Kolb on Thompson, 'Graveyard of the Lakes'

Mark L. Thompson. Graveyard of the Lakes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000. 416 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8143-2889-7.

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb (National Endowment for the Humanities)
Published on H-Local (October, 2000)

New Perspectives on Ship Losses in the Great Lakes

New Perspectives on Ship Losses in the Great Lakes

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the reviewer and not of his employer or any other federal agency.]

Over the past ten years Mark Thompson has authored three books on Great Lakes maritime topics.[1] His newest book is an assessment of notable shipwrecks that occurred in the North American inland seas, beginning with the Griffon in 1679. Thompson, a maritime historian and former college administrator, is also a seasoned Great Lakes mariner, who serves as an officer aboard ships of the USS Great Lakes Fleet, Inc. This combination of scholarly and practical knowledge is mustered to give the reader a fresh perspective on shipping losses in the Great Lakes.

In his narrative Thompson profiles approximately sixty of the more than 25,000 wrecks that occurred during a period of more than 320 years. He refers to dozens of other examples in his assessment. The author has two major goals: to understand the primary causes of the types of shipwrecks and their resulting fatalities, and to discern why the numbers of shipwrecks and fatalities have declined so precipitously.

He considers five categories in his analysis: Stranding and Grounding; Fire and Boiler Explosion; Collision; Foundering; and, finally, Human Factors. The human factors include navigational error, poor visibility, improper loading, and multifaceted human-related factors such as hull failure or equipment malfunction. The majority of accidents and fatalities, he concludes, have been the result of human error, from basic mistakes and miscalculations to gross incompetence and negligence. We are informed that 75-96 percent of all accidents were caused to human error (p. 362). The reader has to only turn to contemporary news reports to recall the loss of human life from the sinking of ferry boats that ply European waters in the Baltic Sea, English Channel, and the Greek Aegean islands, as well as Indonesian and Philippine waters of the Southwest Pacific. The most recent of these tragedies (26 September 2000) is the loss of the Express Samina a 35 year-old refurbished Greek ferry that foundered on a well-known beacon-lit rocky outcrop on the island of Paros with the loss of at least 76 passengers. Apparently, according to the most current newspaper accounts, the captain was unwell and was asleep in his cabin, other veteran officers were viewing a televised European soccer championship elsewhere on board, while a neophyte officer in training was the helmsman on the ship's bridge. The captain and four crewmembers are being held on charges of manslaughter.

Thompson gives the reader numerous examples, and examines statistically the relationship between the number of ships on the lakes and the number of casualties from 1830 to 1979. He suggests that during the eighteenth century the number of wrecks kept pace with the number of ships, but that by the twentieth century the number of wrecks and number of ships declined markedly. Changes from wooden vessels to ships of steel construction, and the adoption of sophisticated navigational aids are correlated. The author ends his narrative with six suggestions for the Coast Guard to improve safety within the shipping industry. This is an especially lucid and valuable chapter that was written by someone who "knows" his subject matter and is more than a participant-observer.

I would make three observations. First, this unique volume is not just another "shipwreck book" in that it provides the reader with an historical context and the rationale for a categorization of shipwrecks. A majority of volumes devoted to wrecks focus upon the retelling of a single incident or accident and fail to place the event into an historical context. Other books fail to compare and contrast the incidents and seek explanations. Hence, Thompson examines more than sixty specific incidents and looks beyond the specific events for similarities and distinctions, making the reader aware of the human tragedy as well as the maritime loss. In this regard, Thompson's book supercedes works by Beasley (1930) and Bowen (1952) on Great Lakes shipwrecks.[3] The reader is also informed subtly that the rather placid-looking Great Lakes are dangerous. Nothing is said about the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 and the Erie Canal is mention in passing reference only to increased passenger traffic and commerce in the early 1800s.

Second, there has not been a volume on Great Lakes shipwrecks published for some time. Thompson's assessment is up-to-date and suggests historical factors that influenced both the numbers and kinds of wrecks. The size of the fleet, the level of technological development, government regulations, and the "human factor" are mitigating circumstances. For example, while there have been fewer wrecks during the past several decades, the size of the lake freighter fleet has also diminished. Likewise, the number of fatalities has declined markedly from a high of 800 passengers and crewmembers during the loss of the steamer Eastland in 1915, to the loss of the tanker Jupiter which exploded and burned in 1990 at Bay City, Michigan, with the loss of one crewmember. There has been no loss of life since the latter incident a decade ago.

