SS John B. Cowle (1902)

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John B. Cowle
Career (U.S.) Flag of the United States (1867-1877)
Name: John B. Cowle
Owner: Cowle Transportation Co.
Port of registry: Port Huron, Michigan
Builder: Jenks Shipbuilding Co.
Completed: 1902
Fate: Sank in Whitefish Bay 12 July 1909 after colliding with the Isaac M. Scott
Notes: Official No. 77559
General characteristics
Class and type: Propeller, steamer, bulk freighter

4731 Gross Register Tonnage

3911 Net Register Tonnage
Length: 420 feet (130 m)
Beam: 50.16 feet (15.29 m)
Depth: 24 feet (7.3 m)
Crew: 24
Notes: Sank with the loss of 14 crewmembers

The SS John B. Cowle (1902) was one of the early Great Lakes bulk freighters known as "tin pans". She was the first of two ships named for prominent Cleveland, Ohio citizen and shipbuilder, John Beswick Cowle. On her maiden voyage in 1909, the Isaac M. Scott rammed the Cowle in heavy fog off Whitefish Point. The Cowle sank in 3 minutes, taking 14 of her 24 man crew with her. Artifacts from her wreck were illegally removed in the 1980s. Her artifacts are now the property of the State of Michigan and are on display as a loan to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The wreck of the Cowle is protected as part of an underwater museum in the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.


The steamer SS John B. Cowle was built in 1902 by the Jenks Shipbuilding Company for the newly formed Cowle Transit Company.[1][2] She was the first of two ships named for prominent Cleveland, Ohio citizen, John Beswick Cowle, who was part owner of the Globe Iron Works that built the first iron and steel Great Lakes bulk freighters, which were known as "tin pans".[1][3] By 1909 the Cowle was still owned by the Cowle Transit Company but for the sake of profit she was operated by the United States Transportation Company.[2]

Just several days prior to the Cowle's sinking, one deckhand left her at Detroit, Michigan after his father talked him into quitting and three more deckhands quit the Cowle at the iron ore dock in Two Harbors, Minnesota . The four replacement deckhands all drowned on the Cowle just 2 days later.[4]

Final voyage

On 12 July 1909, the 420-foot (128 m), 4,731 ton Cowle was laden with 7,023 tons of iron ore loaded at Two Harbors and downbound for Cleveland. The 504-foot (154 m), 6,372 ton Isaac M. Scott was a new steel steamer running light without cargo on her maiden voyage upbound for Duluth, Minnesota.[2][5][6] The Frank H. Goodyear locked through the Soo Locks behind the Scott, also upbound for Duluth through a fog shrouded Whitefish Bay. In an era before radar, Captain Russel Hemenger of the Goodyear followed the Scott with all of the pilothouse windows open and standing propped on a side sill for intense listening, navigating by compass, clock, and the lights and whistles of other ships.[2]

By 4:00 am the dense fog off Whitefish Point caused Captain W.G. Rogers of the Cowle to check to half speed and blow fog signals at intervals of less than a minute. The Scott suddenly loomed up full speed ahead broadside to the Cowle. Captain McArthur of the Scott rang the chadburn for reverse and ordered, "Hard left, hard left!" It was too late and the Scott rammed the Cowle, cutting her almost in two.[2][5][6] The mate of the Scott blew her whistle, and when the Scott's engine found the reverse that was ordered before impact, the Scott's bow pulled from the massive hole in the Cowle. The Cowle listed and began to founder. A line was thrown from the Scott's bow to the deck of the sinking Cowle. Three sailors scrambled hand over hand onto the Scott while other sailors ran for the rail and leaped into the lake in effort to get away from the suction of the sinking ship.

Captain Rogers of the Cowle managed to put a life preserver on his son who was sailing with him. Rogers was washed off as the ship sank, grabbed a piece of wreckage when he came back up, and was rescued in about 45 minutes. [5] The Cowle's steward, B. Rogers, gave the following account:

When the ship sank, I was stuck in a whirlpool, wrenched and whirled till I thought my legs would be pulled off. I saw a body alongside me. It was Will Thomas, my assistant. I tried to revive him when a broken hatch cover came up and struck the lad on the head, crushing it. My life preserver came off and while I was floundering in the water, another hatch cover came up. I grabbed the ring and pulled myself up on it. I saw a foot sticking up from beneath it, and pulling it, found it to be Thomas McKernan, the son of the chief engineer. I pulled him up and he revived after a while. The lake was covered with wreckage and all around in the fog could be heard cries of "Help" but it was three quarters of an hour before the yawls of the Scott had been loosened and put in the water. [5]

The Cowle sank in three minutes, taking 14 of her 24 man crew with her.[2] Shipwreck historian Janice Gerred reported, "Five of the drowned crew were from Adams, New York. Captain Roger's son and brother, who was steward on the Cowle, were rescued. Two engineers, four firemen, four deckhands, the second cook, porter, and an oiler went down with the ship." [5]

