Breaking News
More () »

The gales of November came early. Remembering the rescue of the crew of The Chicago

Unknown Story of WNY: 32 Buffalonians were stranded after their ship went under in Lake Superior

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Gordon Lightfoot song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" tells the story of a ship that went down during a storm on Lake Superior. It is a story that is eerily similar to that of a Western New York man. Almost a century ago, the gales of November came early, and took out a ship, captained by a South Buffalo skipper. But this tale has a much happier ending.

For Starpoint Director of Special Education, Brian Farrell, education is a lifelong journey. For much of his adult life that journey has led him up his own family tree. A journey that set sail on a ship named The Chicago, built in 1901 in the old Buffalo Drydocks, which operated next door to where Riverworks is today. A ship that his great grandfather Patrick Farrell captained 28 years later, with a crew of 31 fellow Buffalonians

"He sailed out of Duluth, Minnesota on October 21 with beautiful calm sky sunny days," Farrell said.

The sunny skies quickly darkened. The clouds grew heavy and the waters of Lake Superior grew angry, and as The Chicago passed Devil's Island, Farrell says, "that's when he was sailing right into Hell." 

Hell, in the form of a storm that swept across the Great Lakes. A tempest that whipped the waters into a frenzy with 50 mile an hour gales and 10 to 15 foot waves. They spent two days out in the middle of the lake slowly going in and out of waves. 

Farrell says, "blizzard conditions started and then started to snow and ice was forming on the ship."

The ship was pushed off course. Thinking they were headed towards Whitefish Bay to get to Sault Ste Marie, they actually wound up on the rocks on the western shores of Michipicoten Island. The beached ship was eventually swallowed by the torrid waters. The crew was stranded on the island for three days. 

The story of the stranded sailors overtook headlines around the world; "Shipwrecked Sailors May Die in Storm" reads one. "Sailors Face Starvation on Desolate Isle" reads another. The Buffalo Courier Express reported "32 Buffalo Sailors Face Death," but included an optimistic quote from the wife of the skipper, Farrell's great-grandmother. 

"She felt very confident that they would survive based on how large and strong they were," Farrell said.

Soon enough, as the headlines read, she was proven right, as all 32 men were rescued, unharmed. 

"Researching this has been like being a detective that's what I love about history. Looking through those primary sources and finding bits in pieces and it leads you to another piece of the story," Farrell said.

He was even able to track down a scuba diver named Ken Merriman, who had shot underwater video of the wreck of the Chicago, as she sits on the floor of Superior today. 

"I sat down and I was overwhelmed by it, emotional. I was able to pull up and there it was," Farrell said.

Farrell just wishes that his father, for whom he bought a brick at Canalside celebrating "the son of a son of a sailor," would have had the chance to see the video. A video, and a family story of heroics and survival, that he will now pass along to his children. 

Before You Leave, Check This Out