The SS James Carruthers was a Canadian Great Lakes cargo-bulk carrier built in 1913. The ship was owned by the St. Lawrence & Chicago Steam and Navigation Company out of Toronto, Ontario, with the official registry number 131090.
She was a steel hulled, steam propeller driven lake freighter; 550 feet in length, 58 feet wide and 27 feet deep. The gross tonnage was 7862 and the net tonnage 5606.
Her last voyage was from Fort William Ontario, and was sailing to Midland, Ontario at Georgian Bay. She was loaded with a total of 375,000 bushels of wheat when she set off.
The ship was was that new that some of the crew were complaining that the fo’c’sle was still covered in sticky paint. Captain William H. Wright, their skipper had conferred with another down-bound skipper, S.A. Lyons of the J.H.Sheadle, and planned to travel down Lake Superior together.
Wright seemingly commented on his new boat, “We’ve still to learn all her tricks”. Capt. W. H. Wright, was an experienced captain who had been master of the James Carruthers since her first trip at the commencement of the season, has been master of most of the vessels of the St. Lawrence and Chicago Steam Navigation Co.’s fleet. He was promoted from the command of the E. B. Osler, which until the launching of the James Carruthers, was the largest of the company’s vessels.
Sadly they set out as the Great Lakes Storm, hurricane like blizzard that devastated the Great Lakes in 1913. The storm is considered the most destructive natural disaster ever on the Great Lakes. It destroyed 19 ships and is blamed for 250 deaths. Accounts from the time described 90-mph wind gusts, 35-foot waves and whiteout conditions.
By 3 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, November 8, the first hints of the storm blew over Lake Superior. The winds quickly shifted from southwest to northwest, bringing with them freezing temperatures, snow squalls, and high waves. The Carruthers and the Sheadle were better than halfway to the ‘Soo’ Locks when the storm hit. The Locks, sit between Lake Huron and Lake Superior allowing ships to bypass the falls and rapids of the St Mary River.
By the evening, both vessels were locking through and snaking their way down the river. While going down the Canadian freighter passed the upbound Midland Prince. Angus “Ray” McMillan, wheelsman of the Carruthers, sighted his friend Jack Daley aboard the Prince and yelled out, “We’re going to Midland this time, Jack! I’ll tell your father we passed you!”
At 12:53 on the morning of Sunday, November 9, the Carruthers was sighted taking on coal at the Picklands, Mather & Company dock near De Tour, Michigan . Shortly after refueling, the James Carruthers entered Lake Huron, with the J.H. Sheadlea short distance behind. The lights of the Carruthers were visible for a short time aboard the Sheadle as they sailed on a southeastern heading. A little after dawn, the Carruthers turned to port on a course that would keep her south of Great Duck Island and on a straight line for Georgian Bay.
The SS James Carruthers hasn’t been seen since.
After the Storm
After the great storm finally blew itself out late on Monday, November 10, copious amounts of wreckage from several boats began to wash onto Lake Huron’s shores. Evidence of the James Carruthers was slow at first, until great amounts of debris from Canada’s newest and largest freighter began coming ashore, mostly near Kincardine and Point Clark.
A large field of wreckage was found offshore between Kincardine and Goderich, nearly seventy miles (113 km) south of the Carruthers’s last known course. The location of the wreckage is noteworthy, because it suggests the ship was significantly off course and missed a turn into Georgian Bay, where Midland is located.
Several bodies of the crew washed ashore as well, mostly around Point Clark. Captain Wright was easily identified by his large red moustache. Most of the bodies wore life jackets and heavy coats, indicating that they had had time to prepare for disaster.
During the height of the storm late on the afternoon of the 9th, several witnesses heard steamer whistles and sighted distress rockets far offshore of Inverhuron. It was concluded that the rockets were from the Carruthers as most of her wreckage and crew were found in the vicinity. How the brand-new freighter sank, and how she came to be so far off course (she was bound for Georgian Bay) are mysteries that have never been answered. As of 2018, the wreck of the James Carruthers has not been located, she is also the largest unidentified shipwreck on the lakes.
By the evening of Tuesday, November 11, there were still several unidentified bodies in the Goderich morgue from a few different vessels. Thomas Thompson of Hamilton, Ontario scanned the corpses for signs of his son John, a crewman aboard the James Carruthers. Thomas saw one body who looked a lot like his son. The facial features and hair colour were identical. The corpse was missing an eye tooth like his son and had a tattoo of J.T. on the left forearm. Several scars and a birth defect (the second and third toes of the feet grew together) convinced Thomas Thompson that he had finally found his son John. He arranged to take possession of the body and notified his family.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, John Thompson read newspaper accounts of the great storm and saw his name on a list of the known dead. Thompson had not accompanied the Carruthers on its final voyage. Instead of immediately wiring his family, young Thompson leisurely took a train to Hamilton to explain what happened in person. While John dawdled, his father Thomas had purchased a coffin, somberly watched as a grave was dug, and made funeral preparations for his dead son. Once in Hamilton, John still inexplicably wandered around town, visiting a friend who advised him to return home at once. Young Thompson walked into his family’s house while the wake was in progress. Mrs. Thompson, after the tremendous shock, was overjoyed that her son was still alive. Thomas Thompson was angered beyond belief at the debts incurred and shame, and yelled “It’s just like you to come home and attend your own wake, and you can get right out of this house until this thing blows over!” The young man whom Thomas Thompson mistook for his son remains unidentified to this day; he rests with four other unknown sailors in Goderich, Ontario.
The ship cost $385,000 to build, had an insurance value of $275,000 and lost 25 lives in the disaster, although the Detroit News, suggested the total death toll was 273, although estimations take it closer to 250. Sadly the number of lives lost are estimated at around 250 but in this there is a certain amount of guess work as the numbers of crew on the Canadian Ships in 1913, were not definately known.
The SS James Carruthers was involved in one of the greatest marine tragedies ever seen in the Great Lakes, and one of the top 26 Canadian disasters by death toll at number 19.
The Detroit News lists the death toll as:
Carruthers 25, Regina 22, John A McGean 28, Wexford 22, Charles S Price 28, Argus 26, LaFayette 12, Hydrus, (Carruthers Sister Ship) 28, Isaac M Scott 28, Butters 20, Plymouth 7, Leafield 15 , Lightship No.82 6. Nottingham 3, although David Brown in his book White Hurricane, published in 2002, disputes the figures a little.
To summerise, the publication the Canadian Railway and Marine World (1913) reported it as this:
What is, without doubt, the greatest disaster, or series of disasters, which has ever taken place in connection with the navigation of the Great Lakes, occurred chiefly during Nov. 9, when a severe storm swept the lakes from end to end. Though practically no part of the Great Lakes escaped some evidence of the storm, it seemed to have been most severe in Lake Huron, so far as damage to vessels and loss of life are concerned, but whether such damage and loss are due entirely to the storm, or to a possible bunching of vessels in the narrower parts of Lake Huron, thus restricting the area within which vessels might have run for safety, and making for possible collisions, is at present a matter for conjecture.
Of the Canadian vessels involved in the disaster, four had been absolutely lost, and little or no wreckage has been discovered, while a fifth, the Canadian Lake and Ocean Navigation Co.’s S.S. Turret Chief, was driven ashore in such a position that it is doubtful if she can be salved.