Near Halloween each year the anniversary of one of Lake Erie's worst maritime disaster arrives. The anniversary of Black Friday. The Black Friday storm was driven by three converging high pressure systems. Four ships went down on that fateful night:
The Filer was in tow of the steam barge Tempest, and was left at anchor off Bar Point while the Tempest returned to Toledo for an additional tow. After being left by the Tempest at Bar Point, the Filer dragged her anchor six miles in the storm and then foundered. After being swept into the open lake, Captain Mattison ordered the crew of the Filer to seek refuge in the rigging. Captain Mattison climbed the after mast, while others clambered up the forward mast. The forward mast snapped, dropping the six crew into the icy, churning water. Only one of them made it to the remaining mast and joined the captain. However, that unfortunate sailor was wet and cold, and just before help arrived, he relaxed his grip on the mast and the raging waters claimed him. Captain Mattison was rescued by the Detroit and Cleveland steamer Western States. A few minutes after Captain Mattison was taken from the rigging of his barge, it sank.
The James Colgate is the only whaleback to have sank in Lake Erie. The Colgate was designed an exact duplicate of the Thomas Wilson, Samuel Mather and John B. Trevor. This steel whaleback bulk steamer measured 302 feet and launched in W. Superior, Wisconsin in 1892.
The Colgate left Buffalo just after midnight. Captain Walter Grashaw had been First Mate for 10 years aboard the Colgate, but had recently made Captain. This was his first trip in command. Walter Grashaw wasn't the kind of seaman who could be turned back by a bit of a blow, or by the storm warning sent out by the Weather Bureau at Buffalo. He felt confident of his boat and he had a cargo of coal to got through to Canada
At 4 bells Friday afternoon all was well aboard the Colgate. Then, suddenly, thing began to happen out there on Lake Erie. It was no longer merely a date in October. It was "Black Friday".
At dawn, when nearing Long Point on the Canadian side of the lake, the winds became a hurricane. Great waves swept over the vessel's hull and at 8 o'clock, there began a list in the coal cargo. So much water was being taken on that the pumps could not keep up. It was clear that unless help arrived, the boat would sink. In these times, before radios and such, the only way to signal for help was with searchlights and distress whistles. Help did not arrive, and at 10 o'clock at night the Colgate sank bow first to the bottom. A crew of 20 perished as only the captain survived. Captain Grashaw miraculously clung to a makeshift raft for over 30 hours before he was finally rescued by the carferry Marquette & Bessimer No. 2. The raft from which the captain was rescued was found many miles to the westward, at a point twenty-five miles east of Rondeau, Canada
Today the Colgate lies in 85 feet of water 8 miles southwest of Erieau, Ontario. She was located by Wheatley commerical fistherman, Len Cabral, when he moved his boat to Erieau in summer of 1991. She lies turtled, or upside down. There is no traditional stem, and no steel ribbing on her sides. Her rudder and four-bladed propeller are highlights of the wreck explored by divers. Her smoke stack, air scoop and other debris lay just north of the stern.
The Butters traveled down the Detroit River as the Lake's gale reached it full fury. Her cargo started to shift as she rolled in the wild seas. The Butters developed a starboard list immediately. The crew, with a fear of death, began shoving lumber over the side, but the ship was already taking on water. Captain Charles McClure ordered most of his crew to abandon ship in the lifeboat, while he and two others remained in case a chance to save their vessel presented itself. It did not.
One boat load of the crew of the Butters got to the steamer Fred G. Hartwell, bound for a Lake Erie port with ore, two of the crew remained in a life boat on top of the after deck house until the Butters sank and then got to the Hartwell and three members of the crew clung to the wreckage.
The steel steamer Frank Billings battled a sixty-mile southwest gale five miles away from the Butters' whistle. No sound could be heard, but the white steam came in short puffs. That in sound was a call for aid. Captain Cody swung the Billings around and made for the Butters. Oil was poured upon the heavy sea in an attempt to calm the immediate waters surrounding the Butters, and twice the Billings went around the foundering ship. The Billings dramatically rescued the three on board the foundering Butters, while the steamer
The Merida is a steel freighter with wooden deckhouses and an overall length of 380'--the largest ship of her kind on the Great Lakes when she was launched at Bay City, Michigan, in 1892. She also held a record for the biggest cargo. She was loaded, almost to the gunwales, with a cargo of iron ore when she set sail downbound to Buffalo, New York under Captain Harry L. Jones.
The Merida left nothing but the floating bodies of her captain and crew of 22 to tell her fate. Little of the story of the battle she put up against mountainous waves and terrific, plate-loosening winds, will ever be known, but her experience can be pieced together from the tales told by the survivors of the other ships.
The Merida was last sighted upbound in Lake Erie by Captain J.F. Massey of the steamer Briton near Southeast Shoal. At that time, he reported later, the Merida was having a hard time of it with waves beating the ship badly, while his own vessel was also taking a terrific pounding.
Three days after the storm, the steamer V.D. Mathews recovered the first three bodies wearing Merida Life Jackets. A few days after the storm, Port Stanley fish tugs recovered the floating wheelhouse with her brass bell still attached. Not until 60 years later was her exact location pinpointed.
Today the Merida lies at an 80 foot depth 25 miles east of Erieau, Canada. Her bow lies southeast. She lists slightly to port. Until recently, she was mostly intact and penetrable to 3 deck levels. Her stern is still penetrable. Her midship is covered by silt. The bow and stern of the ship still offer the diver opportunity to view her unique anchor, with hinged flukes mounted flat on the deck, as well as a large capstan, intact railing and stanchion.