Lake Superior Shipwrecks
Onoko
Description of the Wreck Event

In early September, 1915, the Onoko grounded while departing a Duluth grain elevator but freed itself and cleared the harbor. This event likely contributed to a fateful episode a few days later. On Sep. 15, 1915, after leaving Duluth with 110,000 bushels of wheat the Onoko developed a serious leak under its machinery. At about 12:30 p.m. the Onoko was about 25 miles east of Duluth, abreast of Knife Island when the engineer witnessed water gushing in beneath the engine. Pumps were unable to keep up with the rising water and the Onoko began to founder. The Captain, W.R. Dunn, ordered the ships boats cast off and the crew of 16 and one passenger escaped safely. The survivors were quickly picked up by the Standard Oil steamer Renown and taken to Duluth. Water rushed in through the engine room ceiling and the freighter settled stern first to the bottom. The Onoko sank in 35 minutes in 220 feet of water.

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(Photos 1-4 above) - Onoko sinking, as photographed by an unidentified seaman on the Standard Oil Tanker, Reknown, Sep. 15, 1915; Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University

The Duluth Herald on Sep. 15, 1915, provided the following account of the loss of the Onoko:

The steamer Onoko owned by the Steinbrenner interests of Cleveland, Ohio, loaded with 110,000 bushels of wheat consigned from the Capitol Elevator company of Duluth to the J. Rosenbaum Grain company of Toledo, Ohio sprang a leak suddenly in Lake Superior yesterday afternoon, and with only a few minutes warning, sank, a total loss, in about 500 feet of water, nine miles off Knife island, and about sixteen miles out of Duluth. The crew of seventeen men, was saved, losing only their personal effects.

The monetary loss amounts to between $160,000 and $200,000, the cargo being worth more than $110,000 and the value of the vessel being reckoned at least $50,000. The purchase price of the wheat was more than $1 a bushel, the broker handling it declining to say further than that.

The disaster was a most unusual one. The Onoko left Duluth harbor at 10:30 yesterday morning, as related in The Herald extra, issued last evening as soon as the crew arrived in Duluth, and everything seemed well. The boat had been extensively repaired during the winter and spring and was looked upon to be in good shape. All went well and the sea was smooth, when while on the regular course, about nine miles off Knife island, the engineer, J.J. Higgins, reported to the master, Capt. W.R. Dunn, that the vessel had sprung a leak under the engines and that the water was coming in fast. When Capt. Dunn went back to investigate, the water was spurting in and in a few minutes drowned out the fire. The captain saw that the situation was hopeless and ordered out the boats. All of the crew including the one woman on board, Mrs. C.R. Cranbee, wife of the steward, and the lone passenger, Antone Rehor, a cement contractor of Cleveland, had no trouble reaching the boats and safety, and in a few minutes the steamer, her stern having filled rapidly, tossed her nose in the air and plunged stern first to the bottom.

The boats were at a safe distance and the members of the crew were not worried for, before they left the ship, they saw the steamer Renown, a tanker belonging to the Standard Oil company, which had left Duluth shortly after the Onoko, coming on full speed, the master of the tanker having noticed that the Onoko was settling. In a few minutes the Renown, with barge C in tow, came up and picked up the occupants of the lifeboats. The Renown put about and took the crew back to Duluth, being met just outside the Duluth canal by a tug, which took the Onoko crew off, the Renown and her tow resuming their journey down the lakes.

The only explanation offered for the disaster, and, seemingly the only plausible one, is that a plate of the hull, just under the engine suddenly gave way and let the water in so fast that there was no hope of the pumps acting against it. There was no sea, very little wind, and the progress of the ship was excellent. The sinking came without warning as there had been nothing had happened which can be construed as a cause of the accident.

Capt. Dunn reported to G.A. Tomlinson, agent for the vessel at this point, that the engineer reported the leak to him at 12:20 and that within ten minutes the ship had taken her plunge. The crew was landed in Duluth at 3:40 yesterday afternoon and the report was made to Mr. Tomlinson with half an hour. In making the report, the captain said: "We have no way of knowing what happened. The lake was smooth and we had no indication of anything being wrong until off Knife island. We were about nine miles out, in the regular course, when the engineer came forward and reported to me that the ship was leaking under the engine. By the time I got back there the water was spurting in and in a few minutes stopped the engines. There was no question that the ship was doomed, and I ordered out the boats. In a very few minutes after we left her the Onoko went down. The crew was in no danger, but the arrival of the oil steamer was timely and welcome at that."

Engineer Higgins reported to John Monaghan, government inspector of vessels here, that while he was standing near the crank shaft in the engine room, suddenly there came a rush of water from under the engine, and that the water was up to his waist. As there was evidently no hope of the pumps being able to combat the in-flow of water, and Higgins was being drowned out of the engine room, he climbed the ladder to safety, and with the rest of the crew took to the boats.

The crew, as a whole, testified that despite the suddenness of the affair, there was no panic, the boats were lowered in an orderly way and nobody had any difficulty in putting off from the doomed vessel. The approach of the Renown was comforting, but the crew felt that they were in no danger as the sea was fairly calm and the shore was in sight. Had the Renown not come along, it would simply have put the men to the inconvenience and labor of a long row to land.

The likely reason for the loss of the Onoko seems to be that it sprang a bottom plate. The plates may have been weakened from the grounding outside of Duluth just a few days prior. During the investigation into the sinking no conclusion could be reached. First Mate John McNamara of the Onoko testified he had inspected the plates just before the boat sailed and found them all in good condition. Hans Sorenson, a watchman, said an Austrian who shipped for the trip from Milwaukee to Duluth acted queerly throughout the trip and constantly complained about the condition of the boat. Officers and owners rejected the suspicion of any war plot in connection with the sinking, although they admitted that someone might have tampered with the vessel. George H. Steinbrenner, after listening to the testimony, said he believed the sinking was purely an accident.


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