Skip to main content

It's been 110 years since 'The Great Storm' wrecked dozens of ships on Lake Superior

  • Author:
  • Updated:

It's been 110 years since dozens of ships sank off the coast of Minnesota, and the storm that caused the ships' demise directly led to the creation of the Split Rock Lighthouse.

Saturday marked the 110th anniversary of The Great Storm of 1905 (often called the Mataafa Storm for the wreck of the steamer Mataafa just off the harbor entrance to Duluth), according to the Great Lakes Steamship Society.

Twenty-nine vessels were damaged or destroyed and 39 people were killed, the society notes.

The storm is arguably one of the worst to sweep through Lake Superior, MinnPost reported, which caught the vessels out on the lake as they were trying to make one last cargo run before the shipping season ended. Wind gusts reached 70 mph that day, and ships were forced to seek shelter, many in Duluth's harbor, NOAA noted.

The storm and the shipwrecks were described in the next day's paper as “spectacular, thrilling, heart-rending ... incidents (that) will haunt the memory of those who bore them witness," the Duluth News Tribune reports.

The Mataafa and the Madeira

Two of the most notable shipwrecks from the storm included the Mataafa and the Madeira.

The Mataafa grounded and broke in half just offshore from Canal Park, killing nine of the 24 crewmen onboard, the Duluth News Tribune says. People gathered in the park watched as rescuers tried to save the men on board, who couldn't be rescued until the following day.

Eventually, the Mataafa was brought in for repairs – it continued sailing until the 1960s, NOAA noted.

Only one person was killed when the Madeira crashed into a cliff near Split Rock, but the 10-man crew most likely would have all died if not for Fred Benson. The crewman jumped from the deck of the ship to a rock at the base of the cliff, climbed up the cliff and dropped lines to rescue the trapped men, the Minnesota Historical Society says.

Now the shipwreck is a popular diving spot, reports note. The ship's remains were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, the Historical Society notes.

Creation of the Split Rock Lighthouse

The devastating storm led to money being appropriated to build the Split Rock Lighthouse, and it also changed the way ships were built, MinnPost noted.

“The lighthouse pretty much directly owes its existence to that storm, and those wrecks happening so close to here,” Lee Radzak, historic site manager at Split Rock Lighthouse, told the Duluth News Tribune.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service completed the Split Rock Light Station in 1910. It soon became one of the state's best known landmarks, the Minnesota Historical Society says.

However, the historical society does note that it's "inconceivable that a lighthouse could have averted such a disaster" in reference to the Madeira's sinking.

The storm also led to the creation of the Duluth North Pier Light, which began operation in 1910 at the entrance to the Duluth Ship Canal, the Duluth News Tribune says.

Minnesota has seven lighthouses and one ruined lighthouse tower, the University of Chapel Hill noted.

Next Up


Minnesota health officials warn monkeypox cases could grow rapidly

The state has so far confirmed only six cases of monkeypox virus.


Sheriff: 2 kids dead in Vadnais Lake, search continues for 3rd child, mother

"A horrible set of facts appears to be developing," said Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

Pixabay laptop keyboard phone dark

Charges: Duluth man had hundreds of child porn images, videos

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found nearly 330 images on the man's electronic devices.

hennepin county sheriff water patrol lake minnetonka

Scuba diver found dead in Lake Minnetonka identified as 20-year-old

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office said 20-year-old Brady Alan Aune, from Elko New Market, died of freshwater drowning on June 3.

Screen Shot 2022-06-30 at 11.18.35 AM

Felony charges filed after authorities search 'Peacebunny Cottage'

The president of the rabbit rescue non-profit faces multiple animal cruelty charges after over 40 rabbits were found dead inside the organization's barn.

monkeypox virus

Minnesota up to 6 confirmed cases of monkeypox virus

Most people recover at home within 2-4 weeks.

thc edibles

Did Minnesota just accidentally legalize THC?

A Republican lawmaker who voted to approve the new law in May is already talking about rolling it back.

Screen Shot 2022-06-30 at 3.19.42 PM

Gasoline may be cause of sewer explosion on U of M campus

An all-clear was given around 9 p.m. Thursday, with residents in the area allowed to return to their homes.


Overwhelming demand for THC products on first day of new law in MN

One shop owner said his Chaska store broke the online sales record before they opened Friday morning.

Flickr - Lake Minnetonka boat - Greg Gjerdingen

Increased drunk boating enforcement over 4th of July weekend

The increased enforcement is part of the Operation Dry Water initiative.


Four kayakers stranded, rescued in Chisholm park

The kayakers became stranded at Redhead Mountain Bike Park Thursday afternoon.


Duo charged after 10-pound meth package sent to wrong address

More than 10 pounds of meth are off the street thanks to a delivery error.


Lake Superior shipping season ends Wednesday night

The Edwin H. Gott pulled into the Duluth Seaway Port Wednesday morning. It is the final ship of the 2011 season. MPR reports the Soo Locks officially close Wednesday at midnight. The warm weather allowed the locks to stay open three days longer this last year.

Bodies of White Bear Lake couple confirmed in cruise ship wreck

Authorities have recovered and identified the bodies of Jerry and Barbara Heil, who were among 30 people killed when a cruise ship capsized off the coast of Italy in January.