Small-town tradition honors sailors lost, those still on Great Lakes
ROGERS CITY — When mighty vessels loom on Northeast Michigan horizons, they represent not only steel and cargo but also humans braving the waves to make America run, a Rogers City nautical history buff and sailor said.
Such work deserves notice, said Mike Horn, director of the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum in Rogers City, which organizes annual bell-ringing ceremonies recognizing sailors past and honoring those who still serve.
Each November, the self-titled Nautical City gathers for a trio of ceremonies honoring the lives of sailors killed in three catastrophic Great Lakes shipwrecks. In a solemn procession, year after year, participants toll a bell once in memory of each life lost.
The ceremonies mark the sinkings of the Edmund Fitzgerald, in 1975, the Daniel J. Morrell, in 1966, and the Carl D. Bradley, in 1958.
Those big boats, and the thousands of others that have settled to the bottom of the Great Lakes, were not merely hunks of machinery, Horn said.
“These guys that were lost were people,” he said. “Just like us. They had their own self-worth. They had their own aspirations. They had family and friends.”
A Saturday ceremony at the museum, recognizing the Morrell, marked the third of this year’s fall bell ringings, held on three successive Saturdays. The museum also conducts a ceremony in May to mark the collision-caused sinking of the Cedarville, which claimed the lives of 10 sailors after departing from Rogers City in 1965.
The Morell took 28 lives, the Fitzgerald, 29.
When the Bradley succumbed to a Nov. 15 storm, it sent Northeast Michigan towns into deep mourning, especially Rogers City, which in one day lost 23 of its own.
The grief may have subsided, but the town still remembers, and residents still tell stories of neighbors, brothers, friends, and fathers lost to the mighty waters of the Great Lakes when the Bradley went down.
Some of those residents turned out for a bell-ringing ceremony on Nov. 19 at the Rogers City Theater. The event also marked the premier of an independent film based on the Bradley sinking.
As at other such ceremonies, relatives of some of the dead — some of them coming from across the state or elsewhere — rang for their loved one, while members of the community rang for others.
The solemn ceremony may be largely the same from ringing to ringing, year to year, but those left behind — including a town that hasn’t forgotten their lost — hangs on to the tradition for the same reason anyone clings to remembrances of loved ones, Horn said.
“They were ours,” he said, voice tightening with emotion. “They were part of our life.”
More than a memorial to the past, though, the traditions that bind Northeast Michiganders to their nautical roots also connect today’s residents to the humans aboard the big boats — both those of the past and those of today.
At the Bradley memorial ceremony, a film by boat captain Andy Stempki — a distant relative of one of the Bradley’s lost crew members — depicted the 35 men aboard the boat. The actors portraying them disappeared onscreen as they narrated the events that led to their character’s death in the cold waters of Lake Michigan.
The movie probably didn’t match what actually happened in the ship’s final hours and minutes, said Horn, whose relative was among those who died.
But the movie, like the tolling of a bell year after year, reminds those who take notice that the dead were not numbers, but humans — and so are the sailors who haul goods across lakes and oceans today, Horn said.
The Great Lakes have not seen a significant freighter sinking since the Fitzgerald, but their waters are far from safe, Horn said at the museum on Sunday, as a November wind made Lake Huron roar several blocks away.
On the ocean, captains can slow their ships and wait out a storm, sometimes intentionally drifting for days, said Horn, an experienced sailor.
“On the lakes, in a matter of hours you’re going to run out of lake,” Horn said. “Pretty soon you’ve got to make a move.”
And, in a big enough storm, that move can have dire consequences.
“It’s a risky business,” he said. “We are not evolved to live in that environment, much less work in it. And then we go out in it in vessels made of material that intrinsically sinks.”
Remembering those who did not come home safely may make those on shore look with more understanding and appreciation at the freighters of today, an overlooked but vital link in the supply chain, Horn said.
“Appreciate what you have,” Horn advised, “and remember the people who make it happen.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.