Great Lakes Shipping
Downward Bound


A Great Rescue

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By Captain Ocha, who, Late in the Fall of 1912, Died at Eagle Harbor Life Saving Station.

By W. H. Law published 191?

Pg. 1-6

The fourteenth day of November 1886 was ushered in with one of the worst northeasters that, perhaps, ever swept over Lake Superior--a bewildering storm of snow and sleet, a regular hurricane. This tempest continued for over three days, and the damage it wrought to shipping was great. Within forty-eight hours after the beginning, over thirty wrecks were reported at Marquette, involving a loss of more than half a million dollars and nearly forty lives. The sea was so violent that vessels at docks were lifted like fallen leaves by the mighty surge and undertow, causing them to snap their moorings as if they were fish lines. Early in the day the seas rolled sheer over the breakwater, endangering all craft in the harbor. By two o'clock in the afternoon the breakers were sheeting freely over every barrier, and little later in the day they tore the wooden tower of the breakwater light from its massive timber fastenings, and set it adrift.

A throng of people had gathered along the piers, ready for any little service, and as they peered out through the appalling tempest, they nearly lost their breath at the sight of a ghostly specter, a schooner shooting madly, with canvas closely reefed, toward breakwater. The tug, "Gillette", gallantly steamed out to her relief, just in time to avert the impending collision.

Many casualties, of similar character were constantly occurring during that awful storm.

The next day, November 18th, the tempest continued with unabated violence. The tumultuous waste of foam-crested breakers could be seen as far as the eye could pierce under the heavy veil of snow. In the neighborhood of the harbor everything appeared to be going to pieces. The breakwater, which had been deprived of the lighthouse tower the day before, now stripped of all its planking, lay bare and bleak, like the skeleton of some monster of the deep, swept incessantly b a wall of water, spitefully spitting its spray thirty feet high. "Great God," exclaimed one man. "What is that I see down the shore, about six miles to the east?" As he pointed in that direction of the lake, others saw two spectral shapes appearing and vanishing through the snowfall. The two phantoms denoted two vessels ashore. The were two vessels belonging to Lorain, Ohio--"Robert Wallace", loaded with wheat, and her consort, "David Wallace". There was a crew of fifteen on one and nine on the other. They had sailed in company from Duluth on their way to Buffalo, N.Y., and were both driven ashore.

After daybreak of the morning of the 18th, a crowd of men who had lined up along the shore saw the two vessels lying stern-on on the beach. They were being subjected to an unmerciful pounding. Immense seas broke incessantly over them, smashing in the after cabin and pouring down the companion-ways into the engine-room of the steam barge, from whence arose great clouds of steam as the water came in contact with the boiler. When the cabin was beaten to pieces the crew of the barge made a rush through the invading water for the forecastle and took refuge in the captain's cabin, shivering with cold and trembling for fear the boiler would blow up. As long as the steam continued the whistle was kept sounding, but so great was the noise of the gale that the crew on the neighboring schooner could not hear it. The steamer had the appearance of a complete wreck; her deck was nearly level with the water, which swept over her from bow to stern. Through the blinding snow an occasional glimpse could be gotten of members of the crew, peeping from the wheel-house and captain's cabin.

The perilous condition of the sailors appealed to every heart. Five men manned a yawl and put out through the boiling surf with a rope in tow, and held by their friends on shore, but they were driven back to the beach. Again they tried, but were hauled back. The crowd on the beach continued to increase, all alive with sympathy and intense anxiety for the fate of the imperiled men. Someone happened to think of an old mortar which was stored in the power mill near the city, and a team was started in all haste for it, the intention being to fire a line over the vessel.

Night was coming on, and the only hope now was to get line to the vessel, that communication with the shore might be effected.

