Cowardice, Courage, and the Woman Tied to the Mast
Among the Most Infamous Lake Michigan Shipwrecks…
In 1880, a sudden squall sank the cargo schooner J.H. Hartzell in the shallows of Lake Michigan’s coast, just off the town of Frankfort.
The rescue efforts of the townspeople were beyond heroic; they battled impossible terrain, freezing temperatures, and a violent storm for 12 hours to rescue the ship’s crew, but failed to rescue the sole woman: a cook named Lydia Dale. Not for lack of trying, but because they had been told she was already dead.
Laden with 500 tons of iron ore, the Hartzell trundled into Frankfort’s harbor on the east coast of Lake Michigan hours before sunrise. The Hartzell’s captain signaled to harbor workers: the schooner would anchor off shore until sunlight provided better light for navigation. Sand bars were plentiful around the harbor. With such a hefty load, the schooner could easily run aground.
The ship’s complement rested up for the exertions of the next day, but before the sun even rose, ominous, cold wind slapped at the sails from the north. Snow and hail began raining down the ship. The anchor chains strained dangerously against the ship’s drift, but the building storm made it impossible to raise them.
Seeing the impending disaster, the captain ordered the anchors dropped. The chains instantly buzzed out of the ship, over the decks, and into the freezing water, and the Hartzell lurched like a blind drunkard toward the Frankfort coast.
Within minutes, its hull plowed directly into a sand bar, trapping the ship. The storm’s intensity increased. The waves the Hartzell had been riding now pounded and battered her wooden hull. They tore away the ship’s deck structures quickly until there was no choice for the crew but to hold fast to the ship’s rigging in the frigid air. If rescue didn’t arrive, the crew would drown a stone’s throw from the safety of shore.
The ship’s cook, a robust woman named Lydia Dale, was hit hardest by the tossing ship, with pangs of nausea so jarring she couldn’t stand without assistance. Covered in thick layers of waxed canvas, Lydia Dale merely hunkered down on the deck, as helpless as an infant. The crew hoisted her onto a makeshift platform on the foremast and huddled around her, all of them tied and tangled together in the hemp rope.
It wasn’t until two hours later that a boy from Frankfort spotted the floundering vessel and ran for help. As the volunteers of Frankfort’s Life Saving Service were gathered, citizens arranged burning logs on the nearby beach, spelling out: LIFE BOAT COMING.
Although experienced with Lake Michigan shipwrecks, the Frankfort Life Saving Service didn’t possess the equipment needed to reach the schooner’s crew. Another rescue service ten miles away had it. A messenger mounted the town’s fastest horse and tore divots into the damp sand, dirt, and gravel, reaching the station in record time, but getting there had been the easy part. Hauling the needed equipment back to Frankfort would be the real difficulty.
In the late 1800s, the Lyle Gun remained the most effective method of reaching distant ships and swimmers. Resembling a miniature ship’s cannon at only two feet long, the Lyle Gun weighed between 150 to 200 pounds and could fire a strand of heavy line up 700 yards. Frequent training made its users crack shots, the Lyle Gun remained in service as a life-saving aid until World War II, when it was replaced by rockets.
Once secured, lifesavers would haul the victim to shore through the water, or, in the case of a floundering ship, secure one end of the line directly to the ship, and bring survivors one-at-a-time on the taut rope just a few feet above the water. This pile of equipment, weighing hundreds of pounds and loaded onto a clumsy cart, had to get to Frankfort before the Hartzell broke up.
Two dozen men and two horses hauled the cart back Frankfort’s shore as town citizens hacked, slashed and tore at scrub trees and undergrowth so the Lyle Gun could be positioned above the Hartzell. It was a monumental effort, and the soggy ground sucked at the cart’s wheels like quicksand, exhausting the two dozen men and horses.
But time was growing short.
Hours passed before rescuers had the Lyle Gun positioned. Despite the blinding winds and sleet, they hit the Hartzell on the second try and the breeches buoy soon inched its way over the line to the Hartzell’s crew.
Once the first crew member secured himself in the buoy, two dozen men worked in unison to haul him back, his legs dangling uselessly above the churning Lake Michigan waters. It took nearly twenty minutes to get him across, and he was incoherent with hypothermia. A quick dose of liquor warmed him up. He explained that the ship’s cook—a woman—refused to get into the breeches buoy.
Annoyed but resigned, the life saving crew brought out the “surf car”, a cigar-shaped metal pod that was watertight and streamlined. Although awkward to handle, it could easily transport the frightened cook, and its welded rope anchors were as sturdy as any ever made.
The rescuers ran the surf car over the line and it skimmed across the waves, reaching the schooner quickly. Once the Hartzell signaled the go-ahead, the men on shore hauled it back, dragged it onto the beach and yanked open its hatch, expecting to see the seasick woman.
Instead, two of the Hartzell’s men popped out. Puzzled and annoyed at the cowardice of the men (women and children first was a sacred code of conduct for seamen), the rescuers hustled them out and sent the surf car back.
When it returned, the rescuers once again threw the hatch open, revealing the Hartzell’s captain and second mate. The rescuers tore into the captain, demanding to know why the cook hadn’t been sent. Refusing to look his accusers in the eye, the captain weakly defended his actions.
“She’s as good as dead anyway,” the captain said, “But they’ll send her the next trip.”