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The Stranding of the Package Freighter Chicago

The package freighter Chicago left Duluth, Minnesota, in the early evening hours of Monday, October 22, with a cargo of flour, eggs and butter, copper, and cedar shingles. Some of the guys on the dock, recalled the ship's Second Mate, had been talking about a storm blowing in - old timers' collectively feeling the change in the weather by the aches in their joints. The mate dismissed the talk as old wives tales, but made doubly sure that the cargo was tightly cribbed inside and the wooden shingles were well secured on deck before they left port. There'd be hell to pay if something broke loose while underway.

A more official warning had come from Robert Kitna, the local agent for the Great Lakes Transit Company fleet, the ship's owner, as the last of the cargo was being stored. Both the captain and the agent felt confident that before the full force of the storm hit, the Chicago could safely reach its next destination of Houghton, Michigan, within the safe confines of the Portage Ship Canal, and only a scant 180 miles east of Duluth.

On the ship's navigation chart the canal looked abstractly like someone had dropped a piece of thread across the land mass that shaped the contours of Michigan's copper bearing Keweenaw Peninsula. Twenty hours later, as the Chicago arrived off the Upper Entry the seas were already running too heavy to allow the ship to make an attempt to gain the shelter of the canal. The fine line to safety had all but disappeared.

Captain Farrell reluctantly steamed away from the entrance to the Portage Ship Canal and back out toward the open lake. On Tuesday morning Northeast gale warnings had been issued at Duluth for the western half of Lake Superior, with Northwest gales predicted for the eastern half of the Superior and all of lakes Michigan, and Huron. I'll take my chances riding the storm in deep water decided Captain Farrell as he drove his ship north toward Isle Royale, fighting an army of waves that were beginning their long march across Lake Superior. Back in Duluth, agent Kitna held a paper tracing of the weather isobars over a chart of the Keweenaw. Combined with the contours of the land and water it looked more like a detonation point now than a destination.

The wary captain didn't need a weather forecast to know that this was going to be a bad blow and his ship was going to take a beating. In September, 1927, he had been the skipper on the 381-foot package freighter Ralph Budd when it was driven ashore on the Pine River reef near Big Bay, Michigan. The ship was eventually salvaged, but it cost Farrell his command. Now, as the Chicago battled its way into the lee of Isle Royale, Lake Superior's biggest island, Farrell was clearly intent on not losing a second ship.

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