Capt. Wilford – a Hero of the Inland Seas
by Loraine Ritcheycontact info email@example.com
There are many ways to become a hero, some do so by doing heroic deeds and some by putting their well being on the line just by doing their job of work – this is a true story of one such person who could claim both.
Who is this hero of the Great Lakes, property owner, ship builder/owner, Great Lakes Captain Commodore of the Fleet (Richardson Line), a man of whom it was said:
“is another of those men who have worked their way to the front by integrity, the force of energy… he is independent self reliant and always ready for any emergency that may transpire in his chosen line of work” (History of the Great lakes p.584/5)
Captain Thomas Wilford started off life in Northamptonshire, England in 1841 .His family came to Amherst, Ohio when he was 12. The following year his father died leaving the young lad very little in the way of acquiring an education
“but by dint of perseverance he was enabled to attend public schools”(HGL).
In the spring of 1858 this 17 years old cast off the farm life and shipped out on the schooner John S Reed. In 1870 Tom Wilford had met and married Miss Fannie McQueen Gilmore, they had two children Cora and Adelaide.
How did this young man and his family become the stuff movies are made of in this day and age? The accounts from the newspapers of the day in Catherine Gregg’s History of the First Methodist Church and Behind the Waterfront (Bertram B Lewis) tell a story of danger, loss of life, heroics,daring and hope.
That fateful July in 1884 Captain Wilford would have sailed past the lighthouse, as it was then, to adventure and tragedy.
The Lorain Lighthouse 1875
All of the older captains used to take their families sailing with them frequently. Captain Wilford chose to take aboard his wife Fannie
and his two daughters, Cora and Adelaide on his vessel, a three mast wooden steamer John M. Osborn that summer in 1884.
That fateful Sunday July 27th 1884 dawned fine and sunny with a cool breeze chasing away any discomfort, The children Cora 11 years and Addie 7 years spent their time enjoying the day “they walked the deck, talked to the friendly sailors, plied their father (Capt Wilford) and the mate (George F Cleveland) with questions, watched the wild green Michigan shoreline. After supper the steward, Joseph Austin (a religious man came forward to conduct Sunday school services. The captain, his family and crew members not needed elsewhere attended (Lewis)
As night came on, a thick fog arose. The children were put to bed, but Fannie Wilford was uneasy after tucking them in “Mrs. Wilford (Fannie) whose motherly instincts of danger, more for her little ones than for herself (she eventually) took her place for an hour or two by her husband’s side on deck near the bow of the boat”(Lorain Herald 1884)
The Osborn was approaching the Soo Locks in a heavily traveled sea lane in very heavy fog. By all accounts the Osborn proceeded carefully whistling their approach through the fog. The Osborn, the down bound boat had the right of way, however that night found the Canadian passenger steamer “Alberta “ (up bound) The Alberta according to The Cleveland News Leader July 30th 1884 said of the Alberta.
‘This huge steel monster, during the few months she has been afloat has become the terror of the lakes. Proud of her reputation as one of the fastest side-wheel steamers on fresh water, she (Alberta) has been run in an extraordinarily reckless manner. “
The Osborn continued the steam whistle signaling when the approaching danger came through the “crossed whistles “ One whistle meant “go to starboard and two meant go to port, which ever boat whistles first the second answers, and if the first whistles one and the second two they are said to “cross whistles”. The swirling thick fog continued to make life dangerous for the wooden Osborn who was also towing two barges the Exile and G.W. Davidson
“ Suddenly, the Alberta itself loomed out of the fog, all lit up, like a great big factory…”
Fannie Wilford’s terror can only be imagined as she stood with her husband, her children asleep below decks, a cruel ending to such a lovely day as the steel clad Alberta towering above the little freighter bore down upon the hapless couple
“Tom! That boats going right through us!”
Very Quietly Captain Wilford answered
“I KNOW IT”
and almost as he spoke the Alberta struck the Osborn square in her side, slightly aft bursting through her steel hull into the engine room and filling the Osborne with escaping steam”
“Keep your nose in the Gap”
Capt Wilford shouted to the Alberta and the Alberta did.
Had she withdrawn the Osborn would have sank immediately, but at it was there were six or seven precious minutes for rescue. Captain Wilford lifted his wife up to the Alberta then ran along the deck through the steam and was lowered to by a rope to get to the cabin where his daughters had been.
