History’s Gem of the Month: Ship Travel on Lake Superior

August 2009

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, ship travel on Lake Superior was at its heyday. To help rescue ships that suffered the wrath of Lake Superior’s storms, the United States Lifesaving Service operated five stations along the southeastern section of the lake’s shoreline. Due to all the accidents, this section is often referred to as the “Shipwreck Coast.” There were stations in: Grand Marais, Deer Park, Two-Heart River, Crisp Point, and Vermillion Point.

The Grand Marais station was located at the west entrance to the harbor. It was built and placed into service in 1899. When it was completed, the station was considered one of the best in all of the Great Lakes. The station had 2 surf boats, a 34-foot self-righting life boat, and a full complement of beach apparatus.

Over the years of service, the crew from Grand Marais made hundreds of rescues. By 1935, 700 cases of assistance had taken place. The most spectacular rescue occurred on November 14, 1919. The Lifesaving crew, along with 4 civilians (Joseph Graham, Ambrose Graham, Ora Endress, and James MacDonald) set out to rescue the crew of the stranded steamer H.E. Runnels. The weather worked against them with blizzard conditions and monstrous waves. The rescue was complicated by ice covering the decks of the steamer. Although some of the rescuers were washed out of the lifesaving boat, no lives were lost. The crew members were awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal including John O. Anderson, Alfred E. Kristofferson, Leon E. Alford, George Olsen, Glen Wells, Edward J. Spencer, Russell Martin, William Campbell and Joseph G. McShea.

The original lifesaving station was replaced with a new Coast Guard Station in 1940. Although it is still standing, it is now a ranger station for the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

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