As darkness was approaching the feeling became intense, and the coming of the mortar was awaited with deep anxiety. A delay of hours was occasioned by the old gun having been spiked, and it was necessary to take it to a distant iron shop to have it drilled. "Hope deferred maketh the heart grow sad." Imagine, if you can, the feelings of those shipwrecked crews. Someone started a fire on the shore and willing hands gathered sufficient wood, and soon they had a roaring fire that was not only a means of comfort to the crowd on the shore, but cheerful sight to the sailors. The tongues of the flame streaming into the heavens revealed, through the ghastly whirl of snow against the background of darkness, the beach lined with friendly forms, a restless multitude all full of sympathy and ready for any service.

A cheer went up from the crowd, and everybody knew that the wagon had returned with the old gun. It was at once placed in position for action. By eager hands the line was attached to a twenty-four pound shot and the gun fired, but the charge was so light that it did not carry half way out. The line was hauled back, and the mortar once more loaded. There was a terrific report, the old gun flew into a hundred pieces, and the amazing thing is that no one was killed. And thus it happened that the weary hour of waiting and fruitless endeavor had but a tragic ending.

The boom of the gun, muffled by the roar of the breakers and shrieking wind, was not understood by the suffering sailors, who hailed it as a token that extraordinary efforts were being made for their deliverance. But to the crowd on the shore the booming of that gun announced hope banished and despair begun. It was not generally known that early in the afternoon the level-headed captain, John Frink, of the tug "Gillette", who had rescued several schooners that day, with several other vessel owners, sent a message to the nearest life-saving station, which at that time was the Ship Canal Station, one hundred and ten miles away. Captain Ocha, the hero of our story, was at that time keeper of that station. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon when a telegram reached him, having been sent up to him from Houghton, about six miles away. The captain immediately ordered his crew to prepare for the journey. The captain and crew of the tug that brought the message helped the life-savers to get the life-boat on board, together with the Lyle gun and all the necessary equipment for effective service, and brought them to Houghton, where a special train was waiting for them. By a quarter of eight o'clock everything was on board, and then began a journey such as few have ever witnessed. A passenger coach and two flatcars, hauled by a powerful engine, rushed into the darkness and gale at a pell-mell speed, but as the road was heavy it took them four hours to make the run of one hundred and ten miles. Captain Ocha had thoughtfully wired ahead to Captain Frink to have teams ready to the life-boat and apparatus from the train to the lake, and also to procure a goodly number of lanterns and shovels. Not only did he attend carefully to this matter, but he went around among the merchants and made a generous collection of bread, meat, coffee, butter and cheese for the half-starved men upon the wrecks when they should be brought ashore.

It was no easy task to convey the lifeboat and shore apparatus six miles through sections of woods and over hills and hollows along a rough shore, and that, too, in the middle of the night. Sometimes they were in the edge of the water, then in the snow mixed with sand, or floundering in the driftwood, which, indeed, made it slow and hard traveling, so that it was one o'clock in the morning (November 19th) when they finally arrived abreast of the two vessels.

Here they found a crowd of people still keeping the burning brightly to cheer the despairing sailors. The gun was placed in position, and a line was fired across the steamer amidships, but it appears that the crew were in such a weakened and storm-lost condition that not a man of them had nerve enough to venture out of the wheel-house and go aft to look for the line on the wave-swept deck, so Captain Ocha decided to use the life-boat. It was two o'clock in the morning when the crew manned the life-boat, and with great difficulty and danger they forced it through the surf and out into the mighty breakers. There were two reefs to cross, and before the first reef was surmounted, the boat had shipped three seas. The impact of the waves was so great that the iron fastenings of the rudder was so bent and timber split that they were compelled to go to shore for repairs.

While the rudder was being repaired another shot was fired over the wreck, but the sailors made not response. By daybreak the life-boat was launched again. In crossing the foamy reefs several sears were shipped; the ice was forming fast, so that the crew's clothes became stiff. After a long, hard and desperate pull, she alongside, a weird spectacle, so loaded with ice that they did not dare take the fifteen men of the ship-wrecked crew at one load, so they returned with nine. Instantly the boat was shoved out again, and after another terrible battle with great seas that were tumbling over each other's shoulders, filling the boat again and again to the "gunnels," they landed the other six men. Again they put out, now to the rescue of the nine men on board the other vessel, the "David Wallace." As the life-boat was crossing the second reef she was caught up in such a way that she was nearly thrown end over end, the rudder was nearly broken off, involving double skill and labor in having to be steered by an oar.