Lastly, one may wish to argue with some of Thompson's extrapolated statistics, but he does provide reasonable and logical documentation for his numbers. The figure of 25,000 wrecks may seem excessive --I thought so before reading his book -- but I am convinced that his overall numbers are probably appropriate. While providing a useful bibliography, the author fails to include additional references for the interested reader, particularly citations to web site shipwreck lists, electronic and paper-based collections, and journals.[4]

I would only wish that my good friend, the late Robert ("Bob") MacDonald of Erie, Pennsylvania (whose grandfather was Captain of the foundered steamer Sevonia lost in 1905, pp. 227-230) were with us to enjoy this splendid synthesis and compelling narrative with its insight and passionate concern for those who sail on the lakes as crew or passengers. Bob enjoyed recounting shipwreck stories and he would, I'm sure, have been pleased with Thompson's assessment.


[1]. Thompson's other volumes, also published by Wayne State University Press, include an historical overview of the shipping industry from earliest commerce to contemporary shipping activities in Steamboats and Sailors of the Great Lakes (1991). His Queen of the Lakes (1994) assesses changes through time in shipbuilding and profiles the longest ships that sailed the Great Lakes, while A Sailor's Logbook: A Season Aboard Great Lakes Freighters (1999) is a personal documentary of life aboard lake freighters during the 1996 shipping season.

[2]. A majority of Great Lakes shipwreck volumes are out of date and out of print, with a number having been issued by small (sometimes obscure) publishers in small press runs. Among these are books by Dana Thomas Bowen Shipwrecks of the Lakes (Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1952); Norman Beasley Freighters of Fortune: The Story of the Great Lakes (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1930); Dwight Boyer Ships and Men of the Great Lakes (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977); Robert J. Hemming Ships Gone Missing (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1992); and William Ratigan Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals , 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1969). Kim A. Stabelfeldt's Explore Great Lakes Shipwrecks (Wauwatosa, WI: Stabelfeldt Publications, 1992), three parts issued thus far, covers only Lake Michigan wrecks.

[3]. Of particular value to Great Lakes maritime researchers is "The Great Lakes Shipwreck File: Total Losses of Great Lakes Ships, 1679-1999" developed and maintained as a labor of love for over 13 years by David D. Swayze (Lake Isabella, MI) which has a searchable database accessible at http://www.oakland.edu/boatnerd/swayze/shipwreck/ The 2,500+ entries have the following format: vessel name, other names, official registration number, type of vessel at loss, construction information, specifications (dimensions and tonnage), date of loss, place of loss, lake where loss occurred, type of loss, loss of life, carrying (cargo, passengers, etc.), accident details, and sources.

Another notable resource is "Historical Collections of the Great Lakes" (HCGL) housed in the Jerome Library at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio (located south of Toledo) which has extensive collections of more than 9,000 books, 4,500 pamphlets, and 350 periodical titles, plus manuscripts, archival materials, and 130,000 still images. The focus of the collection is on commercial shipping, shipbuilding, navigation, commercial fishing, maritime law, yachting, labor history, freshwater ecology, recreation, and the history Great Lakes ports as well as shipwrecks. The collection also has more than 10,000 vessel genealogies, and is overseen by Bob Graham. Readers can access the HCGL through the searchable OhioLINK database. The web site URL is http://www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/hcgl/contact.html

The "Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Centre," established in 1975 at the Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, Ontario, Canada (located on Lake Ontario's north shore where the lake enters the St. Lawrence River), also has extensive collections including archives, images, audiovisual materials, a ships register data base, and artifacts. The web site also has a very useful search engine. The Centre has its 25th anniversary in the year 2000 and since 1986 published FreshWater: A Journal of Great Lakes Maritime History and also hosts the extremely valuable and essential maritime listserve MARHST-L. The Center's URL is http://www.marmus.ca/

The Great Lakes Historical Society's Inland Seas Maritime Museum, established in 1953 and located in Vermilion, Ohio (west of Cleveland on Lake Erie's southern shore), has the Clarence S. Metcalf Library which contains books, periodicals, records, and drawings related to Great Lakes history. Beginning in 1945, the society has published the journal Inland Seas .

Other useful electronic resources include: "Great Lakes Information Network" at http://www.great-lakes.net/ and "Maritime History on the Internet: A Guide to Doing Maritime History Research Online" at http://ils.unc.edu/marirtime/home.shtml (the latter from the University of Washington Libraries, Seattle).

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Citation: Charles C. Kolb. Review of Thompson, Mark L., Graveyard of the Lakes. H-Local, H-Net Reviews. October, 2000.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=4633

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