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The Loss of the SS Carl D. Bradley: The Largest Loss on the Great Lakes

Written by Matthew Copes

Nearly 20,000 years ago massive glaciers covered much of present day North America, but as temperatures rose they began melting away, ultimately filling the craters they’d left behind with quadrillions (yes, quadrillions) of gallons of fresh water. 

Geologically speaking it wasn’t until relatively recently the Great Lakes took on the forms we’re familiar with today. 

With a collective surface area approaching 95,000 square miles (246,000 km/s), by volume the Great Lakes contain about 20% of the earth’s fresh water. 

That said, they’re veritable graveyards for both ships and mariners, and of the storms that ravage them annually, many rival those more commonly associated with oceans.  

By some estimates the lake’s bottoms are dotted with as many as 6,000 shipwrecks and the remains of 30,000 sailors.

We’re all familiar with the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in mid-November of 1975.  

In that disaster all 29 crewmen perished, but when the SS Carl D. Bradley went down in Lake Michigan nearly two decades earlier, 33 of the 35 men on board lost their lives. 

Of them, most were born and raised in and around Rogers City, Michigan – a town of less than 3,500 residents. 

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Background

At 639 feet (195 m) long, SS Carl D. Bradley was the longest self-unloading freighter on the Great Lakes for more than two decades, hence she was commonly referred to as the “Queen of the Lakes.”

Longer than her nearest competitor by just six feet (2 m), its 4,800-horsepower steam turbines produced nearly twice the power of most ships in its class.

But though the Carl D. consumed far more fuel than its contemporaries, quicker turnaround times meant more loads – and more profit. 

Initially designated Hull 797, construction began in mid-1923 at the American Ship Building yard in Lorain, Ohio, but the new freighter wouldn’t launch until early April of 1927.

Owned by US Steel’s Michigan Limestone Division, the leviathan was operated by the Bradley Transportation Company. 

Of Bradley’s ships most were self-unloaders that hauled bulk limestone from Rogers City to mills across the Midwest, but the Carl D. primarily serviced a lucrative contract with a large cement manufacturer in Gary, Indiana. 

During its career the ship hauled immense 12,000+ ton loads to various deep-water ports on lakes Michigan, Erie and Superior. 

The ship was registered in New York City, but the Carl D. was a Rogers City vessel through and through. 

Named after Michigan Limestone’s president Carl David Bradley, she steamed into Calcite Harbor for the first time on July 27, 1927. 

After a well-attended christening ceremony, Mr. Bradley declared that the new ship was “the last word in freighter construction.”

The ship’s layout was typical of self-unloading vessels of the era.   

The bow was dominated by a towering pilot house, and stern contained the engines with another tall structure over them. 

The large central cargo area was divided by a network of watertight bulkheads, and individual cargo holds were further partitioned into smaller compartments. 

Below the ship’s deck, a 475-foot tunnel held the conveyor system that unloaded the unpackaged cargo. 

Built for speed and efficiency, the Carl D. also hosted corporate events, and company officials frequently sailed with her, enjoying surprising comfort in a number of well-appointed staterooms. 

Compared to the fleet’s other ships, the Carl D’s paint was always fresher, her decks were more immaculate, and she carried a larger contingent of officers and crewmen. 

In the ‘20s and ‘30s ship and crew set a number of records for tonnage hauled, but despite constant accolades and the Carl D’s position as the fleet’s flagship, by 1958 it had fallen into disrepair. 

In fact, structural components had become so worn and oxidized that crewmen typically joked that the ship was held together by little more than rust. 

Even after relatively run-of-the-mill storms, workers were known to collect buckets of bolts and rivet heads that’d been shorn off, and worse yet, many were never replaced.  

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Previous Incidents

As the largest ship on the lakes the Carl D. Bradley was typically the first vessel through the Straits of Mackinac when ice kept smaller vessels in port, and in that regard it was invaluable to the region’s economy.  

With its forepeak loaded with concrete, the Carl D. would ram its way through the thick ice, after which it was often necessary to head to Lorain to have broken plates repaired before loading the first shipment of the season. 

In early April of 1957, the Carl D. sustained significant but non-catastrophic damage after colliding with MV White Rose on the St. Clair River between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

After the incident the ship spent nearly a month in Chicago undergoing hull repairs. 

Twice the Carl D. ran aground off the Upper Peninsula’s southeastern shore, once in the spring of 1958, and again in November of the same year. 

Neither incident was reported to the US Coast Guard, and though the embarrassing mishaps may have seemed insignificant at the time, in light of the catastrophe that would befall the ship, it has been theorized that they may have caused hidden structural damage that could have contributed to the Bradley’s demise. 

Oddly enough, between 1955 and 1957, Bradley Transportation received multiple Coast Guard safety awards, one of which was for achieving nearly 2.25 million injury-free man-hours. 

