Last week was the 83rd anniversary of a disaster on the waves just five miles from Kenosha’s shoreline.
On Oct. 29, 1929, the iron-hulled steamship SS Wisconsin went down in a violent storm on its regular run from Chicago to Milwaukee.
There were 71 crew members and four passengers aboard, along with cargo — autos and barrels of steel casings.
Tons of freight broke loose and slammed the inside of the hold. The freight smashed the sides hard enough to compromise the steel plates, and soon the pumps couldn’t keep up with the water rushing in.
At 2 a.m. Coast Guard boats — one each from Racine and Kenosha — were sent to assist the sinking ship. The Kenosha station cutter under the command of Capt. Alfred Kristofferson arrived first about 3 a.m., and lifeboats were then lowered from the listing steamer.
The last lifeboat holding 21 men overturned, pitched into the water by violent waves.
The Kenosha Coast Guard craft made two rescue/recovery trips out to the Wisconsin that morning.
The Coast Guard boats headed back to the Kenosha station, filled with survivors and the dead.
But there was another commercial boat that braved the gigantic waves to assist in the rescue: the Chambers Brothers’ 52-foot diesel-powered fish tug Search, under the command of Capt. Clifford Chambers, 38.
With a crew of Cliff’s brother Lloyd Chambers, Clinton “Tuffy” Young, Capt. Roland Hill of the Hill Steamship line, Clarence Ferris, Jule Ellefson and Kenosha policeman Ray Gleason, the tug breached the waves to pluck 15 more from the water.
In the icy waters, hypothermia was setting in quickly for the victims, and the Chambers brothers were their last hope.
The Kenosha Coast Guard vessel was an open rig, but the Chambers’ tug was enclosed, and they kept the tug as warm as they could. When they got the survivors inside the tug, they had to keep some of the half-frozen men from grabbing the steam pipes so they wouldn’t burn themselves.
The Chambers Brothers dock was located in the harbor on the site of today’s Best Western Harborside Inn, across from the Kenosha Coast Guard Station, and that’s where they unloaded their human cargo.
Hundreds of Kenoshans witnessed the rescue efforts on that cold morning, as these photos attest. Police from Kenosha and Racine fought the crowds to make way for shivering survivors and the dead being carried from the boats.
A dozen injured survivors were taken to St. Catherine’s Hospital with seven more to Kenosha Hospital.
Of the 75 aboard, 16 died, including the captain. Ten bodies were recovered, and three remain unidentified and unclaimed, buried in a grave in Green Ridge Cemetery.
Lying 6½ miles east-southeast of Kenosha in 130 feet of water, the SS Wisconsin today is a favorite spot for advanced divers.
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