The valiant crew were incessantly drenched with the flying spray, which froze as fast as it struck, but with indomitable courage they pressed on, and , finally, about eight o'clock, they reached the schooner and returned to the beach with the nine men on board. As each boat load was landed, the drenched and shivering seamen were taken in hand by the good-hearted crowd on the shore, warmed by the great fires they had faithfully kept burning, and were comforted with hot coffee and nourishing food.

The life-saving crew got back to their station the next day, leaving behind them at Marquette many new friends, who, whenever they think of Captain Ocha and his brave crew, will feel their hearts glow with pride at their glorious achievement.


The following letter, type-written and signed with pen and ink, has been mailed to every Congressman and Senator in the United States:

135 Pine St., Detroit, Mich.

February 19, 1913


Honored Sir:-

"Please have patience with me as I tell you in this long letter of the trial and tribulations of a Live (sic) Saver and his family, Captain Ocha, the Hero, Patriot, and Martyr.

"Captain Ocha was to be transferred from Two Hearted Station to Eagle Harbor and hoped to receive orders to go during the Fall of 1911.

"The nearest railroad from Two Heart Life Saving Station on the south shore of Lake Superior is about forty miles away, and the only way to reach it is by an almost impassable wagon road of soft sand. He found it was going to cost him over two hundred dollars to get his household goods to Eagle Harbor on the extreme end of Keweenaw Point by railroad and wagons, so he abandoned the idea entirely, as he could not afford it.

Early in the Spring of 1912, he launched his houseboat that he had built during the winter. When I first saw it, I call it the "Ark" for in some ways it reminded me of Bible pictures of Noah's Ark.

"He built a lighter, or flat bottom scow, fifty feet long and twenty-two feet wide, and a house on it eighteen feet long and fourteen feet wide. In this house-boat, they had a wood range, piano and all their furniture, besides three good sized rowboats, with a full kit of boat builder's tools, for he had been a boat builder before he was a life-saver, and usually passed away his long winters in building boats. His sixteen-year-old daughter, Esther, was to be cook, housekeeper and mother to six children, younger than she, for their mother is dead.

"The Captain had hoped to get away in the early summer, when the weather was good, and as a sailor would say "frog along the beach." He was provided with two heavy anchors and heavy hawsers by means of which he could anchor out in sheltered places when the weather did not please him. The whole outfit he purposed to tow by means of a 12 H. P. gasoline boat, 36 feet long and also a 6 H. P. boat 23 feet long. Before it was possible for him to get started, the Fall storms were becoming prevalent; he realized that it would be impossible for him to ever reach Eagle Harbor with such limited power, and very reluctantly he turned the house boat over to his friend, Captain Ludwick Swanson (for a consideration out of all proportion to the service rendered), who with a 60 ft. gasoline boat, undertook the task. This man, Swanson, is one of nature's noblemen, and he risked his life in rendering this great service to his friend and comrade. He had been in the Life Saving Service for many years, and really pitied Captain Ocha in the trying position he was in, and although now out of the service, there was still a feeling of comradeship.

Captain Swanson well knew the risk he was taking, for with a gasoline boat such as he had, he could not control the house boat in any ordinary wind, and in a real Lake Superior storm, the house boat would simply go where the wind and the seas would take it and the power boat with it, which would finally mean, to destruction.

This man Swanson managed to get the 'Ark,' as it was called, to its destination, but it is doubtful if he would have succeeded, had it not been for a generous hearted Captain of coal a coal barge, who gave him a line and towed the whole outfit for fully 140 miles over the waters that were the most dangerous.

When Captain Ocha was relieved of towing the house boat, he took his family with him in his 35 ft. gasoline boat of 12 H. P. and the 23 ft. boat of 6 H. P. in tow, and made the trip over 200 miles, passing along the beetling cliffs of the pictured rocks, where in places for 15 miles, it would be impossible to even go ashore without being dashed against the rocks, for straight above one's head 250 to 300 ft. high, the rocks are as perpendicular as the side of a barn.

