface with all my strength. I forgot I had a life jacket on, and it seemed that when I reached the surface I shot several feet out of the water.68

“Daniel J. Morrell” Painting by Charles Peterson, Source: http://www.decoratorsgallery.com/pet-ori/Daniel-j-morrell.jpg.

Between the lake’s undulating waves, Hale could see the raft by the light of its carbide lamp. After struggling against the sea for several minutes, he finally reached the small life raft. John Cleary and Art Stojek had also made it, and together they pulled Hale aboard. Soon they spotted Charles Fosbender and pulled him aboard as well. The four searched frantically for signs of their shipmates in the dark and violent mass of water, but to no avail. Not one more would join them.

The men pried open the damaged storage lid and searched the compartment for safety supplies. Fosbender found a flashlight and began waving it to signal the lighted stern he saw in the distance. He did not realize his mistake until Hale told him that it was the Morrell’s own stern drifting away from them. After they used a hand flare to warm their chilled fingers, Hale fired a parachute flare upwards, but it soon lost its altitude and its light to the swirling skies. The flare gun had broken apart, so Hale held it together to fire another round. It was no use. The only ship within sight was their own anguished Morrell. Of the freighter’s final sighting, Hale said this: “Our last view of the bow was its silhouette against the receding lights of the stern. Just before it slipped under, the Morrell’s bow was pointing skyward at an angle so great that no man could have remained standing on her deck.”69 Huron’s fury had claimed another victim.

All the survivors could do was hope and wait. They laid down to conserve heat and avoid the frigid wind and sea spray. Hale laid in the middle of the raft on his left side with Art Stojek and Charles Fosbender curled up behind him on their right sides. John Cleary lay on his belly in front of Hale. They wondered aloud over the plight of the men who had been on the stern of the Morrell. All four felt that they had likely not been able to deploy a life raft or lifeboat, and all four knew they were better off than those men. Still, their own chances were indeed grim. The air temperature was at the freezing point and the water was 44 °F. No provisions were on board, and none of the men were wearing sufficient protection from the elements. Hale was wearing boxer shorts and a pea coat; Stojek, a pair of pajamas; Cleary, blue jeans and a sweat shirt; and Fosbender was fully dressed under a waist-length jacket.70 All wore life jackets.

Art Stojek was confused and showing signs of shock. He and Cleary were both first year sailors, while Fosbender was well-seasoned. Hale and Cleary talked about family and how great it would feel to be home right then. Fosbender was quiet. Hale encouraged the others to stay awake and keep fighting, when suddenly he sighted a towering wave coming towards the raft.

With no time to warn the others, he hunkered down and braced for the impact. The wave nearly pulled Hale into the lake, but all four were able to stay aboard. No matter how they prayed, the storm would not abate. Hale shared this memory of the terrible moments before the dawn:

For hours we clung to the storm-tossed raft. The worst part was when a wave would pass over us followed by the frigid wind and stinging spray. I can still hear the screams of the others as the wind struck their waved drenched bodies. I screamed too, and prayed enough for a lifetime.71

In the morning twilight, Dennis Hale could see that two of his beloved shipmates had passed away lying next to him. Only he and Charles Fosbender remained.

The sun’s rays brought some warmth and hope, and the two shared feelings of longing for their homes and families. By mid-afternoon, Fosbender told Hale that he could see land in the distance. They laid and waited as the raft drifted closer to the western shore of the lake. Of those last heart-wrenching moments with his friend, Charles Fosbender, Dennis Hale lamented:

Around four that afternoon I asked Fuzzy whether we were any closer to land; he weakly replied that we were. I said, “Maybe someone will see us” Fuzzy said, “Well, they better hurry, because it feels like my lungs are filling up.” I said, “Can’t you cough that stuff up?” Fuzzy started coughing, and then he died. I nudged him and called to him but it was no use … I later learned that his chest was crushed and both his shoulders broken. How he was able to hold himself up to look for land, I’ll never know. Fuzzy had never complained about his injuries, but there was little we could have done in any case. When Fuzzy died, we had been on the raft for fourteen hours.72

Hale later expressed guilt and regret over the way Charles Fosbender died. It was just one of the many tormented memories he would have to live with from that day forward.

At some point after dark, the life raft hit rocks within hundreds of feet from shore. Hale could see the lights of what he thought was a farmhouse, and he began to yell for help. Paralyzed by miserable pain and cold, he spent the night in a seemingly endless cycle of screaming, praying and falling asleep intermittently. When the sun was rising on November 30th, the wind began to pick up and snow began to fall. With the actions of a loving father, Hale took John Cleary’s  hands into his own to warm them and pick the ice that had begun to form on the young deckhand’s fingers. Hale was suffering from a maddening thirst, from which his only reprieve was what little moisture could be sucked from the flare gun. By 12:15 p.m., when the Coast.  Guard in Cleveland received word that the Morrell was missing, Hale was approaching the very brink of death.

