The steam-powered Coast Guard ship chugged out of Buffalo to its station on Lake Erie between Sturgeon Point and Point Abino, where it was to anchor as a floating lighthouse for the Great Lakes shipping.
Light Vessel 82’s mission was to warn ships coming and going from the Buffalo Harbor of the treacherous rocky shoals beneath the lake’s northern shore.
But in the fall of 1913, as the six-member crew of the lighthouse vessel sailed out, two fronts collided over the warm lake waters, resulting in hurricane force winds that blasted the region for three days and nights. The crew aboard the lighthouse vessel was battling 35-foot waves, snow and sleet and 80 mph winds.
Hugh M. Williams, the Light Vessel’s captain, made a fateful decision. He lowered anchor so that his vessel would continue to warn other ships during the horrific storm. Although that decision cost him and his crew members’ lives, it also may have saved the lives of other sailors in the vicinity of Buffalo Harbor, one of the busiest ports in the world a century ago.
Exactly when the 100-foot-long Light Vessel sank in 60 feet of water some 2 miles northwest of Crystal Beach, is unknown, but when the “White Hurricane” stopped blowing, the six Coast Guardsmen were among some 240 others who died in the storm that raged from Nov. 7 to 10, 1913. Eighteen other ships also sank.
At 3 p.m. today,three descendants of Capt. Williams will visit a memorial plaque at Crystal Beach’s Waterfront Park and participate in a service commemorating the sacrifices Williams and the other crew members made.
At 1 p.m. Saturday, aboard the USS Little Rock at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, they will take turns ringing the ship’s bell in honor of the lost shipmates.
“It will be very emotional. It’s not just about grandpa, but all who lost their lives on that ship,” said Bruce O’Connor, the 72-year-old grandson of Williams. “My grandfather is part of the history of the Williams family on my mother’s side. We heard all about grandpa losing his life in 1913 in that horrible storm.”
For O’Connor’s sister, 71-year-old Patricia Sharp, the two days of events will provide the family, who traveled here from Michigan, with a chance to formally recognize the crew’s heroism a century later.
“My mother would have been very, very pleased that this is happening, and I certainly will be there for her,” Sharp said of Hazel O’Connor, who died in the 1980s. “She was the oldest daughter of Mary and Hugh’s three children. It was horrible for my mother. She was 9. She secretly always suspected he was coming back.”
A distressed widow
So distraught was the widow of LV-82’s captain, that Mary A. Williams traveled from their home in Manistee, Mich., to Buffalo to join in the search for her husband’s remains, scouring the lake and shoreline. His body was never found.
In 1941, Mary was buried beside her husband’s empty grave.
On the tombstone, beneath the sea captain’s name, three words say it all:
“Lost At Sea.”
O’Connor and Sharp said they look forward to personally thanking the three local historians from Fort Erie, Ont., who eight years ago began a quest to raise $4,000 for the plaque that is now affixed to a massive stone at Waterfront Park, which also has maritime artifacts on display. It includes a propeller blade from the Canadiana, the vessel that transported many generations of Buffalonians to the amusement park at Crystal Beach.
The plaque was unveiled a year ago, but relatives of Capt. Williams only learned of it sometime after stories about the event were published in Michigan newspapers. Since then, they have been exchanging emails with the historians and working out arrangements for the visit here.
Calling themselves the “LV-82 Canadian Group,” John Robbins, Rick Doan and Paul Kassay Jr. say they dug through old records, mostly newspaper stories, to piece together an accurate account of how LV-82 sank for the inscription on the plaque, along with a likeness of the ship.
Robins said he had been troubled for years that there was no formal recognition for the heroics of the LV-82 crew. The ship was built in 1912 at Muskegon, Mich., by the Racine-Truscott-Shell Boat Co.
A 90-horsepower steam engine turned the vessel’s 5-foot iron propellers. Kerosene fueled the light beacon magnified by a cluster of lenses atop a 21-foot center pole. A fog horn and bells also sounded warnings to ships veering off course as they made their way in the waters off Buffalo.
“This was state-of-the-art technology for that time on those vessels,” Robbins said.
The floating lighthouse ships were operated by what was then known as the United States Light-House Establishment, later consolidated into the Coast Guard. No matter what nature presented, the ships were expected to be at their stations, key locations on Lake Erie and elsewhere on the Great Lakes, even in the roughest of seas.
“There was no question about manning a station. If you were on a Light Vessel, you had to be there,” Doan said.
Because of the “White Hurricane” conditions, heavy snow and sleet diminishing visibility, the ship’s horn and bells most likely served as alerts to other vessels caught in the storm, according to Robbins.
Standing their ground
“The captain made a conscious decision to stand their ground when he ordered the anchor to be lowered, quite knowing they might die to save other sailors,” Robbins said.
And that is exactly what happened. The plaque lists the names of all six crew members lost to the storm: Williams; Chief Engineer Charles Butler of Buffalo; Assistant Engineer Cornelius Leahy of Elyria, Ohio; Mate Andrew Leahy, the brother of Cornelius; Seaman William Jensen of Muskegon; and Cook Peter Mackey of Buffalo.
Searchers located the sunken vessel on May 9, 1914, off Crystal Beach, but the bodies of the crew members were missing. Lake Erie gave up only one of the bodies, but much later.
A year after the catastrophe, Butler’s body washed ashore in Buffalo Harbor.
It took two years before workers recovered and managed to tow the ship into shallow waters not far from the Crystal Beach dock. Sand and water were pumped from its unscathed hull as workers made the vessel seaworthy to the point that it was recommissioned under a different name that has since been lost to time.
“I was shocked when I learned the ship was returned to service,” Doan said. “I certainly would not have wanted to be on that ship.”
The need for a Light Vessel near Point Abino was eliminated when the Canadian government responded to the tragedy several years later by building a light house in 1918, which continued to serve boats for decades until it was decommissioned in the 1990s and declared a National Historic Site in 1998.
“Ships today use satellite technology and other high-tech equipment to guide them,” Doan said.
Nature, though, still causes havoc.
The Edmund Fitzgerald
Historians believe the 1913 superstorm was caused when two major weather fronts collided and drew moisture from the warm waters in the lakes, producing a fearsome “November gale.” Those same warm waters generate lake-effect snowstorms.
This weather dynamic in more modern times reared itself and contributed to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, killing the crew as the lake freighter sank in more than 500 feet of water in Lake Superior. A year later, the event was memorialized in song by Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot, whose lyrics seem to touch on the events of 1913.
“... And farther below Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her, And the iron boats go as the mariners all know with the Gales of November remembered.”
But today and Saturday will not be so tragic for the descendants of Capt. Williams, as they spend time recalling the bravery of the man and his crew.
“The grandchildren found us,” Kassay said. “They were delighted by what we have done.”