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Simpson Street Free Press

The “Mataafa Blow” of 1905 was Lake Superior’s Greatest Storm

Lake Superior has sunk over 500 ships, claiming an estimated 30,000 lives. This lake's ability to sink ships is primarily attributed to the terrifying storms that terrorize its mountain-like waves. With hail storms, frigid waters, and winds reaching 70 miles an hour, it's no wonder this lake has taken so many lives. Some ships have become famous, such as the Edmund Fitzgerald, but one legendary storm sank almost 20 boats in just two days.

On November 27, 1905, this behemoth of a storm hit Lake Superior, caused by a low and high-pressure system violently hitting each other. Some captains foolishly tried to brave the storm. Those who attempted had to retreat to their harbors or sink thousands of feet below. Capt. Richard F. Humble of the Mataafa decided to brave the storm, not knowing that the sheer weight of this storm would soon humble him.

On the first day of the storm, after 12 hours of winds reaching hurricane speeds, Humble realized that there was no way he could face the weather. With snow falling so quickly that he could not see anything beyond the ship, the crew made their way closer to shore. The captain said, "The sea [Lake Superior] had become so large that it was running over our decks on both sides." Humble, with his back to the storm, decided to sail back to his home port as quickly as he could, unaware of the horrors that would await him there.

Meanwhile, the R.W. England crew decided to try to conquer the storm like the Mataafa. The England was one of the large ships that made regular voyages around the lake. After seeing the true horror of the storm, the sailors decided to turn around. As they attempted to sail through a narrow channel to calmer waters, a strong wave threw them into Point Beach. Immediately, every lifeboat on shore was sent to evacuate the large crew, sealing the fate of the Mataafa.

As the Mataafa made its way up the channel, Humble decided to power through at full force to balance in the towering waves. Just as the harbor appeared, a powerful wave yanked the ship out of the water. As it fell back into the water, its sputtering motor sent the mighty vessel flying into the outer docks, crashing the ship within shouting distance of the shore.

A large crack appeared on the hull as the ship sank just 700 feet from shore. The captain reported seeing the iconic image of 12 brave sailors on each end of the boat, trying to avoid the ice-cold waters. The people on shore, who could not send lifeboats, decided to shoot a solid cable to the ship that could be ridden as a makeshift zipline. The first two shots missed, while the third froze solid. There was no way off the boat. Not until the lifeboats could finish evacuating the R.W. England.

Ten days before the sinking of the Mataafa, Thomas Woodgate received a letter from his father. He was about to head out on a perilous voyage. Little did he know it would be his last. In his father's letter, his dad wrote about his hopes to see his son at the end of the trip, commenting, "I hear there is more bad stormy weather, but as it would take all the Navy to sink the Kingston, I have dared to presume that you are safe." His father's presumptions were tragically proven wrong, as this letter was found in Thomas's coat pocket at the bottom of the lake, frozen in ice.

The now divided crew could not communicate through the never-ceasing gale. Two men at the stern attempted a dangerous walk forward to reach the captain and the rest of the crew. After each was battered with the waves and forced to retreat, Thomas Woodgate, the strongest of all the crew, stepped forward. As he advanced, the waves reached out to take him, and he survived three powerful waves before he was forced to retreat. Although he failed, a few more tried, and three brave sailors returned to the crew. The other half of the ship sank to the bottom of the sea.

Now reunited with most of his crew, the captain ordered them to retreat into the cabin. Inside, the crew burned whatever they had to stay warm while waiting for rescue. Then, after hours of waiting, the lifeboats at the R.W. England made it back. As the night of horrors ended, a lone lifeboat returned to the harbor with 15 cold, wet, and genuinely humbled sailors. Never again would they let their pride blind them into fighting something as unrelenting as the forces of nature.

[Sources: Lake Superior Magazine, Wisconsin Historical Society]

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