Twenty-Seventh Anniversary of Steamer Atlanta Disaster

March 18, 1933, Sheboygan Press
Captain Delos H. Smith Tells How He And His Crew Rescued 74 from Burning Ship.

By FRANK ZUFELT (Who was at the pier when survivors were brought to Sheboygan.)

Today, March 1st, is the twenty-seventh anniversary of the burning of the Goodrich steamer Atlanta. The boat was destroyed off Cedar Grove, and many of the present generation will recall the incident. But this is the first time the story has been retold since the disaster.

There have been as severe catastrophes among boats on Lake Michigan in this locality, but among them here have been none recorded that were on the verge of a holocaust, and still became remarkable in marine annals for the number of lives saved. The approaching calamity was prevented at its very brink, by the timely arrival of Capt. Delos H. Smith, with his courageous crew, and the tug A. A. C. Tessler.

In Nick ol Time

They reached the scene when the crew and passengers of the doomed boat were crowded together on the hurricane deck. The flames were sweeping toward them. In a few moments a terrible death would overtake them.

Every one of the seventy-five aboard was taken safely off with the exception of Michael Hickey, a deckhand. Hickey became excited and jumped from the steamer for the tug. He misjudged the distance and fell in the lake. The loss entailed by the burning of the Atanta amounted to $150,000.

The account of the rescue is a record of the valor of men cool in a great emergency. Of the men who fought bravely and successfully with a small boat against great odds. They proceeded as though it were their daily task, to remove seventy-four human beings safely, within a few minutes, from a burn¬ing ship.

The burning of the steamer Phoenix off Sheboygan Nov. 21, 1847, took 250 lives. When the Lady Elgin foundered Sept. 8, 1860, there were 300 who went to watery graves. And in the Alpena disaster Oct. 16, 1880, seventy-three met death. The large loss of life in each instance was due to the fact that there were no other boats in the vicinity. The tug Tessler was within four miles of the steamer Atlanta when it caught fire. That's what saved those aboard.

Captain Retired Now

The tug Tessler was the property of Smith Brothers, commercial fishermen, who were, and are still operating a fishing business at both Port Washington and Sheboygan. Capt. Smith who was in command of the Tessler, is active in the fishing business at Port Washington. He can be seen usually at his fish market, loacted on the main business corner in that city. His business is well known to many people of this section of Wisconsin. Since his retirement from the water, Capt. Smith has devoted most of his time to the market. He
is the first of the commercial fishermen to sell fish direct to the consumer. His sons, Lester and Oliver, are associated with him in the business.

Another member of the tug's crew who participated in the rescue was Tilden Guenther, engineer. He is retired and lives in Port Washington. Some years after the burning of the Atlanta he purchased a farm which he operated until about six years ago.

There were two more members of the Tessler crew. One, John Heula, is still in the fishing business at Racine. He is employed by one of the hook fishing tugs. The other, Charles Klein, is operating a fish tug at Holland, Michigan.

Capt. Smith and his crew did not receive all the credit due them at the time for making the rescue. The reason was that the tug did not bring the seventy-five rescued into this port. The tug met the Goodrich steamer Georgia, north bound. The rescued were transferred to the Georgia and brought to Sheboygan. This caused the impression that the Georgia had taken the men from the burning ship.

Captain Describes Rescue

But the story is best told by Capt. Delos H. Smith himself. Still hale and hearty at 67 years after his long service on the lakes, he was seen at his market in Port Washington. Asked to tell about the burning of the steamer Atlanta and his part in it, he said the facts were all clearly before him. Giving much credit to his men he excited great interest,

"We were lifting hooks at about one o'clock in the afternoon of March 18, 1906, ten miles northeast of Port Washington. It was then we first sighted the steamer Atlanta.

"There was a moderately southern sea rolling with the wind blowing about southeast by south. As a rule we never paid much attention to passing steamers. But as Capt. McCauley of the Atlanta and I were personal friends, I was always interested in saluting his boat when in close proximity.