Here is a description of that trip by Captain Ocha in perhaps the last letter he ever wrote. I have quoted the letter to his son, now in the Life Saving Service.

Eagle Harbor, Nov. 4, 1912

My Dear Monty:

Well we had a rough trip. We got to Munising at 7 p.m. the night we left Grand Marais (he had come 30 miles the day before), stayed over night and started out at 6 in the morning.

The wind blew a gale off land. I tried to cross a deep bay above Munising, but when we got out about the middle of it, it got so rough I had to run in against the seas and wind about 6 miles to get in the shelter of the shore. The seas came clear over the little boat and drenched me right through the curtains and the engine also. I thought sure she would stop, but she never missed fire. She pitched so hard it broke the lashings on the bed springs on top, and we lost the trees of them of them and two boat hooks.

We made Marquette at 1 p. m. The barometer was very low and the storm signals were up for a N. W. gale. We had dinner at the Life Saving Station and then went to Emma's (his oldest daughter) and stayed there until Sunday morning.

We left Marquette at 9 A. M. It blew quite hard when we left, but the wind was partly after us, and a heavy dead sea running from the North. The wind increased to a 55-mile gale, but we had to keep right on. It got more off shore after we passed Big Bay. The worst of the whole trip was crossing Keweenaw Bay from Point Abbey to the entry (Portage Entry). I had to head in the wind to keep from rolling over. Had all the weight in the stern and then the seas would come on top of the covering and drench me and the engine. It is the greatest wonder in the world that it did not stop. It was dark too. There was a cruiser came along and I followed him. I couldn't keep any light lit to see the compass, but I could keep with the cruiser. When we made the entry the seas were breaking clean over the piers, and they are not very low either. Cold and wet as I was, I kept right on to McCormick's Station (at the west entrance of the ship canal). We got there at 11 P.M. We got out and fixed the children out with beds, ours were all drenched. Burt (a young son of his), had to pump steadily all across Keweenaw Bay. We left the Portage Life Saving Station at 7 A.M. Monday and got here at 11 P.M.

If it hadn't been for the cover on the power boat, she would have surely sunk. She dove clear under and was nearly half full when we got to the Portage. It was lucky I left the little boat with you. Was sorry I had the other one with me sometimes. I haven't been feeling so well since I got here. I suppose it is on account of the hard trip and not being able to get the right diet.

Sincerely yours,

Albert Ocha


Captain Ocha had been put to considerable expense in moving to Eagle Harbor, then came the additional expense of sickness. All the Life Saving Stations in the Eleventh District, the district to which he belonged, responded cheerfully and made up a purse of over $300 to help in this time of need.

Six months of waiting at Two Heart Station, all torn up and expecting to leave every day, and then the nervous strain upon him and the exposure and the want of proper food, during the dangerous voyage he described, and in spite of the aid of a doctor, he grew worse each day and finally died. And the least I can say of him after many years of acquaintance is, Captain Ocha was a hero, a patriot and he died a martyr after having served thirty years in the Life Saving Service.

Captain Swanson, who aided in the moving of the 'Ark" after completing this task at once started back home and on the way was taken violently ill, an attack of rheumatism brought on by the exposure in being cold and wet for long periods, and as he was passing Huron Island, he decided to land there and obtain help from the light keeper. When he landed, he could not walk alone and the men at the light station had to almost carry him. After staying at the lighthouse for two days and getting no better, he insisted on continuing the journey to Marquette. The light keeper said, 'No, you can't go, you must not think of such of thing, and we dare not leave our post to take you, so here you stay.' 'No, sir, that will never do,' said Captain Swanson, 'I must go home to Marquette, where I can get treatment, for I never will get better here.' He begged and pleaded with such earnestness, that finally the light keeper yielded, and he and his assistant by means of an improvised stretcher carried Captain Swanson from the light house down to the boat. The Captain could not walk, but crawled around on his hands and knees, and put the engine in shape and started going, and then crawled forward and sat on a stool where he could handle the wheel and steer the boat. He made the trip of forty miles to Marquette alone, crawling back and forth when the engine required attention. This is the sort of stuff many of the old time life savers were made of; this brave captain resigned from the life saving service, because of the low wages and the fact that there is no pension, awaiting the old men, who have wrecked their lives in the hardship of service.

