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November 28 , 1905: The Mataafa Storm

On this day on Lake Superior in 1905, a great storm began, known to many as the “Thanksgiving Storm” and, more often, the “Mataafa Storm.” The storm produced hurricane-force winds, and the water on Lake Superior’s western end was so high it drove through Minnesota Point at a spot known as “the barrens” hard enough to cut a channel. That day and the next, 29 ships were wrecked or suffered damage, seventeen were stranded, and at least one foundered. The human toll was also heavy; the storm took thirty-three souls, nine of them just outside Duluth’s ship canal. The Mataafa, hauling a load of iron, steamed hard for the canal and safety beyond it. But as the Mataafa entered the canal, currents and wind gusts forced the ship into the north pier; conditions then carried it back into the lake before slamming it broadside against the pier head. About 150 yards from shore, the Mataafa settled to the lake bottom and split in two. Members of the U.S. Life Savers stood helplessly on shore, the storm too strong to launch their lifeboats. That night thousands of Duluthians lined the shore, standing vigil as the storm pounded the wounded ship. When the Life Savers finally reached the ship the next morning they found fifteen sailors—including the ship’s captain—alive. Unfortunately, nine of the crew either drowned or froze to death. Read more about the Mataafa storm here.

A postcard showing the Mataafa tossed by waves just off the north pier of the Duluth ship canal during the 1905 storm often named for this vessel. (Image: Zenith City Press)