November 17, 1883: The Wreck of the Manistee

On this day on Lake Superior in 1883, the 184-foot, 679-ton wooden propeller vessel Manistee was wrecked near Ontonagon, Michigan. The Manistee, according to shipwreck historian Julius Wolff, had served western Lake Superior since 1873 under Captain John McKay, “the dean of all skippers on the lake.” The Manistee had left the Zenith City on November 10, but had to seek shelter in Bayfield during a huge gale. McKay waited out the storm for six days before becoming impatient, and headed for Houghton, Michigan, on the 16th. A note allegedly found in a bottle a year later, written by McKay, indicated that he realized the big lake was too much for the Manistee. She went down with all hands—at least 23 lives were lost, including McKay and purser George Seaton, steward F. M. Killey, first mate Andy Mack, second mate Harry Smith, engineer Patrick Cuyllen, second engineer John Paine, cook Edward Bowden, as well as waiters, sailors, chamber-maids, and deckhands. For the next year pieces of her wreckage washed up ashore at Union Bay in Ontonogon. The story of the message in a bottle was later proven a fake. According to the Marine Review, “The bottle message from Capt. McKay of the steamer Manistee, which was telegraphed all around the lakes from Bayfield, Wis., several days ago, was what is known as a newspaper ‘fake.’ This is proven by an investigation made by Capt. George P. McKay of Cleveland, who secured the piece of paper containing the alleged message from his lost brother, and who sought out other facts from Bayfield. The newspaper correspondent who is at this late day ‘taken in’ by bottle-message fiends is hardly fit for the work in which he is engaged. He is an object of sympathy, but it is different with the fellow who invents such stories in order to get a few dollars from the dispatches which he sends out. A law should be found to apply to this latter class.”

The Manistee. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index)