"How very simple it would have been for the authorities in Washington to have ordered a revenue cutter, that is often at the Soo, to have taken charge of this matter. Perhaps you will say, "Why that could not be done, for the life saving service belongs to the Civil Service, and is in the same attitude to the Government as the Postoffice Department." Yes, I know that; yea, I Know it to my sorrow, for when I have pleaded with Congressmen and Senators to pass a pension bill that will provide reasonable support for the life savers in their old days, or for their families, when a man dies in the service, some of them say, if we do that, it will open the doors for everybody in Civil Service, everyone in the Postoffice Department will be after a pension.

"The amalgamation of the life saving service and the revenue cutter service would, I think, be most satisfactory and do away with objections of this sort, for a pension is already provided for the men in the revenue cutter service, and there are other equally strong inducements in that service to encourage men to enlist and remain, knowing they are rewarded in the advancing years of their lives and for worthy service.

I can easily understand how the revenue cutter boats could make themselves very useful in disastrous storms on the Great Lakes, and more especially on the ocean, in taking life saving crews with all their up-to-date equipment to wrecks at great distances scarcely possible today, owing to lack of outside assistance.

The government builds great canals and breakwaters and battleships, and encourages the construction of large vessels and the building up of a great marine commerce. The men behind the guns as well as the men in the army are properly cared for with good wages and a pension. But what about the men--the life savers and the light keepers, who often at the risk of their own lives are safeguarding our great marine commerce, are they not also worthy of the most favorable consideration on the part of the government, who servants they are? 'Righteousness exalteth the nation.' It is the humanity, the heart and soul of the country that brings glory to a nation.

When Captain Ocha died, he left twelve orphan children, three girls and nine boys, ranging in age from four years to twenty-four, all of them excellent in physical, intellectual and moral make-up, and if given half a chance, will make good. The oldest boy is a sailor, and the one next to him is following the footsteps of his father in the life saving service, and younger boy has just passed and examination for the light house service.

The government cannot afford to neglect these children. The boys will make the best recruits for the light house and life saving service.

Those who inherit seafaring qualities should receive special consideration from the government. The sad plight of Russia today is due more to the fact that here men are not natural sailors, and all the discipline and training that it is possible to give them can never make up for their inherent deficiencies.

England worsted France and her allies at the battle of Trafalgar for the same reason. The sailors of the island kingdom--Japan, have won for themselves and country imperishable renown, because of their inherited seafaring qualities.

What is it that makes a nation? It is not the extent of territory, nor the mighty resources in agricultural or mineral wealth, but humanity. America whose shores are washed by the salt waters of the Great Deep and by the fresh waters of the "Unsalted Seas," has become first among the nations of the earth, because of the development of a race who depend more upon their ability on the seas than any other single fact. Their mastery of the ocean and the display of their humanity and their hardihood upon it, have made them the masters of their humanity and their hardihood upon it, have made them the masters of nations and men.

I have the honor, dear sir, to remain.


I have since received many encouraging letters in answer to this from senators and congressmen, showing the letter was appreciated.



Pg. 7-8

This splendid department of the Federal Government, the revenue cutter service, older than the American navy, really the mother of the navy, is not fully appreciated because of the general lack of information concerning it, on the part of the public.

The service from the showing of last year's report (1912) surpassed all others in excellent work. There has been twenty-five cruising cutters and eighteen harbor vessels and launches, actively employed during the year. Each of these boats in armed and provisioned and coaled ready for any emergency. They constitute the Marine Police Patrol, which guard the coasts in an unbroken line form Maine to Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, and from California to Alaska, penetrating the frigid waters of the Bering Straits, and rendering helpful service to the natives of the Aleutian Islands, who are sometimes in the grasp of poverty and disease.