"It was not long after first seeing the steamer on this particular day, that I noticed she was not coming along in her course. Still a little later I saw she was lying in the trough of the sea."

As he looked back on the scene he said he told his men, "McCauley must be having some trouble." They continued with their work. But Capt. Smith kept his eye on the Atlanta. Finally, the fact that the steamer was making no headway, bothered him to the extent that he had a buoy line tied to the hooks and laid a course toward the vessel.

Sees Smoke

Continuing his interesting account, he said, "I had traveled no more than a mile when to my surprise and horror I could see vast clouds of smoke pouring from the ship. The steamer had been on fire all the time I had been watching it. The smoke could not be seen from the tug because it was directly to the windward.

Immediately all steam possible was crowded on. The remaining three miles were made as fast as the boat could travel. On reaching the Atlanta it vas discovered the fire had gained leadway to such an extent there was no hope of saving the ship.

"It was a startling sight. There the crew and passengers were, huddled together on the hurricane deck. One life boat had been lowered. But the remaining life boats could not be reached through the fire, or had already been burned.

"The flames and smoke made it too hot to approach from the leeward side of the ship. The crew of my boat got our lines ready. I tried then to get along the windward side of the ship. I failed in the first attempt because the ship was rapidly drifting."

Here the captain stopped to give the information that it is a curious fact that a burning ship will drift like a sailing vessel even in a slight wind.

Slide On Ropes to Tug

Resuming his narrative of the rescue he said, "In the second attempt to get alongside the burning steamer I was successful. Four lines were swiftly attached to the ship. Immediately all came out of the huddle where they were waiting an awful death as the fire was sweeping toward them. They began sliding down the lines to the tug. Many of them badly burned their hands in making the descent.

Someone lowered a ladder from the burning ship to the tug. But it proved to be too short. However one of our men and myself were able to use this ladder by holding it up with our arms and shoulders. This enabled many to reach the tug. Holding this ladder with the tug rolling in the sea, together with the confusion and the weight of those coming down the ladder, was the heaviest part of the work.

Rescues Two Women

"It was while I was holding the ladder that Hickey, one of the Atlanta's deckhands, was drowned in his attempt to jump to the tug's deck, but missed, and fell in the lake. I never saw him after he hit the water as the ship was rapidly moving. Capt. McCauley personally carried two women down the ladder. He then went back up on the boat. He was the last off his ship.

"However," he said, "the man who had the narrowest escape was the negro cook. He was trapped in the galley. Charles Klein, a member of my crew, pulled the negro out through a porthole. This he did by flipping a rope to him. It seemed as though that colored boy made more noise calling for help than the combined pleas of the others. The porthole was not any too large. Certainly he lost some epidermis before he got his hips through. But Klein saved the rest of his hide.

"By this time the fire had reached practically all parts of the ship. When every one had been gotten aboard the tug, I steamed away from the burning vessel. It was not necessary to untie the lines. For, by the time Capt. McCauley got aboard they had all burned off.

Survivors Brought Here

"It was my plan to take the survivors either to Port Washington or Sheboygan. But the Goodrich liner Georgia was soon sighted approaching from the south. I blew her down and transferred the survivors.

"I went back to the burning ship. Fastening a towline to the anchor at the bow I began towing the wreck to Sheboygan. Another Port Washington tug, the Reckinger, arrived on the scene at this time. But as there was nothing to do, returned to Port Washington.

"By this time the sea was picking up. Fearing the wreck might sink, I beached the ship a little north of Amsterdam. Nothing was done with it until about eight years ago. Then a wrecking company from Sturgeon Bay salvaged the boilers."

In concluding his thrilling story, Capt. Smith said, "I cannot say too much for the good work done by my crew. It seemed that each one did the right thing at the right time. To safely remove the people from the burning ship as fast as we did, means that every one of them was right on the job. It is due to them that all aboard were saved, with the exception of one man.

"I want to say that I never knew how small my tug really was until I had all those people aboard."

