It was a bleak scene for the 33 men and one dog aboard a Sault Ste. Marie-bound steamer 100 years ago — a crew caught in a weather event that mariners at the time billed as the worst they had seen.

“33 sink with ship,” was the oversized and bold headline on the Nov. 14, 1920, edition of the News Tribune. “Lake Superior Swept by Disastrous Storm. Crew of Francis J. Widlar believed to have perished,” the subhead continued.

Spoiler alert: They were all saved, including the ship's terrier, Tootsie, but the survivors had harrowing tales of the rolling and pitching of the ship, the bonfires they tried to keep lit on deck, the lack of food and a little lifeboat sent out on the big waves in search of rescue.

While there have been about 350 shipwrecks on Lake Superior according to the Minnesota Historical Society — including the Edmund Fitzgerald, which happened 45 years ago this month — the lesser-known Francis J. Widlar would not be one of them.

The setup

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The Francis J. Widlar — 416 feet long, 28 feet deep, could haul 7,000 tons — was an Ohio-based steamer owned by the Cleveland Steamship Co. In November 1920, Captain Arthur Forbes was in charge of the ore-toting vessel that had left Duluth and was en route for Sault Ste. Marie. It was expected to arrive 12 hours later.

But a wild storm whipped up on the great lake — and with the storm came grim stories of the fate of the ship and its crew. Violent waves paired with bitter cold temperatures.

“The Widlar is believed to have floundered after striking a reef off Pancake Shoals, 10 miles northeast of Whitefish Point,” the News Tribune reported, based on word from the captain of the John Ericson.

The two ships had been close together for part of the day. But then the Widlar seemed to disappear near the shoals and the wreckage was not visible when the Ericson passed, its captain reported.

Riding out the storm

The crew of the John Ericson, a steamer from Pittsburgh, waited out the storm behind Whitefish Point alongside about 50 other ships doing the same.

Meanwhile, the Widlar hadn’t actually disappeared. It was still out there and it was getting pounded to pieces, its crew “waging a desperate fight against death in the icy waters,” the News Tribune later reported.

The Livingstone came upon it and saw it was in peril, but couldn’t get close because of the raging waves. The crew watched from afar, but:

“With no other means of protection against the cold blasts that swept the lake and the icy deluge of the breakers as they rolled over the ship, the crew of the Widlar vainly endeavored to build bonfires on the deck. Intermittent flares of fire were observed by the men of the Livingstone, but the flames each time disappeared suddenly and the entire sea was again enveloped in the blackness of the stormy night,” it was reported.

Eventually Forbes took a rowboat into the lake in search of help and was picked up by those aboard the Livingstone. While he was gone, the crew gained access to their food and the ship’s steward made a meal of meat and potatoes.

And after

Forbes and company were picked up by the Livingstone and its crew radioed for more help, which included the tugboat Iowa. It took three trips with the lifeboat to save all of the men aboard the Widlar. They arrived at the Soo after 63 hours. Some of the men were taken to the hospital, but none of them suffered serious injuries.

A photo from the front page of the Nov. 18, 1920 edition of the Duluth News-Tribune shows the rescued crew of the Francis J. Widlar as they are brought into the harbor at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (News Tribune archive / Newsbank)
A photo from the front page of the Nov. 18, 1920 edition of the Duluth News-Tribune shows the rescued crew of the Francis J. Widlar as they are brought into the harbor at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (News Tribune archive / Newsbank)

Wheelsman Harry Ayres described the dayslong barrage to the News Tribune:

“From the minute we hit the shoals early Friday night until help finally came, we all thought we were doomed,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be a chance that we would come through alive. A high gale was blowing and snow fell most of the night. The night was pitch black. The boat was pulling and pitching and smashing on the shoals and we thought surely she would go under us any minute. The cold was terrible and we were continually being drenched by the waves and spray that rolled over us. We didn’t have a thing to eat. All our food was astern and we couldn’t get at it. Throughout the night we broke up furniture and even broke down the hatches and started fires to attract the attention of passing ships. No help came, however.

"All night and the next day, we tried to keep up fires, but we were almost overcome with cold and lack of food. Saturday night was the same as the night before. We thought surely the boat was going to pieces, but she stood up well.”

In the immediate aftermath, it was reported that the ship was done — its full length was under water and its hatches were gone.

The ship was salvaged, though, and lasted another 46 years. It was sold a few times, had a name change and suffered more abuse from gales and breakwalls along the way — but nothing like that night in November 1920.