While the rescue team was en route, Hale was slipping away. He was experiencing visions of a spiritual nature. On the raft he saw a venerable man dressed in white. The man warned him not to eat the ice from his pea coat lest it lower his body temperature. Whether a divine presence or a trick of the mind, Hale obeyed and was comforted by the words of the man he referred to as “Doc.” Hale also claimed to have an out-of-body experience where he had left the raft and entered a heavenly place of joy and peace. There he saw loved ones and kind strangers, including a mysterious man bearing a golden crown. To his astonishment, Hale said he encountered his lost ship and fellow crewmen in that fantastic realm. “It’s not your time yet,”  they told him with saddened eyes.73 Reluctantly, Hale’s attention turned back to the raft. As he awoke, he saw “Doc” looking after him again. When the two Coast guard helicopters finally arrived, Hale mistook them for seagulls until his eyes and mind came back into focus. It was now 4 p.m.—38 long hours after the Morrell had sunk.74

Photo of Dennis Hale’s rescue. Source: https://www.freep.com/story/news/obituary/2015/09/02/daniel-j-morrell-shipwreck-great-lakes-dennis-hale-obituary/71604532/.

Dennis Hale’s deadly ordeal took a heavy toll on his mind and body. His temperature had fallen to 94 degrees. He had broken ribs, a gash on his chin, and early signs of frostbite. Unsure if he would live or die, he gave confession and received his Last Rites from a Catholic priest.

When it was finally revealed to him that he was the only survivor, Hale was in disbelief. His total hospitalization time was about two weeks, after which he returned home to recuperate. By sheer will he had defied and defeated the dreaded Witch of November. But his fight was far from over. The unseen psychological repercussions of that day haunted him to no end. Although he eventually got the best of his demons, it was a long and sometimes very dark road.

Dennis Hale recovering in the hospital. Source:
https://www.freep.com/story/news/obituary/2015/09/02/daniel-j-morrell-shipwreck-great-lakes-dennis-hale-obituary/71604532/.

The vigilant Coast Guard brought 22 of the lost men home to be laid to rest with loved ones. According to the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation Report, dated March 24, 1967 and released March 4, 1968, six sailors were not recovered.75 The same report pinpointed the location of the sinking at 44°15.9’N and 82°50’W.76 To this day, the Morrel’s stern resides there under 200 feet of water on the bottom of Lake Huron.77 Her bow rests five miles to the northeast. The report concluded that the ship split apart was due to a structural failure in the midship hull girder. Furthermore, it was found that the ship’s steel, of a type that was abandoned by shipbuilders in 1948, was subject to becoming brittle in the weather conditions which prevailed that fateful night. In fact, the Edward Y. Townsend suffered a crack in her hull which was nearly identical to the one that plagued her sister ship, the Morrell, during the same storm. The Townsend barely made it back to port and was soon retired.

In a response to an inquiry by Representative William Stanton which was prompted by a letter from Dennis Hale, the U.S. Coast Guard said the following:

Consideration was given to the possible need for strengthening the main hull girder of all Great Lakes dry cargo vessels built prior to 1948. An evaluation of the possibility revealed that the designed strength of these vessels was adequate provided that maintenance was good. A special examination of Great Lakes cargo vessels was initiated in the winter of 1966-1967 to verify that the vessels were in a suitable condition for winter navigation.78

The same report highlighted that regulations had been put into place for the requirement of life rafts which would accommodate entire crews, the development and deployment of thermal protective suits, and education manuals purposed to provide information on safe ship loading procedures and open sea survival.79 Ultimately, whatever the true causes of the Morrel’s final,

ill-fated voyage, a new and concerted awareness was brought to the forefront of Great Lakes shipping. Michigan based historian William Ratigan summed it up nicely with these words: “A number of other safety recommendations and regulations were to memorialize the Morrell, but the keynote had been sounded: No longer would iron men be sent out to engage the elements with aging ships and brittle steel.”80

Sadly, the Daniel J. Morrell was certainly not the first great ship to sink on the Great Lakes. In November of 1958, the Carl D. Bradley and 33 of its 35 sailors were lost in a storm on Lake Michigan. The Edmund Fitgerald, immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot’s solemn folk song, was lost in November of 1975 with its entire 29-man crew. It was the last major calamity on the Lakes. Estimates for the number of shipwrecks upon the Great Lakes have exceeded 6,000, and the loss of life has been guessed to lie beyond 30,000. This heart-wrenching reality is an immeasurable loss. No quantitative data can reflect the untimely sacrifice of precious life.

