Disaster on the Milwaukee River


The “Christopher Columbus” heads upstream to its dock just south of Michigan Street. Backing downstream required the aid of a pair of tugboats. Collection of Carl Swanson

On the last day of June 1917, the excursion steamship Christopher Columbus cast off from the Goodrich Transportation dock on the Milwaukee River, just south of the Michigan Street bridge. A familiar visitor, the 362-foot boat made a daily round trip in warm-weather months between Chicago and Milwaukee. Licensed to carry 4,000 passengers, today’s load was an unusually light one – a group of 200 students from the University of Chicago along with about 200 other passengers.

University student Emma Taylor, one of the passengers, looked down at the dirty river and remarked to her friend, “I should hate to have to bathe in that water.”

Moments later, the Columbus was in ruins, 16 passengers were dead, and 20 others injured. And Emma Taylor, with broken ribs, a lacerated scalp, and unable to swim, was sinking in the filthy river, her heavy clothing dragging her to the bottom.

Incredibly, the Columbus, one of largest and most elegant ships of its time, operated by a safety-minded company, and captained by one of the most respected masters on the Great Lakes, had collided with a Third Ward factory.

Tugboats stand by for and aft as the Christopher Columbus prepares to depart Milwaukee. Postcard collection of Carl Swanson

Tugboats stand by fore and aft as the Christopher Columbus prepares to depart Milwaukee. Postcard collection of Carl Swanson

The trip had started in routine fashion. As always, a tugboat pulled the departing Columbus downstream stern-first with a second tug tied to the big ship’s bow. As the collection of boats slowly passed the waterfront factories of the Third Ward, the leading tug turned sharply toward the confluence of the Menomonee River pulling the Columbus’ stern along with it, kicking off an intricate nautical ballet that would see the Columbus pivot in mid-stream until its bow pointed east toward the harbor entrance.

The Columbus, longer than a football field, required precise handling in the narrow river but the maneuver was a well-practiced routine for the three boat crews involved.

They were unaware a rainstorm to the west had sent an unusually strong current surging down the Menomonee River. As the tug nosed into the confluence, it abruptly slowed. The bow of the Columbus continued swinging, sweeping across a dock and toward 100-foot-tall steel legs supporting a factory water tank at the foot of Chicago Street. Aboard the Columbus, Captain Charles Moody immediately ordered his ship’s engines to reverse at full speed. It was too late.

“When I saw the ship stick its nose into the underpinnings of the water tank, I yelled to the people to get back. But they were too interested, it seemed, in waving to those on shore to heed my warning,” Moody told the Milwaukee Sentinel.

The tremendous momentum of the huge ship snapped two of the tank’s steel legs like dry twigs. As the structure toppled over, the tank itself went over the boat, drenching the passengers and landing in the river, clear of the vessel. Its frame of heavy steel beams fell across the forward passenger decks, smashing the quarters of Capt. Moody, demolishing the wheelhouse, and crushing one of the ship’s interior restaurants. Although trapped in the wreckage and with both legs injured, Capt. Moody was able to pull himself free.

The mangled wreckage of the

The mangled wreckage of the “Christopher Columbus” shortly after an accident killed 16 people and injured 20. viewsofthepast.com photo, collection of Carl Swanson

Interviewed in the July 2, 1917 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel, two days after the accident, Moody said, “As the tank rocked back and forth, then crumpled up and crashed upon the bow of the boat, I jumped to the starboard entrance to the pilot house, and Jim Brodie, the wheelman, leaped to the port entrance. As soon as the crash was over, I looked at the spot where Brodie had been standing, but saw nothing but a huge hole. My first thought was: ‘Jim’s dead.’ I crawled forward of the pilothouse and there was Jim, holding his head in his hands.

“‘Hello, Cap, I thought you were a goner sure,’ said Brodie, as he caught hold of me. ‘We had better get busy, Cap. A lot of people have been killed.’ I ordered the forward workboat lowered, and they began picking the people out of the water.”

Emma Taylor, the college student, floundered briefly to the surface. As she sank a second time, she recalled her brother trying to teach her to swim in her younger days. She had been a lazy student, she told the Milwaukee Journal, and would just float there as he explained the process. Now, deep under water, she said she found herself thinking, “‘I must swim. I must swim,’ and I did. It was the first time in my life.”

Fighting her way through floating wreckage, Taylor reached the surface once more and swam to a life ring. “My nerve almost failed me, though, when I saw a man, his face streaming with blood, floating about, apparently dead. Then three men appeared in what I think must have been a lifeboat,” she told the Journal. “I want to say there never were there three such fine men. It was their encouragement that did more than anything else to keep me alive. ‘You’re great, you’re fine,’ they would say. ‘If every woman is as brave as you, there will be many saved.’ I saw them pull into another boat a man without a leg, and another whose head was gone.”

By now the tugs had regained control of the Columbus and had pushed the big ship to the river’s edge where it tied up to the Canadian Transportation dock while the work of rescuing the victims continued.

Frank Woods was working behind the soda counter of the Columbus. Feeling the impact of the falling water tower, Woods rushed to the deck and starting throwing life preservers to the passengers in the water. Then, working his way forward, he crawled through a hole in the mangled wreckage and began dragging injured and dead passengers from the crumbled bow area and laying them one by one on the restaurant carpet.

Six physicians, urgently summoned to the Columbus, tended to the injured until they could be transported to a hospital, where dozens more volunteer physicians were waiting to provide further treatment.

The Columbus, the largest excursion ship in the world at the time, was a sad sight. A newspaper reporter noted broken glass, chairs, benches, tables, blood-soaked canvas and lifebelts in heaped confusion. The red carpets of the forward dining room were water-soaked from the falling tank, covered with glass, broken timbers, and food items dropped by terrified passengers.

After its accident, the

After its accident, the “Christopher Columbus” served many more years. She was scrapped in Manitowoc seven years before this postcard was mailed in 1943. Across the top, the sender has written “on its way to war.” It was widely believed at the time that steel from the scraped Columbus was purchased by Japan in the late 1930s and used to make weapons. Collection of Carl Swanson

The ship was out of service for the rest of the year. Rebuilt, she returned for the 1918 season and continued to operate between Milwaukee and Chicago until 1931. Capt. Moody, whose career on the lakes started at age 14 and lasted 66 years, including 26 years as master of the Columbus, died in 1944 at the age of 93. He was fond of boasting that he hauled more passengers in his career than any other captain in the world.

Of that one dark day in 1917, he said, “There was no panic. Only silence prevailed. I would have felt better if somebody had yelled.”Carl_sig



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