I don’t read a lot of nonfiction books, but one I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time is So Terrible a Storm by Curt Brown (2008). It’s an account of the maritime disasters related to the big blow on Lake Superior at the end of November 1905. The event is also known as the Mataafa Storm, after the ore boat that suffered most grievously. This story is of particular interest to me because one of the main characters in it was my great-grandfather, Murdoch MacLennan.
Most of the book’s action takes place in Duluth, at the western tip of Lake Superior. Brown describes how Duluth’s official meteorologist assessed the developing situation—a big storm coming in right on the heels of an earlier one. Captains of some of the boats discounted the warnings and headed out onto the lake, under pressure from their bosses to get in one last trip before the end of the season. In gripping detail, Brown retells what happened on the ore boats—hundreds of feet long and pencil-thin—out in the giant waves, winds, and blizzard conditions. But at the center of it all is the Mataafa.
She was one of the ships that disregarded the warnings, for a season-ending trip out from Duluth. When she returned a day or two later, she had cut loose her barge and was fighting waves taller than houses. The Mataafa made a run for the Duluth harbor entrance, between two long cement piers. Just as she was about to enter, a giant wave lifted up her stern and jammed her bow into the bottom of the lake, cracking her in the middle and swinging her sideways, about seven-hundred feet from shore. She would not move from that position until the spring thaw.
Getting her crew off proved incredibly hard, given the dreadful conditions. That’s where my great-grandfather came in. He was the Captain of the Life-Saving Service in Duluth. (That’s the precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard.) And in the first hours after the Mataafa wrecked, he and his crew were miles down the shore helping an ore boat that had beached earlier. By the time he got to the Mataafa it was getting dark and all he could do was try to shoot lines out to the fractured boat, for a conveyance to bring men to shore. That effort failed. There was no lifeboat available at the scene, and if there had been it would have been suicidal taking it out in the dark. The next morning he managed to get his rescue boat out to the Mataafa, saving crew at the front of the boat. Tragically, nine crew members marooned at the stern froze to death in the night.
I never knew my great-grandfather, who was born on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland. I try to imagine what was going through his mind as he supervised this rescue operation that would be the most significant of his career. Did he have any idea of the scope of the tragedy that was about to unfold? What was he feeling when he took the lifeboat out in those fierce waves with his crew of men? Was he thinking that he might never see his wife, son, and daughter (my grandmother) again? And how did he handle the criticism afterwards, some of which made him a scapegoat for the loss of life? Did he resent it at all or did he feel confident that he had done everything he could?
All I can say is that his wimp of a great-grandson could never have done anything as brave as he did those two days in November 1905. Heck, I obsess about my popsicle toes when I go out on an ordinary winter’s day. Whatever the criticism he faced, in my book Murdoch MacLennan was a hero. If you’re a fan of true-life adventure, I highly recommend that you read So Terrible a Storm, a riveting account of a 110-year-old maritime tragedy.