Following the event, the city council of Port Washington commended Capt. D. H. Smith and his crew for the fearlessness demonstrated in making the rescue. Later Dr. Beemer of Port Washington inaugurated a movement to procure a Carnegie medal for Capt. Smith. But the captain, on hearing of it, strongly announced his opposition, and the movement had to be dropped.

Capt. Smith has figured in two other rescues. In the summer of 1895, three miles north of Port Washington his crew saved from drowning one man from the schooner Mary Ludwig.

At the sinking of the ore barge Tokio off St. Martin's reef near Rock Island, in northern Green Bay in the fall of 1902, he rescued two women and a man. He was at that time in command of the tug Elizabeth G. The Elizabeth G. fished out of Sheboygan many years.

Smith Brothers are at present operating one tug, the Evelyn C. Smith, on Lake Huron, two tugs at Port Washington, the Delos H. Smith and Hope Smith, and are interested in the tug Sunbeam at Sheboygan.

Atlanta Had Sheboygan Cargo

The Atlanta, one of the newest and best boats of the Goodrich fleet, cleared the Sheboygan river at 10:10 o'clock on the morning of March 18, 1906, after loading almost ten carloads of freight for Chicago and other lake ports. Included in the cargo were about three carloads of enamel ware from the Vollrath plant, eight pianos from the King Piano company, a carload of white beans from the H. C. Prange company, a carload of furniture from the Northfield Furniture company, a half carload of cheese from the Peacock and F. W. Brehm companies, and a carload of broken lots from the Phoenix Chair company, the Sheboygan Novelty company, the Art Furniture company, the Parlor Frame company, gloves from the Ross-Sellinger company and large shipments of leather from both the Badger State and American Hide & Leather tanneries. The boat had been loading since 7 o'clock, when it had arrived from Manitowoc.

Entire Crew Fought Fire

At 11:15 o'clock a. m. the Atlanta had gotten about fifteen miles south of Sheboygan, and was eight miles out in the lake, when the watchman between decks gave the fire alarm. The regular fire drill had been gone through but a short time before. All hands went to their quarters. Smoke was pouring from the space directly above the boilers.

Capt. McCauley got out the fire hose, but the blaze spread fast. The intense smoke drove back the crew. The Atlanta, which was a wooden boat resembling the Virginia, was quickly disabled. The fire room crew was driven out. The engines were ordered stopped as the air fanned the flames. The boat ceased to make headway.

Every one aboard joined in fighting the fire. It was a hopeless task. The flames quickly spread. The lifeboats were soon disabled. In the midst of their dispair Capt. Smith with the tug Tessler and crew arrived on the scene.

Fire Seen From Sheboygan

Word of the fire reached Sheboygan by telephone from Amsterdam a few minutes after it started. The late George Sullivan who was then local agent for the Goodrich company, supposed at first it was the steamer Hennepin. That boat loaded stone in the vicinity. He soon learned the truth.

The smoke from the burning ship was plainly visible from the Sheboygan government piers. And when the Georgia arrived at 3 o'clock with the survivors a large crowd had collected.

Capt. McCauley and most of the men went ashore to notify the company's office and to send messages to their families. Nearly all of them were suffering from severe burns. Later that evening the Georgia with its load of rescued sailed for Chicago.

The loss of the Atlanta was a bad handicap at the time for the Sheboygan shippers and for the company. Freight shipments were heavy and the line already was short of boats.

Members of Atlanta's Crew

The Atlanta was built at Cleveland twelve years before it was destroyed. It was 325 feet long. Until shortly before the fire, it had been on the east shore run. Its officers were:
Captain—Con. McCauley, Manitowoc.
First Mate—George Steins, Racine.
Second Mate—William Glenn, Chicago.
Engineer—Joseph Perou'ka, Manitowoc.
Second Engineer—Charles Wells, Chicago.
Purser—H. P. Bloodgood, Milwaukee.
Steward—C. Hedgeland, Racin

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