Digest>Archives> May 1997

Five against The Lake - 23 Hours of Frigid Misery

By Don Farrant

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The beautiful stairway inside the keeper's house ...
Photo by: Bernie Hellstrom

When this story was originally written in 1977, a frightful, 77-year-old boating accident in Northern Lake Michigan held a special memory for Clementine McCauley, 76, of St. Joseph, a retired elementary principal.

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This is how the kitchen looked prior to the ...
Photo by: Bernie Hellstrom


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The beautiful stairway inside the keeper's house ...
Photo by: Bernie Hellstrom

Her father, Capt. Owen J. McCauley, then a 31-year-old assistant keeper in the U. S. Lighthouse Service, was one of five who spent 23 terrible hours on an overturned sailboat in December, 1900. Before the ordeal was over, the big lake had claimed three lives-and a limb of a fourth.

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Squaw Island Light, Mich. as she appears today. ...
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Capt. Owen McCauley of Squaw Island Lighthouse. ...

McCauley survived, but that's only part of the story as far as Clementine was concerned. She remembered that her pregnant mother, Mary, stayed home at Beaver Island and was not in the boating party, because she was awaiting the arrival of Clementine herself.

"If my mother had gone on that trip, I wouldn't be here today," she said.

It was Dec. 14, 1900, when William H. Shields, keeper of the Squaw Island Lighthouse (just northwest of Beaver Island) decided to close up for the winter. The day was cold-so much so that a dense cloud of vapor hung over the lake to a height of about 15 feet. As Shields turned off his light and embarked with his party of four in the station's Mackinac sailboat, he anticipated an easy nine-mile trip to Big Beaver.

Besides Shields, there were his wife and her niece, Lucy Davis of Richmond, Ind., first assistant keeper McCauley, and second assistant, Lucien Morden of Montague.

The open, 22-foot Mackinac boat was a popular craft and standard equipment for the lightkeepers. A two-masted gaffrigger, she had a jib, foresail and mainsail and was considered an easily handled, centerboard boat, pointed at both bow and stern.

The moderate northeast wind indicated easy sailing, and Shields estimated the trip to St. James would take two hours. The fog was lifting as they cast off. For about 10 minutes all went well, until the boat encountered shifting wind conditions, with alternately steady breezes and total calm.

The lull was a prelude to disaster. With the boat dead in the water and the icy mists fast dissipating, McCauley noticed what he called a "puff of wind" coming from the north with great force.

He yelled to Shields at the helm, but the squall hit with unexpected vigor, evidently permitting no time to slacken sails or turn into the wind. The boat, unbalanced to one side, heeled over until the sails lay flat on the water.

All was confusion, and the shrieks of the women heightened the panic of the moment. McCauley managed to scramble over the gunwale as they tipped, but the others landed in the lake. Shields clung to his wife and Morden held fast to Mrs. Davis.

Working frantically, the men pulled the women, gasping and helpless, up to the centerboard skeg, or trunk, and then to a prone position on the side of the hull. For the moment all were safe, although chilled to the bone.

In the precarious position, the five could not summon the power needed to right a boat of that size. As it remained rigidly on its side, McCauley began to throw and push all their belongings out of the cockpit to give it all the buoyancy possible. Lines from the rigging were used to tie the women securely, but lack of space prevented their feet and lower legs from being completely out of the water.

Shivering in misery, the huddled group searched the horizons for help in the way of a ship or nearby point of land. The squall had passed, leaving the air clear and the seas fairly calm as they sighted the first of several fishing tugs rounding the head of Beaver Island to the south. They tried in vain to hail the tugs, but the distance was too great. Since they were drifting south, they still had hopes of being seen by the fishing boats as they returned from the grounds that evening.

As the afternoon wore on, the three men and two women suffered cruelly from overexposure. Mrs. Shields and Mrs. Davis were violently convulsed with chills, having been immersed in the water and now trussed up and helpless. With numbness growing in their arms and legs, they were giving up in despair.

Relating the story later, McCauley said:

"The weeping and wailing of these innocent creatures through their untold suffering would melt the hardest of hearts. It is beyond my ability to describe the terrible scene, and I prayed in silence for their sufferings to cease. What a pity."

Mrs. Davis, the most severely affected, found it ironic that her doctor had advised her to come north from Indiana for her health, but instead she was finding death. After a time she resigned herself to her fate and began to softly sing the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee."

As darkness fell, they could make out the lights of the returning fishing tugs, but, alas, the distance was still too great and their cries could not be heard. Mrs. Davis, now realizing all was hopeless, wept bitterly and then seemed to sleep awhile. After that, with a few short gasps, she breathed no more. Morden, huddled next to her, turned and whispered to McCauley, "She is dead."

