Thursday, 3 July 2014

The tragic, mostly forgotten story of the Sea Wing disaster

Lurid St. Paul newspaper headlines trumpeted dreadful news of a July 13, 1890, steamboat disaster: “Whole Families Forced into the Darkness of Another World Clasped in Each Other’s Arms”; “A Voyage of Pleasure That Ended on the Shores of Another World”; “The Tornado on Pepin’s Treacherous Bosom the Crowning Calamity of all Minnesota Annals.”

Sea Wing, a stern-wheeled steamer packed with 215 passengers on a Sunday cruise, had capsized on Lake Pepin, drowning 98. The steamboat and its attached barge had been about five miles north of Lake City, returning to Red Wing, when struck by a frontal thunderstorm. Straight-line winds flipped the boat.

For four days, Minnesotans and the rest of the nation followed the horrific story. Red Wing, soon labeled in newspapers as the “City of the Dead,” was home to 144 of the passengers. Residents knew little of who died or survived the accident until Monday morning when a steamboat carrying dozens of bodies reached the Red Wing levee with its grim cargo. A city in mourning saw 44 funerals conducted on Tuesday alone.

But many Sea Wing victims were still in the lake. A Minnesota National Guard regiment encamped at Lake City’s Camp Lakeview took over recovery operations from Lake City civilians. They searched for up to 40 still believed missing. As groups of relatives and friends of victims looked on, Guardsmen cannonaded and dynamited the lake in dramatic, but unsuccessful, attempts to raise bodies. On Thursday the drowned began surfacing, most unrecognizable.

Of 57 women and girls on board, only seven survived. Most of them were in the Sea Wing’s main cabin when the boat capsized and were immediately drowned.

Tragic vignettes of the accident and its victims emerged. Couples about to be married drowned; entire families killed; a mother clutching her baby, buried together as they had been found; initial survivors killed by hail as they struggled in the water; two sisters perishing when their escorts lost grips on their hair; family members struggling to identify badly disfigured remains.

Criticism of David Wethern, the ship’s captain, was tempered by the fact his wife and a son were among the drowned. Wethern and his steamboat sailed from Diamond Bluff, on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi. That small community and neighboring Trenton each suffered ten dead. An accident investigation found Wethern guilty of “unskillfulness” and overloading his vessel.

The Sea Wing disaster, so familiar to turn-of-the-twentieth-century Minnesotans, slowly disappeared from memory. Frederick L. Johnson, author of “The Sea Wing Disaster” (Goodhue County Historical Society, 1986) and the forthcoming expanded version of the original—”The Sea Wing Disaster: Tragedy on Lake Pepin”—said the calamity, so localized to Red Wing, Lake City, and Diamond Bluff, was largely lost outside of those communities.

Thursday 03 July 2014


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