The Madeira: Lake Superior Shipwrecks

The Madeira: Lake Superior Shipwrecks

No trip along the shores of Lake Superior would be complete without the harrowing tale of a Lake Superior shipwreck. Not much is known about the Madeira’s years in service, but two events in her life are recorded in maritime history: First, that she collided with the International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie in early June 1902. Second, that she ended her days buried beneath the waves of Lake Superior, a casualty of the worst storm in the history of the Great Lakes, the infamous Maatafa Storm that led to the construction of Split Rock Lighthouse.

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The Madeira was a schooner-barge, a vessel that was designed to haul bulk cargoes throughout the Great Lakes. Formed by riveted, steel plates, she was over 400 feet long and weighed around 10 million pounds. Though she wasn’t the first of her kind, the Madeira is the last known remaining vessel of that type in the world. Schooner-barges evolved from older wooden sailing ships that were cut down into barges and towed behind the state of the art wooden steam ships of earlier days. Though the Madeira was built of steel, it was also meant to be towed by a steamer.

 
 
 
 

As the Madeira’s hull pounded broadside against the rocky cliff, the ship began to break up. The entire 10 man crew would be lost if something wasn’t done quickly. A Scandinavian crewman, Fred Benson, leapt from the deck of the Madeira with a safety line, landing at the base of the sheer face of Gold Rock. With tremendous waves crashing over him, he was somehow able to climb the 60 foot, water-slicked face of the cliff to safety. Benson then tied a rock to the end of the safety line, throwing it down to his shipmates still on the vessel and hauling them to safety. In the end he had saved 3 men from the bow and 5 more from the stern deck. Tragically, the first mate perished as he tried to jump from the mizzenmast to the icy waters below. The survivors, suffering from exposure, were rescued two days later by the tugboat Edna G., who’s crew also pulled the first mate from the lake bottom. Fred Benson was singled out as the hero of the storm in the Duluth newspaper. The Edna G. now rests in Agate Bay in the town of Two Harbors.

The Madeira

Early on the morning of November 28th, 1905, she was under tow of the steamer William Edenborn. The vessels were caught in a fierce storm that had been howling since the previous afternoon. Winds of 70 to 80 miles per hour raged across the open lake, tossing huge waves over the Madeira and blinding its crew with relentless, stinging snow. Fearing for his own vessel and believing the Madeira stood a better chance of withstanding the storm on its own, the captain of the William Edenborn cut the tow line between the ships. The Madeira was supposed to drop anchor to ride out the storm. Contemporary newspapers reported that she had, but later diving expeditions found both anchors firmly in place on the bow. Less than two hours after the tow line was cut, the unanchored Madeira succumbed to the crushing waves and was hurled against a sheer rock face called Gold Rock, just north of the present day Split Rock Lighthouse.

The storm destroyed or damaged nearly 30 ships on Lake Superior during those two days, one of which was the Madeira’s steamer. The William Edenborn broke in two on the unforgiving Lake Superior shores four miles north of the Madeira, near the community of Split Rock. The Maatafa Storm, widely considered the most ferocious storm in Great Lakes history, would take its name from the steel steamer that was smashed to pieces near Duluth Harbor in full view of the town’s citizens.

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