Next, Mrs. Shields became delirious and begged her husband to either lower her into the water or cut her loose completely after she should die, so her body would not remain exposed to the elements. This request was granted. Her sufferings became more pronounced, and with indescribable moans, she expired about 8 p.m.

Morden spoke up next, saying he would be the next victim. His arms and legs were fast becoming numb as he sat, now erect, on the side of the hull with his arms hugging the jib sheet and his feet hanging down.

He probably lacked the vitality of the other two men, since he had been spending a lot of time indoors studying law.

Suddenly he shuddered, released his lifeline and slid across the bottom to the centerboard. McCauley caught his arm and yelled to Shields for help, but got no reply, and the man slipped into the water where he splashed around a few seconds, then disappeared in the darkness.

The two remaining survivors clung to the side of the hull through the bitter night. Shields was doubly in anguish-not only from the cold, but from the sight of his wife's body dangling on a rope in the water below.

The men lashed themselves down as best they could and prayed that daylight would bring renewed hope of rescue, yet as dawn broke they found themselves no closer to land, with not a ship in sight.

Their location was roughly between Whiskey and High Island. Since they were drifting westward, they now had hopes of reaching Trout Island completely, which meant all hope would be gone unless they could drift out into the ship channel where steamers plied north and south in the open waters of the lake.

By now the men were not only freezing but very hungry. To add to their misery, a brisk southeast wind was bringing with it occasional gusts of snow.

Shields, the weaker of the two, was intermittently conscious and increasingly subject to bone-wracking chills. Noting his condition, McCauley began to pound him unmercifully, striking him alternately with his fists and feet. Finally, in the midst of this pummeling, Shields murmured that he would rather die naturally than be kicked to death.

By late morning they had drifted well out into the ship channel and had veered to the north. McCauley saw smoke on the horizon, then lost it in a snow squall. A little later he made out three masts and told Shields to have courage, for almost certainly a steamer was just to the north. Finally, the hull of a large ship moved in broadside to the wrecked vessel and, with four short blasts of her whistle, hove to and lowered a boat.

The rescue ship was the Manhattan of the Gilchrist line. McCauley watched, half believing, as four oarsman brought the lifeboat alongside, cut the lashings which held the two men, and took them aboard. McCauley got into the boat under his own power, but Shields had to be lifted, being immobile in his half-frozen state. Back they rowed to the steamer where a block and tackle was used to hoist them aloft and lower them to the deck.

Aboard the Manhattan, the rescued men were given food and bowls of hot whiskey, which had a stimulating effect. Crewmen on the steamer were amazed to hear they had spent 23 hours in such frigid misery.

The bodies were taken aboard and covered with canvas. The unlucky Mackinac boat, it was decided, was not worth salvaging, so Capt J. C. Dobson of the Manhattan left it to its fate.

The steamer continued on its intended course to Manitowoc, Wis., where it tied up early the next morning. Here the captain made a full report of the shipwreck to local authorities. Coroners came aboard to claim the bodies, while Shields and McCauley were taken to a hospital.

It was found that Shields' feet were frozen and his lungs somewhat affected. McCauley, in much better shape, had only a toe and two fingers frostbitten.

A coroner's jury visited the men in the hospital, questioning them as to the cause of the accident-whether the boat was overloaded, unbalanced, etc. After lengthy grilling, they concluded the forces of nature and not the lightkeeper should be blamed for the tragedy.

Owing to poor communications between Beaver Island and the mainland, McCauley's wife did not hear the news for several days. On Dec. 16, the captain of one of the fishing tugs told Mary McCauley that the Squaw Island light had been out for two nights. Alarmed, she immediately said, "Something is wrong."

Mary talked the Coast Guard into going over to investigate, and of course they found the island deserted. At that time there were no cable connections to the mainland, and even a telegram McCauley had sent from Manitowoc had to wait, for it was too stormy for the mail boat to make the passage. Mary suffered agonies of apprehension until the end of December when she had the full story.

Owen McCauley was dismissed from the hospital in late December and recovered fully. Shields, on the other hand, remained at the hospital six months, and one of his legs had to be amputated just below the knee.

No trace of the Mackinac sailboat was ever found, but the next spring, a fisherman found one item from the wreck-the lighthouse vest.

The two survivors spent many more years in the lighthouse service. Shields, although one-legged, became keeper at the Charlevoix station, where he served until retiring in April, 1924. He died in September, 1925.

McCauley was promoted to chief keeper at Squaw Island and stayed in command until the light was closed in 1928. He was then transferred to the St. Joseph Light, where he remained until retiring in 1936 after some 38 years in the lighthouse service. He died Sept 14, 1958 at age 89.

This story appeared in the May 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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