Lecture Series Thursday: Propeller Russia — Saved by the Light

Mark Gammage

ALPENA — Next up in the Sanctuary Lecture Series is a historical presentation by Mark Gammage called Propeller Russia — Saved by the Light. The free program will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, 500 W. Fletcher St., Alpena.

Join Gammage, a Great Lakes shipwreck enthusiast, to learn about the 19th-century package freighter Russia, from being built in 1872 in Buffalo, to notable incidents throughout its 37-year career, to its foundering during a violent gale near Detour, Michigan on April 30, 1909. The wreck will be detailed with a firsthand account from the lone passenger, Alexander Mathers. The Russia sank, but all its crew survived, able to get to safety by lifeboats, thanks to the lighthouse at Point Detour, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River.

Accounts from the lighthouse logbook, written by the keeper William Campbell, describe the inclement weather and the loss of the Russia.

Seasoned and successful shipwreck hunters conducted searches for the Russia over decades.

The program will include a historical perspective, as well as underwater video of the ship and its cargo. There will also be a PowerPoint detailing Captain John Charles McLean’s account and a short video of a personal account of a crew member from 1906 illustrating life onboard the Russia.

Courtesy Photo Pictured is the package freighter Russia, courtesy of the Labadie Collection/Thunder Bay Research Collection at Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.

“In some presentations, we tend to focus on the ship a lot, and that’s what’s left for us to see,” Gammage said. “But, there’s a connection with all the people that were involved, and living during that time. So, we aren’t just talking about the ship, we’re talking about the people that were involved in it.”

He said the presentation will focus on the people who lived through it, worked on the Russia, and the account of the lighthouse keeper, who, in doing his job, assured that those seeking safety were able to get to shore.

“Now, this ship is not in the National Marine Sanctuary,” he explained. “It’s further north. It’s off of Detour, Michigan. But its last port of call was Alpena.”

He said the Russia was called a “passenger package freight ship,” meaning both people and cargo were on it at the same time.

“This was the first trip of the season,” Gammage said. “It was late April, and they were leaving their home port of Port Huron, and their first stop was going to be Alpena, and then from Alpena, they were going to drop off cargo, load up cargo. They had one lone passenger on board, a guy named Alexander Mathers, a Scottish immigrant. He was a salesman for a flower company in Port Huron. And the cool thing about it is he interviewed with the newspaper and gave a full account of what happened because he survived the sinking.”

When the Russia went to Alpena, it docked at the Huron Portland Cement Company, which now operates as Holcim, and is still the largest cement plant in the world.

“They loaded it with bags of cement,” Gammage said of the Russia. “Now, these bags are about 90 pounds apiece, and they loaded them in this main deck area. So then, they waited there for a little bit because the weather was kind of stormy, and then they finally thought it was calming down and they decided to head for Detour, the entrance of the St. Mary’s River.”

He said just past Presque Isle, the weather got really bad, and the ship started rolling uncontrollably.

“The cement bags that they had loaded started sliding around and going back and forth, increasing the list of the ship,” Gammage said. “It finally went into a starboard list, and they couldn’t get it to recover, so they abandoned the ship in the lifeboats. This is at 11 o’clock at night on April 30th. So, the water is very cold. They’re in a gale, so the seas were huge. They probably had anywhere from 15- to over 20-foot waves, and get in these little lifeboats, and they start rowing … the only thing they had to guide them there was the lighthouse at Point Detour. That light was the only thing that got them safely in the river.”

William Campbell was the lighthouse keeper at the time.

“He had been doing his normal maintenance on the lighthouse,” Gammage said. “If he hadn’t done his maintenance correctly, and that light was out, chances are, those people would not have made it. There were 20-some people on that ship, and they all made it.”

Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the presentation begins at 7 p.m. Call 989-884-6200 or visit the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary website at thunderbay.noaa.gov.


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