November 12, 1920: The Francis J. Widlar strands 30 sailors on Pancake Shoals

On this day on Lake Superior in 1920, the crew of the 416-foot steam freighter Francis J. Widlar fought a November gale on her way from Duluth to Cleveland that drove the 16-year-old vessel onto the Pancake Shoals near Whitefish Point. William Rorke, captain of the steamer John Ericson, reported the foundering vessel when he reached Saulte Sainte Marie, stating that he had been following the vessel and thought he saw her lights go out and the vessel go under. The first newspaper reports—released when the vessel was 33 hours overdue at the Soo, feared that the ship and and her entire crew were lost. But the Widlar had become stranded, not wrecked, so Captain Arthur Forbes and a few other sailors set out in a small boat, rowing nearly ten miles before reaching a channel to safety where they could inform rescue ships of the Widlar’s plight. Meanwhile, the men who remained on board tried to light bonfires to stay warm, but too often the icy waters of Lake Superior would wash over the vessel, extinguishing them. Many feared the men would freeze to death. The stormy seas hampered rescue efforts to reach the vessels, and newspapers reported the Widlar was being battered to pieces and would go under soon. No lives were lost, but the vessel was considered a total loss. The Widlar was sold and rechristened the Bayton in 1921 and stayed in service until 1966.

The Francis J. Widlar, date unknown. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index)