Nonetheless, since the company’s founding in 1912 there’d been no sinkings, but that was about to change. 

Final Voyage

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The Carl D. was typically the busiest ship in the fleet, but due to a downturn in the economy she made fewer trips than usual during the ‘58 season. 

To take advantage of this lull the owners planned on sending the ship to Manitowoc, Wisconsin for much needed repairs, the most significant of which was having its bulkheads replaced to the tune of about 800,000 USD, or approximately 7.8 million USD in today’s money. 

On November 17th the Carl D. delivered what should have been its final load of the year to Gary, Indiana, after which the ship’s ballast tanks were filled with water before it departed for Manitowoc. 

However while en route the captain was told to divert to Calcite Harbor to pick up a “hot” shipment that’d been secured at the last minute. 

At the time the wind was holding steady at about 30 miles per hour (48 km/h), but incoming weather forecasts weren’t encouraging. 

In fact, wind speed was expected to double, and the ship was on a collision course with a major winter storm system with two distinct fronts. 

Much of the rest of the country was experiencing severe weather as well. 

Dozens of tornadoes were rocking the heartland between Illinois and Oklahoma, and it was even snowing in southern Arizona. 

Known as the “heavy weather captain,” skipper Roland Bryan was experienced and dedicated.

Captain and crew took great pride in delivering their cargo on time, but on this occasion Bryan diverted from his usual route. 

Initially opting to reduce speed and hug Wisconsin’s relatively protected shoreline, he’d eventually make the fateful decision to venture into the lake’s center, with disastrous consequences.  

Weather conditions on the 18th steadily worsened, though they weren’t anything the ship and crew hadn’t experienced before. 

Like he always did, Captain Bryan remained steadfast and confident, but after the tragedy evidence surfaced that at least privately he harbored serious doubts about the Carl D. Bradley’s structural integrity and overall seaworthiness. 

Just weeks before the ship went down he’d written to a friend stating as much, but at the end of the letter he’d noted that he was confident that the scheduled repairs in Manitowoc would help.  

By the afternoon winds had reached 65 miles per hour (104 km/h), but the ship was still handling well and no control or navigation issues were reported.

However with conditions worsening and waves cresting at nearly 40 feet (12 m), Bryan knew that the ship and crew were in for a hair-raising night. 

Ordering the cooks to prepare an early dinner, at 5:35 p.m. the ship was rocked by a loud bang that to the crew’s ears sounded like equal parts explosion and twisting metal.

One of the two men who survived the ordeal looked behind the pilothouse, noting with horror that the ship’s immense stern was sagging severely.

With his ship breaking in two, Bryan instinctively slammed the communication telegraph to the engine room to “STOP,” sounded the alarm to abandon the vessel, and shouted for those within earshot to don their life jackets and get to the lifeboats. 

Just before the power went out the first mate managed to send out a mayday including the ship’s coordinates.

The distress call was received by the Coast Guard, amateur radio operators and various commercial stations, and from there word spread quickly that the mighty ship and her crew were in dire straits.  

Carl D. Bradley was equipped with three lifeboats in the bow and stern, but when the crew attempted to lower them, two became hopelessly entangled in the rigging.

It’s believed that only four crewmen managed to get into the one operable lifeboat, but the small craft was mercilessly battered, and one of the men was washed overboard. 

Search and Rescue

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In the distance, Captain Paul Mueller on board the 260-foot (79 m) German-built freighter Christian Sartori peered through his binoculars, seeing what he later reported as a massive explosion. 

Then turning his ship toward the stricken Carl D. Bradley and increasing power, it took the Sartori more than 90 minutes to cover the 4 miles (6.4 km) between them. 

Likewise, various small rescue boats were dispatched from nearby Coast Guard stations, but they were significantly smaller than the Christian Sartori, and most were forced to turn back. 

The 180-foot (55 m) heavy buoy tender Sundew steamed from Charlevoix, Michigan, but it didn’t arrive on site until nearly five hours after the Carl D. sank. 

Likewise, it took the USCG cutter Hollyhock seven hours to get from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to the coordinates the first mate had radioed in, a voyage the ship’s captain later described as a “visit to hell.”

During the seemingly endless night, family members of Carl D. Bradley’s crew made their way to Charlevoix, where they hoped survivors would be brought for tearful reunions. 

To guide rescue ships through the darkness, they lined the coastline with their vehicles and turned the headlights on with the engines idling. 

A number of additional commercial and dedicated search and rescue vessels joined the effort at daybreak on the morning of the 19th, and as the storm relented aircraft were called in as well.

A few hours after sunrise the Sundew’s crew located a lifeboat nearly 20 miles (32 km) from where the ship had gone down. 

