The Lake Michigan Shipwreck J.H. Hartzell: the Woman Left Behind
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.”
Once again they sent the surf car out to the Hartzell.
By the time they began hauling it back, darkness had fallen, and the ship was nothing more than the barest shimmer in the stormy water. Twelve hours had passed since the Hartzell ran aground, a century when it comes to the rescue of Lake Michigan shipwreck survivors. The efforts had exhausted every rescuer and volunteer. But they pulled harder and faster this time, positive the surf car contained Lydia Dale.
They hauled the surf car ashore and opened the hatch.
The final two sailors came stumbling out. A horrified, confused silence fell on the crowd and their eyes turned to the tattered remnants of the schooner, now virtually invisible. Lydia Dale was still out there, alone, paralyzed with illness and with no one to help her into the surf car. She was a dead woman.
Then the crowd turned on the men, cursing them for their cowardice as sailors, as Americans, and as men. Just before the abuse turned violent, one of the Hartzell’s sailors cried out, “She’d DEAD! She’s already dead. Stiff as a board.”
He explained. The sailors did all they could to help Lydia into the surf car earlier, but when they realized she was dead, they did the only thing they could think of…
They lashed her to the mast.
The crowd quieted, stilled by his words and the haunting image of a woman helplessly tied to the mast of a sinking schooner in a storm. Most didn’t believe the Hartzell’s sailors or the captain, but there was nothing they could do now. They couldn’t even see the schooner in the October darkness, much less get a man across the chopping waves. It was hopeless.
Exhausted and weighed down with failure, the crowd trudged back to their homes, knowing they’d discover out the fate of Lydia Dale in the morning light.
Morning came and rescuers rushed down to the beach, half-hoping the cook had weathered the night. Maybe, just maybe—
In the growing early morning light, they saw the schooner aground in the churning water, but without the foremast. The waves had snapped it off as easily as a twig during the night, taking Lydia Dale, alive or dead, with it. The rescuers and townspeople of Frankfort would never known the cook’s fate or if the crew of the Hartzell had committed an act so cowardly, it edged on cold-blooded murder. The answers had washed away with Lydia Dale’s body.
Seventeen days later, a swollen and decomposed body washed onto the Frankfort beach, and the coroner confirmed it was the body of Lydia Dale. They hurriedly brought it to the coroner’s office for an autopsy. Death by drowning, even two weeks after the fact, can be difficult to determine, but Frankfort’s coroner was an experienced and highly-respected medical doctor, who routinely examined victims of drowning. If anyone could know, he would.
The last act of drowning victims is often the deep inhalation of water (aspirate), an involuntary reflex the conscious mind is helpless to stop, even if it means certain death. This inhalation will saturate the lungs and the bronchi like a sponge.
If Lydia Dale had drowned, then she was alive when the last of the Hartzell’s sailors abandoned her…and alive when the rescuers gave up. Hours later, the coroner confirmed: drowning.
Whatever happened among the Hartzell crew in those dim and dark hours would forever remain a mystery, but the coroner was almost certain that when that mast hit the water, Lydia Dale still drew breath.
A cry went out to catch the cowards of the Hartzell, but they were long gone and would stay gone. They had not technically committed a crime; or at least there was no evidence the crew had committed a crime.
In the end, when pen met paper and the official tale of the Rescue of the Crew of the J.H. Hartzell was told, it would focus on the heroism and cooperation of the rescuers and Frankfort citizens in battling the wintry gales of Lake Michigan to save seven lives.