Shipwreck historian Wes Oleszewski reported that the crew of the Goodyear witnessed the collision through a series of sounds, "[F]irst a rumble like distant thunder ... then a distant groan, like tortured steel, accompanied by a series of deep-throated whistle blows ... and shouts through the distance...[followed by] an earthquake-like rumbling. A hollow silence followed, then more shouts and screams." [2] Captain Russel sounded the general alarm and creeped the Goodyear toward the sounds of disaster until they came to a full stop when men were in the water just off her bow. They lowered the boats and the Goodyear's crew began rescuing sailors. Captain Hemenger inched the Goodyear forward and used her spotlight to probe "through a jumble of wooden wreckeage, oil drums, life rings and splashing sailors" until he came upon the Isaac M. Scott with a massive hole in her bow.[2] Capatin Rogers and his mate were taken to Duluth on the Goodyear. The rest of the Cowle's crew were picked up by the Scott and transported to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.[5]

The loss of the Cowle was valued at $285,000. Her cargo of iron ore was valued at $25,000 but was not insured. The Scott was heavily damaged with two forward compartments holed. [7] She returned to the shipyard for reconstruction work costing $30,000.[6] After a lengthy investigation and hearings, the United States Steamboat Inspectors of Marquette, Michigan ruled that the Cowle was going too fast for prevailing conditions and suspended Captain Rogers and Pilot Edward E. Carlton for 30 days even though Rogers claimed that he had checked down to bare steerage way. Pilot F.W. Wertheimer of the Scott was beached for one year for excessive speed and failure to signal. [6][7]

The Scott sailed for four more years until she was lost with all hands on Lake Huron in the Great Storm of 1913.[7]

Wreck History

The wreck of the Cowle was discovered in 1972 in 220 feet (67 m) of water, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of Whitefish Point at 46°44.435′N 84°57.877′W / 46.740583°N 84.964617°W / 46.740583; -84.964617. When her wreck was discovered, the steering wheel still turned, and the inscription "John B. Cowle" was clearly visible on her bell. The log was still intact, was retrieved, and is now maintained in the Great Lakes Historical Society's Ship's Logs Collection.[5][8] The wreck has one of the few intact pilothouses on Lake Superior shipwrecks. The captain's quarters and office were located in Texas-style bow cabins behind the pilothouse. [9]

In the ensuing years following her discovery, the Cowle's wreck was stripped of her artifacts. Michigan’s Antiquities Act of 1980 prohibited the removal of artifacts from shipwrecks on the Great Lakes bottomlands. [10] The Evening News reported a Michigan Department of Natural Resources 1992 raid on the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and its offices that found evidence of 150 artifacts illegally removed from the state-claimed bottomlands, including artifacts from the Cowle.[10][11] Following a settlement agreement, the Cowle's steering wheel, 2 gauges, 3 electric lamps, binoculars, a cup, a saucer, a jug, a capstan cover, and a paneling section are now the property of the State of Michigan and are on loan for display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. [12][13]

The Cowle's wreck is protected for future generations of scuba divers by the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve as part of an underwater museum. The 1892 wreck of the steamer Vienna lies to her south and the 1884 wreck of the steamer John M. Osborn lies to her north.[2] Divers who visit the wreck sites are expected to observe preservation laws and "take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but bubbles".[14]

Great Lakes diver Harrington cautions that the Cowle is a deep wreck that carries considerable risks in diving and "divers must be certain of their abilities and equipment" when diving the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve. [15]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Great Lakes Vessels Online Index". Bowling Green State University. Retrieved 18 April 2009. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Oleszewski, Wes (1993, 1994, 1998). Sounds of Disaster, pp. 25 - 32, Avery Color Studios, Gwinn, Michigan, USA. ISBN 0-932212-76-X.
  3. Mansfield, Ed., J.B. (1899, 2003). "History of the Great Lakes: Volumne I". Maritime History of the Great Lakes; Original: J.H. Beers & Co., Chicago.. Retrieved 18 April 2009. , 78-90.
  4. Thompson, Mark L. (2006). "Graveyard of the Great Lakes". Google Books; Wayne State University Press..,M1. Retrieved 18 April 2009. , 167-169.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Gerred, Janice H. (1977, 1978)."The Sinking of the Cowle", Great Lakes Shipwrecks, p.10. Voyager Press, Grand Maria, Michigan, 1978. G 525.G74 1978.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Wolff, Julius F. (1979). The Shipwrecks of Lake Superior, p. 131. Lake Superior Marine Museum Association, Inc., Duluth, Minnesota, USA. ISBN 0932212-18-8.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Stonehouse, Frederick (1985, 1998). Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast: Maritime accidents from Whitefish Bay to Grand Marais, Michigan, pp. 142 - 145, Avery Color Studios, Gwinn, Michigan, USA. ISBN 0-9332212-43-3.
  8. "Ship's Logs Collection". Great Lakes Historical Society. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  9. "John B. Cowle". Shipwreck Explorers. Retrieved 19 April 2009. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Michigan DNR 1992 Affidavit and Search Warrant and Investigation Report of GLSHS". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 03 March 2009. 
  11. Storey, Jack, (4 December 1992). "Shipwreck artifact dispute simmers". Evening News, p. A1.
  12. "Cowle artifacts on loan to GLSHS". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 18 March April. 
  13. "State of Michigan Settlement Agreement with GLSHS". Whitefish Point Watch. Retrieved 18 April 2009. 
  14. "Michigan Department of Environmental Shipwrecks Program".,1607,7-135-3313_3677_3701-14514--,00.html. Retrieved 21 April 2008. 
  15. Harrington, Steve (1990, 1998). Divers Guide to Michigan, pp.329-330, Maritime Press & Great Lakes Diving Council, Inc., St. Ignace, Michigan, U.S.A. ISBN 0-9624629-8-5.

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