Second of three parts. In the fall of 1924, Capt. Emmett Gallagher and the whaleback steamer Clifton prepared to carry a 2,200-ton load of crushed stone to Detroit.
On ships such as the Clifton, in times of good weather, sailors have a relatively pleasant life with time to read, relax, play cards or write letters. It was a different matter when the skies turn gray and the waters took on a sinister appearance. Gallagher quietly hoped for fair weather.
As his men moved about the ship preparing it to set off, he watched them work. Twelve of the men were locals, from Door County, with the rest from various places around the Lakes including some of the crew who were heading back home to Detroit. With Door County as its home port, it was not surprising that so many of the crew hailed from the same area.
George Maples Jr. at 40 was one of the oldest of the Door County men and had served as a fireman across the Great Lakes for 15 years. Bernard Haen was one of the youngest at 19 years of age. After finishing two years of high school, he had sailed aboard the Fontana but quit to work at a local cheese factory. It wasn’t long before he was back, and with the Clifton looking for able crewmen he was quickly signed on.
Just before they set sail he told his folks, “I’ll see you in a week.” Haen reminded Gallagher of himself at that age.
Chief engineer Walter Oertling, 43, and also from Door County, was an engineer of long experience. He has sailed on many ships but had taken the winter off to work with the Sturgeon Bay Dry Dock Co. until he took the position offered to him aboard the Clifton as chief engineer.
Harvey Jensen, the good-looking son of Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Larson of Sawyer, was working on his mate’s license and had labored aboard various ships over the past 17 years. He had been stationed at the canal Coast Guard station for a time in 1915, but it wasn’t long before he was back to sea.
At 21, Robert Stedman was getting basic training for mechanical engineering. He had been working at the L.D. Smith Co. with plans to sail on the Fontana, but the Fontana arrived late and the Clifton was two hands short, having had two men quit the ship when it arrived in Sturgeon Bay. With no real alternative, Stedman signed on with the Clifton.
Leo Brauer, the 28-year-old from Institute, had been employed as a deckhand on the Clifton, while 18-year-old Lawrence Haen of Sturgeon Bay was a last-minute substitute for the one of the men who had quit. Haen, while not a sailor, signed on as an oiler.
Pearl E. Purdy had been a resident of Sturgeon Bay for 30 years and had been employed as a diver and workman at both the Universal and Smith shipyards. He, his wife and two children were moving to Detroit, and although his journey would be made by boat they had headed overland to their new home.
Russell Erdman, another Sawyer man of 23, had been sailing for the past four years and had made plans to attend school to obtain his engineering papers.
George Husak, at 21 was well known by the younger people in the area when he arrived a few years ago from Milwaukee with the YMCA cherry pickers. His parents had urged him not to go, even offering him a car and a summer vacation at their summer home near Milwaukee, but the lure of the lake was too strong to resist.
Harold Hart of Sturgeon Bay was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin taking engineering classes. He boarded the Clifton with Robert Stedman “for the fun of it” and at the same time to earn money to finance his education.
The final Door County man was a deckhand who hailed from Algoma by the name of Stanley Guth.
Detroit was waiting. It was time to go. It was Saturday afternoon, and soon these ordinary men with ordinary aspirations would find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.
Next week: The fate of the Clifton.