Cora, his one daughter, in her night clothes had wanted to go back and get dressed but a deckhand (Thomas Barnes) told her there wasn’t time and lifted her up into the rigging. The steward, Mr. Austin (the same man who just hours before has held Sunday school services) rescued Addie and rushed her through the scalding steam holding his arm across his face and keeping the little girls face close to him. He handed her up to the deck of the Alberta and went back through the steam for the mangled and scalded sailors below”(HFMC)
“ Steam rushed from the freighter’s crushed boilers, the air was filled with shouts of seaman and those screams from those who had been sprayed by scalding water.”(Lewis)
Meanwhile the Alberta who had a full line of passengers on board including woman and children.
“They were all awakened by the shock of the two vessels coming together and before they could be made to understand that they were not in any danger they had run out of their state rooms and swarmed on the decks. The shrieking of women and the cries of men made the boat seem a perfect pandemonium. Many women in their fright fainted away and the men too were stunned by the sense of their supposed danger to do anything for them.”(Daily reporter Fon Du Lac Wis. July 30th 1884)
However not all the men on the Alberta were stunned into a tharn like trance. A passenger named Cook who was going up to serve as a steward on the propeller (ship) Argyle, volunteered to help save the children and a young lady (Miss Ella Ford), which he did.
“He tried to save more of the crew but the boats separated and the Osborn went down with the steward and four others of the crew in 10 minutes in about twenty five fathoms of water.” (Cleveland Herald July 30th 1884).
The gap in the Osborn as seen today on the bottom of Lake Superior photos Bob Epson of Nordic Diver
Meanwhile Captain Wilford had been pulled up on to the deck of the Alberta with the Osborn’s ships papers in hand as the Osborn sank beneath him.
“She went down with a terrible suction carrying many trapped sailors with her.
“The steward Austin seized a stanchion and with his arm around it was carried underwater, but with the suction of the water that stanchion was broken and rose to the surface bringing Austin with it. How deeply he was submerged, he knew not but happily found himself on the surface and was picked up by a boat lowered from the Alberta.
On Board the Alberta the survivors were desperate, all of them burned and scalded, engineer, Martin Burns peeled the skin off his arm and hand just like a glove.
They had only their nightclothes, so a “drummer” (salesman) on his way to Duluth opened his trunks and helped them out. He had heavy flannel shirts, thick woolen stockings, sweaters and a general assortment of lumberjack clothing for the North Woods. The survivors transferred to the first down bound boat they met the steam barge Hecla (Lorain Herald).
Meanwhile the community in Lorain waited for news of the survivors. Captain Wilford was a pillar of the Methodist church. The Sunday after the disaster the congregation was praying for them not yet knowing who had survived or the extent of their injuries.
“The Wilfords lived right across the street from the church so they (upon arriving back in Lorain) went right on over and walked in (in to the church) in their heavy lumberjack clothing … there wasn’t a dry eye in the place (HFMC)
Captain Wilford died June 5th 1911 He had just pulled into port (Lorain) from Cleveland and was sitting in the after cabin talking with his crew when he fell unconscious.
The Wickens ambulance was called where they transported him to his home 416 Washington Avenue (note the house still stands next to the Masonic Temple).
His daughter Adelaide died at the age of 16 of Typhoid fever in 1893. Cora married and her son Wilford Bartenfeld who graduated in 1913 from Lorain High became a marine architect and patented the Channel Steel Hull Construction process that is used on the iron ore carriers.
In 1984 exactly 100 years after her sinking the wreck of the John M Osborne was found, she is in excellent condition and lays in that area of infamy along side other wrecks such as the Edmund Fitzgerald. You may access the photos and information here and here and here
The next time you are walking down Washington Avenue by the Masonic Temple take a glance at 416 Washington Avenue and think of the man who lived there and his story one of bravery, tragedy, perseverance and love of this family, church and his home.
A home at 416 Washington whose front door welcomed him back from his journeys on the the inland seas and on his very last lifetime journey.
Ironically the twin anchors that used to be displayed above his doorway are gone
and yet the twin anchors of the Osborn remain photo Bob Epson
The Osborne has now a dive history as well
Craig Bergeoketter and the Osborn ( source)
After documenting the ship’s twin anchors winched to the bow and witnessing the tremendous damage inflicted by the Alberta the team surveys the engine. They discover the engine was laminated with a jacket of wood.
Another camera team spots an interesting object on the wooden jacket. Upon looking closer the team determines the object is a china plate. As the ship went down a trapped pocket of air vacuum sealed the plate to the boiler
A matching cup is discovered near the ascent line (amidships). After examining it Craig returns it to the deck for others to see and photograph
Many thanks to Renee and Dave for their hardwork and reseach and Captain Prince of Nordic Diver and Steve Linley’s Great Lakes for the underwater photos of the Osborn- please check out their sites as there are a lot more displayed
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