Chester A. Congdon was built as Salt Lake City for the Holmes Steamship Company of Cleveland. The new steamer was of the 10,000-ton capacity class and measured 532 feet in length, 56 feet in beam with a depth of 26 feet. The steel bulk freighter had 32 telescoping hatches 9 feet wide for a total capacity of 10,200 tons. The ship carried a crew estimated at 19.
The huge, steel bulk freighter was powered by a triple-expansion engine with cylinders of 23.5, 38 and 63 inches on a 42-inch stroke. The engine received its steam from two induced-draft Scotch boilers built by the American Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland. The engine produced 1765 indicated horsepower.
The newspaper that contained the first report of the wreck of Chester A. Congdon carried the news on page 10; the headlines and front pages that day were devoted to the news that World War I had ended on Nov. 7, 1918.
The voyage that would end with one of the most costly marine disasters on the Lakes began on November 6, 1918. At 2:28 am Congdon left Fort William, Ontario, downbound to Port McNicoll with a cargo of 380,000 bushels of wheat.
Congdon proceeded a little way past Thunder Cape, where the ship encountered a heavy sea whipped up by a southwest gale. At 4:00 am, Capt. Autterson turned his ship and retreated 7 or 8 miles to calmer water, anchoring until 10:15 am. By then the wind had abated, although the sea was still running. The captain ventured out again, but after passing Thunder Cape, a thick fog set in. A course was set for Passage Island at 10:40 am, and the ship held a speed of 9 knots. The ship’s officers had not heard the Passage Island fog signal before they struck the southerly reef of Canoe Rocks.
First reports of damage to the stricken ship indicated that the vessel, although damaged, might be saved. It was hoped that lightering would be all that was necessary to refloat the vessel. The lightered grain was to be placed aboard the barge Crete (Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 9, 1918).
The most serious obstacle to refloating Congdon would prove to be the weather. When the lightering tugs and barges initially left for the site, the weather had been “calm and thick”, but this did not last long. Two days later, by Friday, strong winds had blown up. The crew was removed from the wreck sometime that day, November 8, and was placed aboard the barge Empire. As the wind blew from the southeast at gale force, reaching a speed of 55 miles per hour, the crew was sheltered on the barge in protected waters at Isle Royale.
The messages of the wreck that reached land on November 9 relayed the news that Congdon had broken in two, and that the stern had sunk in deep water. The tugs had stood by as long as possible, but there was nothing they could do, although they stayed at the site until heavy seas were breaking over the wreck.
The ship was declared a total loss. The newspapers noted that four-fifths of the cargo would be lost. The crew arrived in port in time to participate in the Nov. 11, armistice celebrations. The survivors of the Congdon wreck paraded in the streets carrying the ship’s flag, and a large crowd fell in behind them.
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