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


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.

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