Third of three parts. Laden with 2,200 tons of crushed stone, the whaleback steamer Clifton – based in Sturgeon Bay and with 12 Door County residents among its crew – embarked for Detroit in apparently calm weather Sept. 20, 1924.
The next morning, Sunday, the Clifton passed through the Straits of Mackinac, and about 1 o’clock, a few hours later; the tug boat Favorite, weathering a heavy southeastern sea off Forty Mile Point sighted the ship, which was 40 miles southeast of the Straits in Lake Huron. They had little idea that before nightfall the weather would turn against them.
The Friday, Sept. 26, edition of the Door County Advocate headlines was devastating for the anxious families of the Clifton crew. The Clifton was 75 hours overdue.
Old sailors suspected that the Clifton had been caught in the 56-mph gale that formed when the winds shifted from southeast to the northwest. Experienced lake sailors familiar with the strength of sudden lake storms suspected that the furious cyclonic winds may have battered in the pilot houses and swept away the deck houses forming whirlpools between the bow and stern of the boat.
Further, as the heavy-laden ship was battered by the powerful waves, it would not haven taken much to shift the center of gravity on a ship carrying loose stone, turning the ship over.
Yet while old sailing hands may have thought the worst, the families and shipping company held out hope that Capt. Emmett Gallagher had been able to pilot the steamer to shelter.
Days later a discovery was made that dashed the hopes of all involved. A section of the pilot house in which a clock had stopped at the hour of 4, was found more than 50 miles southeast of Thunder Bay, with the name plate Clifton on it. Slowly other small bits of wreckage appeared, but the currents made it difficult to pinpoint the location of the sunken vessel.
Slowly Lake Huron gave up some of the bodies of the lost sailors. On Oct. 17, almost three weeks after the Clifton was believed to have sunk, the Door County Advocate detailed the discovery of the body of oiler Roland Writt from Escanaba, Mich., found by the steamer Pollack.
A short time later the bodies of Robert Stedman and Joseph E. Shield, the 23-year-old cousin of Capt. Gallagher, were reported found. The body of young Leo Brauer was found near Wairiton, Ontario. On Nov. 21 another body was discovered but identification was difficult. It was believed to be Harvey Jensen of Sawyer or J.E. Sullivan, an engineer from Mitchell, S.D.
On Dec. 5, Lake Huron give up the last body it was to release, but identification at this point was impossible.
The Friday issue of the Door County Advocate summed it up best: “Lake Huron alone knows the whereabouts of whaleback steamer Clifton, which was 75 hours overdue at Detroit.” In the world of shipping, 75 hours is a long time, but to the families – in Door County and of all the 25 men of the Clifton crew – it became an eternity.