Hypothermic and in shock, First Mate Elmer Fleming, and deck watchmen Frank Mays and Gary Strzelecki were the sole survivors, though the latter would die shortly after being rescued. 

Fleming and Mays would later say that they’d fired multiple flares from the lifeboat, and that the Christian Sartori had passed within 100 yards (91 m) without seeing them. 

Of the 33 men who’d been on board, only 17 bodies were ever recovered, all of which were taken to Charlevoix’s City Hall where the families identified them. 

Investigations and Recommendations

In the spring of 1959 the US Army Corps of Engineers located Carl D. Bradley resting in 360 feet (110 m) of water between Boulder Reef and Gull Island. 

Shortly thereafter, US Steel hired Los Angeles-based Global Marine Exploration Company to make a full survey of the wreckage. 

According to Global Marine the Bradley was still in one piece, but the two survivors were steadfast in their assertions that they’d seen it break in two. 

US Steel was immediately criticized for conducting the survey without participation from impartial witnesses or representatives from the families, the Coast Guard or local authorities. 

The US Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation conducted its own inquiry, after which it determined that excessive “hogging” may have caused the ship to sink. 

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Hogging occurs when a vessel’s keel or hull bends upward due to a combination of unbearable stresses and damaged or weakened structural components. 

In the eyes of many, the Marine Board’s findings substantiate claims made by the two survivors.

After all, nearly a dozen other vessels that’d been in the vicinity of the Carl D. Bradley that fateful night made it through the storm without any major damage or loss of life. 

The USCG also concluded that Captain Bryan had exercised poor judgment by sailing into the center of the lake, though detractors pointed to the ship’s impeccable safety record, and the fact that up until the time it sank it had been faring well. 

Others disagreed that hogging alone was to blame, pointing to the fact that many of the ship’s most important structural elements had been manufactured with particularly brittle steel common in ships built before the mid-1940s. 

But though this inherent weakness was known among seamen, naval architects, ship owners and regulatory agencies, nothing was ever done about it. 

After painstakingly analyzing the data, the Marine Board made a number of safety recommendations.

They including that lifeboats and their rigging needed to be more robust and simple to operate in all conditions, that each should be equipped with more water-proof flares, and that the old cork and canvas style life jackets should be replaced with ones that had better harnesses to ensure that they didn’t slip off the men wearing them in heavy seas. 

But though these recommendations were adopted across the Great Lakes, no mention was ever made of the brittle steel. 

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In a classic case of “too little too late,” in 1968 – a decade after the catastrophe – the newly formed National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) informed the Coast Guard that structural failures similar to the ones sustained by the Carl D. Bradley and others built prior to 1948 were likely to occur more frequently in the future.

Settlement

At the time of her sinking the Carl D. Bradley’s value was estimated at approximately 8 million USD, or nearly 78 million USD today, making her the costliest sinking in the history of the Great Lakes up to that point. 

To settle the affair as quietly as possible, US Steel initially offered the crewmen’s families 660,000 USD (6.4 million USD today).

Ultimately the offer was doubled and the families accepted, though they always felt that US Steel used the Coast Guard’s findings to avoid taking full responsibility. 

At least officially, the company’s lawyers and executives considered the tragedy an “act of God.”

Legacy

Between 1995 and 1997 two privately funded expeditions explored the wreck of the Carl D. Bradley to determine if the survivor’s accounts of the ship breaking in two could be verified. 

Survivor Frank Mays played an integral role in both expeditions, the first of which was unable to conclusively determine how or why the ship had gone down. 

The second expedition utilized a remotely operated underwater vehicle, and footage clearly showed that the ship had in fact come to rest in two distinct pieces about 100 feet (30 m) apart.  

Seated topside in front of a bank of monitors topside, four decades after the tragedy, an elderly Frank Mays was finally able to see the ship’s once impressive hull. 

After the poignant moment he confirmed what he’d stated all along, and that the footage was proof positive that he’d been right, despite what the Coast Guard and US Steel said about the matter. 

Now the wreck is heavily encrusted in freshwater mussels, and due to its depth it’s off-limits to all but the most experienced and well-equipped divers who’ve obtained the necessary permits required to explore the site. 

As is often the case after epic maritime disasters, a memorial plaque was placed on the wreckage.

Then in 2007, two expert divers from Minnesota conducted three dives to the wreckage, during which they removed the ship’s original bell and replaced it with a shiny replica that’d been engraved with the names of the men who’d died. 

The recovered bell was eventually restored and taken to its new permanent home in Rogers City, after which it was officially unveiled to the public on the weekend of the sinking’s 49th anniversary. 

Just after the somber ceremony, many of those in attendance made their way to local theaters for the premier of the documentary film November Requiem, which documented the ship’s history, its sinking, and the lives of the men who died. 

The film aired on PBS in November of 2008, and two years later won Emmy Awards for best historical documentary and best original score. 

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