The revenue cutters should be furnished with new and improved and most modern wireless mechanism obtainable that a constant radio watch can be maintained all along the coast from the borders of Maine to the extreme end of the Alaska Peninsula, reaching out to the sealing and whaling vessels passing through the Bering Straits, ever on the alert for a call from any quarter for police duty or rescue work. A total of 260 vessels in distress were assisted during the year 1912, and their burden of 2,212 persons rescued from danger, which n many cases seemed impending death.

Vessels, cargoes and derelicts saved by the Revenue Cutter Service during the year were valued at $10,711,748. Forty-five derelicts and other dangerous obstructions to navigation were removed or destroyed.

Smuggling has greatly decreased in recent years, both on the Great Lakes, and especially on the ocean, because of the vigilant patrol of the revenue cutters. Without this armed coast-guard, extensive smuggling would soon spring into existence along the many miles of coast line of the United States.

Between Maine and Alaska there are 223 Life Saving Stations with a captain and usually eight men of the crew.

Some places along the Atlantic coast there are stations that at present, owing to the changed conditions of shipping, are almost out of commission for the want of something to do, and the same is true of several stations in the Great Lakes. All Life Saving Stations that have out-lived their usefulness should be removed t localities where because of new conditions that have arisen in late years, they are greatly needed. Then, to have several stations, say about 100 miles apart, equipped with a wireless outfit, so that they could keep in touch with the revenue cutters, patrolling the coasts, would render the Life Saving Service more efficient, for all the Life Saving Stations along the coast would be real "Watch Towers" where men are on constant duty from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening, and all night long, men are taking turns at patrol duty. Every station is provided with a medicine chest, and is really a house of refuge, where anyone who has fallen by the wayside, or has been cast upon the beach from some wreck is properly cared for. This service may in some ways be regarded as the "Red Cross of the Sea" because of its humanitarian records of heroic achievements.

Well-disciplined crews at the 223 Life Saving Stations on the ocean, and the 63 stations on the Great Lakes, all in touch with and working in harmony with the revenue cutters, or amalgamated as one arm of the Federal Government, would make an institution that for achievements would be unequaled by any service of the kind in the world.

In the matter of legislation for the improvement and upbuilding of the life saving service, the government has been liberal. The modern and commodious stations of the establishment, its improved equipment and appliances, are keeping pace with the onward trend of the marine commerce. There are already 146 motor boats at the various stations, and the government is supplying them at the rate of 32 each year. Many of them are 36-fot self-righting and self-bailing life boats.

The failure of the bill that has been before Congress from time to time, making provision for the retirement of disabled and aged men in the service, has been a matter of great disappointment to all who are interested in seeing this most desirable class of public servants provided for when they are no longer able to work.

I find in keeping in yearly communication with all the Life Saving Stations, that there are still in the service some very old men. Several captains of crews, over 70 years old, and should have been retired long ago. A man 70 years of age may be very useful in some departments of the government, but it could scarcely be expected that one of that age would have the nerve and physical endurance necessary in handling a life boat and a crew of men in a disastrous storm.

It is well known that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A man of great age or a poor oarsman will endanger the life of a crew in endeavoring to make a rescue when a vessel is being wrecked.

Here is a statement from the report of the general superintendent of the Life Saving Service that is most interesting and needs no comment or expressions of admiration from the writer.

General summary of operations since the introduction of the present Life Saving System, 1871-1911:




Persons involved



Lives lost



Persons succored at stations




Days succor offered



Total value vessels involved in disasters






Property involved



Property saved



Property lost



It should be observed that the operations of the service in the early history was limited in its equipment, both of stations and crews of men, but each year there is an increase in both.


135 Pine St., Detroit, Mich.

The copy of this article was obtained from the Wisconsin Historical Society Records. It is also available at the Michigan State Library in Lansing, Michigan on microfilm. Transcribed and donated by the great, great grand daughter in law of Albert Henry Ocha, .




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