Dennis Hale in later years. Source: http://www.mlive.com/news/bay-city/index.ssf/2015/09/sole_survivor_of_1966_great_la.html.

In yet another precious loss, Dennis Hale passed away in 2015 after a battle with cancer.  Much of his life after the wreck was devoted to telling the story of the Morrell and her brotherhood of sailors. Though we’ve no power to restore our fallen brethren, we can honor their legacy by keeping their memory alive and staying vigilantly on a course for safer sailing conditions in the future. The Daniel J. Morrell was a wonder of a ship; a magnificent example of man’s quest to conquer nature. Her captain and crew were true-hearted sailors; warriors of the Lakes to the bitter end. Their loss is our loss. By reflecting on the history of maritime tragedies, we can put into perspective the weight of their great sacrifice. We also find love and heroism. By the pains of seafarers’ labors, Michigan has grown into a land of limitless potential. As Michiganians and Americans, may we forever feel grateful and blessed to call them our own.

Notes

1 Willis F. Dunbar and George S. Mays, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 37, 38.

2 Frederick Stonehouse, Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast (AuTrain: Avery Color Studios, 1985), 149, 150.

3 Willis F. Dunbar and George S. Mays, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 341-342.

4 James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes (Holt: Thunder Bay Press, 1996), 160, 161.

5 Willis F. Dunbar and George S. Mays, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 364.

6 Ibid., 374.

7 James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes (Holt: Thunder Bay Press, 1996), 39.

8 Ibid.

9 Willis F. Dunbar and George S. Mays, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 159.

10 James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes (Holt: Thunder Bay Press, 1996), 52, 53.

11 Ibid., 58, 59.

12 Bruce Catton, Michigan: A History (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1984), 150, 151.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 136.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 136, 137.

17 James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes (Holt: Thunder Bay Press, 1996), 136, 137.

18 “Frank W. Wheeler and Co., West Bay City Michigan,” Shipbuilding History, last modified April 29, 2016, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/19thcentury/wheeler.htm.

19 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009), 16.

20 “Frank W. Wheeler and Co., West Bay City Michigan,” Shipbuilding History, last modified April 29, 2016, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/19thcentury/wheeler.htm.

21 “Townsend, Edward Y.,” Great Lakes Vessel History, http://www.greatlakesvesselhistory.com/histories- by-name/t/townsend-edward-y/

22 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009),  16.

23 “Daniel Johnson Morrell,” Johnstown Flood, National Park Service, last modified November 10, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/jofl/learn/historyculture/daniel-johnson-morrell.htm.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Michael Schumacher, Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell and One Man’s Survival on the Open Sea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 4.

27 Ibid.

28 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009), 17.

29 “Frank W. Wheeler and Co., West Bay City Michigan,” Shipbuilding History, last modified April 29, 2016, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/19thcentury/wheeler.htm.

30 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009), 17.

31   “Frank W. Wheeler and Co., West Bay City Michigan,” Shipbuilding History, last modified April 29, 2016, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/19thcentury/wheeler.htm.

32 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009), 18.

33 Frederick Stonehouse, Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast (AuTrain: Avery Color Studios, 1985), 149.

34 “Frank W. Wheeler and Co., West Bay City Michigan,” Shipbuilding History, last modified April 29, 2016, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/19thcentury/wheeler.htm.

35 Ibid.

36 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009), 18.

37 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 10.

38 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009), 17.

39 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 11.

40 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 11. 41 Andrew Kantar, Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2009),17.

42 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 7.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., 7, 9.

46 Ibid., 10.

47 Ibid., 11, 12.

48 Ibid., 13.

49 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 15.

50 Ibid., 16.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., 19.

53 Ibid., 18, 19.

54 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 21-22.

55 Ibid., 22

56 Ibid.

57 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 12.

58 Ibid., 21.

59 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 21.

60 Ibid., 21, 22.

61 Ibid., 25.

62 Ibid.

63 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 84, 85.

64 Ibid., 85.

65 Ibid., 85

66 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 34.

67 Dennis Hale, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor (Rock Creek: Dennis N. Hale, 2010), 37.

68 Ibid., 34.

69 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 35.

70 Ibid., 38.

71 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 38.

72 Ibid., 39.

73 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 45.

74 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 45.

75 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 74, 113.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid., 59, 111.

78 Dennis Hale, Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale’s Own Story (Lexington: Lakeshore Charters and Marine Exploration, Inc., 1996), 130, 131.

79 Ibid.

80 William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals (New York: Galahad Books, 1994), 162.

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