Life Saving Service
One of the most interesting features of this coast, and the most humanitarian institution of the country, is the Life-Saving Service; and the history of Huron County would be incomplete without it. The authority to establish a life-saving station on this coast, was given to the Secretary of the Treasury by act of Congress passed June 20, 1874. This act authorized the establishment of a "complete life-saving station " at Point aux Barques. This was designated as the "Tenth District." It went into commission in 1876. Stations at Sand Beach and Grindstone City were established and went into commission in the fall of 1881. The superintendent s headquarters of the Tenth District was removed from Detroit in 1882. There are thirteen stations embraced in this district, eight on Lake Huron and five on Lake Superior. The stations on Lake Huron are located as follows: Sand Beach, Point aux Barques, Grindstone City, Tawas, Sturgeon Point, Thunder Bay Island, Middle Island and Hammond Bay; on Lake Superior, Vermillion Point, Crisp's, Two Heart River and Muskallonge Lake.
Since this station has been established, hundreds of lives have been saved on this and Lake Superior coast. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1883, there were 195 persons' lives involved, and none lost. Total value of property involved, $493,720; amount saved, $465,325,—by these brave men. But in trying to save others from death, the men of the Life-Saving Service sometimes meet their own. A calamity of this kind occurred off the coast of Huron County some years ago; and, as most of the brave, unfortunate men lived in the county where they had families and friends, it is thought that a pretty full report of the same would be acceptable and desirable by the patrons of this history.
The Captain of the scow "J. H. Magruder," bound for Detroit, after having weathered a fearful storm and heavy sea through the long night, every moment of which he, with crew, wife and two children, was threatened with destruction, discovered at daybreak, on the morning of the 23d of April, that he was off Point aux Barques Life-Saving Station No. 2. The sea was still breaking over the vessel's bow and there was several feet of water under the stern. Fearing that there was great danger unless assistance was rendered, he displayed his ensign at half mast. A little after seven o'clock he saw the answering signal from the station, and soon after observed the surf-boat coming out. Then he lost sight of her, thought the sea was too heavy, and that she had gone back. In about one hour and a half he saw her again, a mile north of him, and pulling to the eastward to get out of the breakers on the reef. In a short time he beheld her go down in the trough of a heavy sea, and when she came up she had capsized. She was righted, bailed out, and again pulled for his boat. In about twenty minutes she again capsized. He observed several men clinging to her for a time, and then he saw only one! (This life-saving crew has been criticised by some for their action here, but the Captain of the "Magruder" thought they used good judgment.) The Captain threw his deck-load overboard, the wind shifted to the northward about noon, and making sail he cleared the reef and-arrived in Sand Beach all safe, but leaking badly.
The sequel to this sad story we will let Captain Kiah, the gallant keeper of this station, tell himself: "A little before sunrise on the morning of the 23d, James Nantau, on watch on the lookout, reported a vessel showing signal. I got up, and saw a small vessel about three miles from the station, bearing about east and by south. She was flying signal-of- distress flag at half mast. I saw that she was at anchor close outside the reef. All hands were immediately called; ran the boat out on the dock; and, when ready to launch, surfman Deegan, on patrol north, came running to the station, having discovered the vessel from McGuire s Point, one and one-half miles north of the station. At this time a warm cup of coffee was ready, of which we all hastily partook, and a little after sunrise (5:15 by our time), we launched the boat. Wind east, and fresh, sea running northeast, surf moderately heavy. We pulled out northeast until clear of the shore surf, and then I headed to cross the reef where I knew there was sufficient water on it to cross without striking bottom. We crossed the reef handsomely, and found the sea outside heavier than we had expected, but still not so heavy as we had experienced on other occasions.
"After getting clear from the breakers of the reel, the boys were in excellent spirits, and we were all congratulating ourselves upon getting over so easily. I then bore down towards the vessel, heading her up whenever I saw a heavy sea coming. When heading direct for the vessel, the sea was about two points of the compass forward of our port beam, and the heaviest seas I had frequently to head the boat directly for, or dodge them. When about a quarter of a mile from the vessel, and half a mile outside the reef, and very nearly one mile from the nearest point of land, I saw a tremendous breaker coming for us. I had barely time to head her for it, when it broke over our stern and our boat filled. I ordered the boys to bail her out before the sea had got clear of her stern, but it became apparent at once that we could not free her from water, as the gunwales were considerably under water amid ship, and two or three minutes after she was capsized. We then righted her, and again were as quickly capsized. We righted her a second time, but with the same result. I believe she several times capsized and righted herself after that, but I cannot distinctly remember. As near as I can judge, we filled about one hour after leaving the station.
"For about three-quarters of an hour we all clung to the boat, the seas occasionally washing us away; but having our cork jackets on, we easily got back again. At this time Pottenger gave out, perished from cold, dropped his face in the water, let go his hold, and we drifted slowly away from him. We were all either holding to the life-lines or upon the bottom of the boat, the latter position difficult to maintain owing to the seas washing us off. Had it been possible for us to remain on the bottom of the boat, we would all have been saved, for in this position she was bouyant enough to float us all clear from the water. My hope was that we could all hold out-until we got inside the reef where the water was still. I encouraged the men all I could, reminded them that there were others, their wives and children, that they should think of, and to strive for their sakes to keep up; but the cold was too much for them, and one after another gave out, each as did the first.
