The ship, SS Daniel J. Morrell was a 603 foot Great Lakes freighter, first launched August 22, 1906. It was operated by Cambria Steamship Company. The freighter was used to carry bulk cargoes such as iron ore. SS Daniel J. Morrell was named for Daniel Johnson Morrell, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. In 1855 he moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and became general manager of the Cambria Iron Company, which was the greatest manufacturer of iron and steel in the United States until the Johnstown Flood. As a former general manager of Cambria Steamship Company…Morrell died August 20, 1885…naming the ship after him made sense.
SS Daniel J. Morrell, along with her sister ship, SS Edward Y. Townsend were making the last run of the season. On November 29, 1966, they encountered a storm with winds exceeding 70 miles per hour and swells that topped the height of the ship, at 20 to 25 feet. Edward Y. Townsend decided to take shelter in the St. Clair River. That left Daniel J. Morrell alone on the waters north of Pointe Aux Barques, Michigan, heading for the protection of Thunder Bay. As the storm grew worse, and at 2:00pm, the Morrell began to break up, which forced the crew onto the deck. Many of the crew panicked and jumped to their deaths in the 34° Lake Huron waters. At 2:15pm, the ship’s hull broke and allowed water to pour in, and the remaining crewmen loaded into a raft on the bow of the vessel. While they waited for the ship to break up and the raft to be thrown into the lake, there were shouts that a ship had been spotted off the port bow. Unfortunately, moments later, it became clear that the looming object was not another ship, but Daniel J. Morrell’s aft section, barreling towards them under the power of the ship’s engine. The ship broke apart, throwing the rafts into the water heading into the distance.
Tragically, Daniel J. Morrell was not reported missing until 12:15pm the following afternoon, November 30th. By then, the vessel was overdue at her destination, Taconite Harbor, Minnesota. The US Coast Guard issued a “be on the lookout” alert and dispatched several vessels and aircraft to search for the missing freighter. At around 4:00pm on November 30th, a Coast Guard helicopter located the lone survivor, 26-year-old Watchman Dennis Hale, near frozen and floating in a life raft with the bodies of three of his crewmates. Hale had survived the nearly 40 hour ordeal in frigid temperatures wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, a lifejacket, and a pea coat. Since his crewmates had passed away, poor Hale was left alone with his thoughts…trying to avoid thinking about the cold bodies lying next to him. The survey of the wreck found the shipwreck in 220 feet of water with the two sections 5 miles apart.
Lost in the tragic sinking were Norman M. Bragg, Stuart A. Campbell, John J. Cleary Jr, Arthur I. Crawley, George A. Dahl, Larry G. Davis, Arthur S. Fargo, Charles H. Fosbender, Saverio Grippi, John M. Groh (missing), Nicholas P. Homick, Phillip E. Kapets, Chester Konieczka, Duncan R. MacLeod, Joseph A. Mahsem, Valmour A. Marchildon, Ernest G. Marcotte, Alfred G. Norkunas, David L. Price, Henry Rischmiller, Stanley J. Satlawa (missing), John H. Schmidt, Charles J. Sestakauskas, Wilson E. Simpson, Arthur E. Stojek, Leon R. Truman, Albert P. Wieme, and Donald E. Worcester. The remains of 26 of the 28 lost crewmen were eventually recovered, with most of them found in the days following the sinking. Still, bodies from Daniel J. Morrell continued to be found well into May of the following year. The two men whose bodies were never recovered were declared legally dead in May 1967. The sole survivor of the sinking, Dennis Hale, died of cancer on September 2, 2015, at the age of 75.
Over the centuries, metals or the discovery of metals have been something that has created everything from excitement to violence. Probably the best known discovery was that of gold, and while it is very valuable, there are many other very important metals, like iron, for instance. Very seldom do we think about all the things that are made with iron, and what an inexpensive, yet versatile metal it is. Iron is one of the most abundant metals found on earth, making up close to five percent of its crust. These iron minerals are typically mixed with clay, sand, rock or gravel. Iron is so common that it may be found in your backyard. Nevertheless, it is only mined commercially when the concentration is large enough to make it worth going after. Iron is used in cookware, fencing, vehicles, motors, buildings, and steel, just to name a few. And, every American born will need 27,416 pounds of iron in their lifetime.
On this day September 5, 1844, iron ore was discovered in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range. The discovery was made while the miners were on their way to prospect for gold. Because gold was the metal everyone was excited about, the iron ore was virtually ignored. As metals go, the iron would become far more valuable in northern Minnesota than gold. In fact, for the past 50 years, Lake Superior iron ore accounts for 90% of United States iron ore production, with much of that ore coming from the Mesabi Range, where that first discovery occurred back in 1844. Iron ore makes up the majority of Lake Superior shipping, and would soon become the most lucrative occupation in the Lake Superior shipping industry. Just imagine if you were one of those men who walked away from the iron ore discovery, in search of gold, which most never found. Wouldn’t you be kicking yourself now? There were millions to be made in the iron industry.
Shipping on Lake Superior is dominated by iron ore cargo. Of course, that is not the only thing shipped, but the iron ore ships, which are always called ore boats, are among the most amazing in my book. The largest ore boat, the Paul R. Tregurtha is the reigning “Queen of the Lakes” title holder as the longest vessel on the Great Lakes at 1,013 feet 6 inches was constructed in two sections. When my mom, Collene Spencer, my sister, Cheryl Masterson, and I were in Superior three years ago, we got to see this amazing vessel as it left port. Of all the ships on Lake Superior, the ore boats are the ones most people think of when they think of ships on the lake. For people who make their living on the lake, the ore boats are their bread and butter. And to think it all started with a discovery that no one seemed to care about. In the end, it was an unexpected gold mine.