"Very little was said by any of the men. It was very hard for any of us to speak at all. I attribute my own safety to the fact that I was not heated up when we filled. The men had been rowing hard and were very warm, and the sudden chill seemed to strike them to the heart. In corroboration of this theory I would say that Deegan, who did the least rowing, was the last to give out. All six perished before we drifted to the reef. I have a faint recollection of the boat grating or striking the reef as she passed over it, and from that time until I was taken to the station I have but little recollection of what transpired. I was conscious only at brief intervals. I was not suffering, had no pain, had no sense of feeling in my hands, felt tired, sleepy and benumbed. At times I could scarcely see. I remember screeching several times, not to attract attention, but thought it would help the circulation of the blood. I would 1 pound my hands and feet on the boat whenever I was concious. I have a faint recollection when I got on the bottom of the boat, which must have been after she crossed the reef. I remember, too, in the same dreamy way of when I reached the shore. Remember of falling down twice, and it seems as if I walked a long distance between the two falls; but I could not have done so, as I was found within thirty feet of the boat- I must have reached the shore about 9:30 a. m., so that I was about three and a half hours in the water. I was helped to the station by Mr. Shaw, light-keeper, and Mr. McFarland. Was given restoratives,dry clothes were put on, my limbs were dressed, and I was put to bed. I slept till noon (two hours), when my wife called me, saying that Deegan and Nantau had drifted ashore, and were in the boat room. My memory from this time is clear.
"I thought possibly these two men might be brought to life, and, under my instructions, had Mr. Shaw and Mr. Pelhers work at Deegan for over an hour, while I worked over Nantau for the same time, but without success. I then telegraphed to the Superintendent and the friends of the crew. The four other men were picked up between 1 and 2 p. m., all having come ashore within a quarter of a mile of the station. I, with the surf-boat, came ashore about one mile south of the station, the bodies drifting in the direction of the wind, and the boat more with the sea. On the 24th, Hiram Walker, of Detroit, telegraphed to ship the bodies of Petherbridge and Nantau to Detroit, which I did, together with their effects."
Mr. Samuel McFarland gives a very pathetic account of this disaster:
"I am a farmer, and was working on the farm about one-fourth of a mile from where the surf-boat came ashore, when I heard gulls screeching, as I supposed, several times; but paid no attention to it Presently my two dogs started to run for the cliff, and thinking that somebody might be calling from the shore, I went to the edge of a high cliff overlooking the lake, and saw a boat bottom up about 100 rods from the shore, with one man on it. Not knowing that the station crew were out, I started to notify them of what I saw. Upon getting to the station, about nine o'clock, and learning that they were out, concluded that it was the surf-boat I had seen, and went to the light-house after Mr. Shaw to accompany me to where the boat was drifting in. When we got there the boat was ashore, and Captain Kiah was standing on the beach about thirty feet from the boat, with one hand holding on to the root of a fallen tree, and with the other steadying himself with a lath-stick, and* swaying his body to and fro, as if in the act of walking, but not moving his feet. He did not seem to realize our presence, and was so disfigured we at first failed to recognize him, his face black and swollen and a white froth issuing from his mouth and nose. We took him between us, and with great difficulty walked him to the station. Several times on the way he would murmur, * Poor boys, they are gone! At one time he straightened out his legs, his head dropped back, and we thought he was dying; but he soon recovered again. After reaching the station, he was given restoratives, his clothes were removed, and he was put to bed. His legs from above the knees were much swollen, bruised and black."
The names of the lost crew are as follows : William I. Sayres, Robert Morrison, James Pottenger, Dennis Deegan, James Nantau and Walter Petherbridge. Nantau and Petherbridge were single men. Sayres and Morrison were widowers. Sayres left five children, the youngest at the time being eight years old. Morrison left three children, the youngest, six years old. Pottenger and Deegan each left a wife and four children, each of the youngest at the time being two months old. Their widows and children are still living in Huron County. No blame has ever been attached to Captain Kiah or his crew, by those who had any knowledge of the circumstances. It was on ^ of those incidents that are liable to occur to the best and bravest of men. Captain Kiah was left very feeble in mind and in body; his limbs were in a critical condition. It was a question whether he would be able for duty again, and the closing incident of this sad tragedy was his resignation. Thus this station in a day, by the power of a great wave, was bereft of a crew who had within a year, by their heroic action, saved nearly a hundred lives.
In the tall ot this year, Superintendent Joseph
Sawyer, of the Tenth District, was drowned near
Rogers City while returning from one of the stations,
and the heroic Captain Kiah, late Keeper of Station
No. 2 of this District, having recovered his health
fully, was tendered the vacant place by the Government, which he accepted. For his bravery in the
disaster at Point aux Barques, the Secretary of the
Treasury, under act of Congress passed June 20,
1874, presented him with a magnificent gold medal.
It is two inches in diameter and one-eighth of an
inch thick, and solid gold. On one side is represented a surf-boat in a heavy sea with the surf-men
in and about her, with the inscription around the
edge as follows : " Life-Saving Medal of the First
Class. United States of America." On the other
side is the front of a pedestal bearing the following
inscription: "To Jerome G. Kiah, Wreck of Life-
Saving Crew of Point aux Barques, Lake Huron,
April 23, 1880. Act of June 20, 1874." Surmounting the pedestal is the American eagle. To the left
is a female figure in drapery leaning against the
pedestal. On the right is the bow of a boat with
rigging, anchor, etc., and around the edge are these
words: " In testimony of heroic deeds in saving life
from the perils of the sea."