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Mataafa Storm

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Mataafa Storm

Mataafa Storm (1905)
Weather map of an extratropical cyclone approaching the Great Lakes on the morning of November 28, 1905
Type Extratropical cyclone
Formed November 25, 1905
Dissipated November 29, 1905
Lowest pressure <991 mbar (hPa)
Damage $3,567,000
Areas affected Plains, Great Lakes

The Mataafa Storm of 1905 is the name of a storm that occurred on the Great Lakes on November 27-28, 1905.[1] The system moved across the Great Basin with moderate depth on November 26 and November 27, then east-northeastward across the Great Lakes on November 28. Fresh east winds were forecast for the afternoon and evening of November 27, with storm warnings in effect by the morning of November 28. Storm-force winds and heavy snows accompanied the cyclone's passage. The storm, named after the Mataafa wreck, ended up destroying or damaging about 29 vessels, killing 36 seamen and causing shipping losses of $3.567 million (1905 dollars) on Lake Superior.[2]

Weather and forecast

A storm system moving through the Great Basin on November 26 and 27 was forecast to bring "fresh easterly winds" to the Great Lakes during the afternoon and evening on November 27 by the United States Weather Bureau.[3] At 6 p.m., Duluth, Minnesota winds had reached 44 miles per hour (71 km/h).[4] Storm warning flags were flying by the morning of November 28 as the cyclone moved into southern Minnesota.[5] At this time, easterly gales and heavy snows had spread across Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie. Five-minute winds reached 68 miles per hour (109 km/h) at Duluth during the early morning of November 28, before dropping below gale-force by noon.[4] At Duluth Harbor, lake levels peaked at 2.3 feet (0.70 m) above normal during this storm.[6] The system brought heavy snows within its northern and western side across the northern Great Lakes on November 28 and November 29, with storm warnings continuing for the lower Great Lakes on the morning of November 29.[7]

SS Mataafa Shipwreck

A U.S. Lifesaving Service crew rowing out to rescue survivors of the SS Mataafa wreck (in the background) on November 29, 1905

At five o'clock in the afternoon, November 27, 1905, the SS Mataafa was on her way out of Duluth, loaded with iron ore and towing the barge James Nasmyth. She was hit by a storm, and though she struggled on for a short time, by the time she had reached Two Harbors at 4 p.m. the next day, it was clear to her master, Captain R. F. Humble[8] that she could not make the run. He gave the order to turn about, and she turned her prow toward Duluth.

As she approached the port, it became clear that it was useless to try to bring both steamer and tug through the narrow Duluth Ship Canal into the harbor, so the captain gave the order to cut loose the Nasmyth. Then the Mataafa attempted to make it into safe harbor alone.

She made it about half-way between the twin concrete piers when a backwater surged out. Heavy water struck her stern, driving her prow down to the muddy bottom, and then slammed her stern against the north pier. Her rudder torn off, the lake pulled her prow out toward the open lake, then smashed her stern against the south pier. She grounded in the shallow water outside the north pier,[9] where she was broken in two by the storm, her stern settling slowly into the water.[10]

When the ship broke up, twelve men were in the aft portion. Three men struggled out to the fore. The remaining nine died of exposure during the night. One of the bodies in the after half had to be chopped out of solid ice.[11] The fifteen men in the fore half fared better; although rescue attempts were futile during the stormy night, the next day a small boat made it out, and all fifteen were taken off in two boatloads.[12]

Other shipping impact

By noon, November 26, the Butler emerged from the St. Clair River into Lake Huron. The sky was gray and overcast. For the rest of Sunday, the Butler steamed north across Lake Huron. On the morning of Monday, November 27, the 'Joseph G. Butler, Jr. passed Detour Reef Light and entered the Saint Marys River. Monday afternoon, the Butler cleared the Soo Locks, just behind the Bransford. That afternoon, the temperature was 28 degrees (-2 degrees C). As the two steamers headed across Whitefish Bay, the barometer started downward, then the bottom fell out and the snow thickened. By dusk, the lookouts could barely make out the light at Whitefish Point as they cleared the bay into the body of Lake Superior. Here the Bransford turned northward to follow the Canadian shore to stay north of the storm. The Butler turned southwestward to take the shorter distance and pressed through the storm.[13]

As the Butler sighted the Caribou Island Light, the shuddering of the ship changed. The continuous pounding of the waves on the side of the ship became interspersed with a violent shaking. Down in the engine room, the Chief Engineer knew that the vibration was from the props rising out of the water as a trough between waves running up to 10 and 2 feet. First the propeller would rise out of the water, and then the spinning blades would crash back into the water. This kind of pounding could open every seam in the vessel. It became his job to stop the blades every time they rose out of the water and get them going again once they were below the surface. If the ship were to lose headway, it would be at the mercy of the storm, but if the vibrations weren’t stopped, the ship would come apart on its own. The next obstacle was Keweenaw Point jutting out into the open lake. The steward reported that the windows were out in the mess and there was 2 feet of water rushing back and forth.[13]

All day Tuesday the 28th, the Butler fought the boiling seas. At one point, with land not seen and fear of approaching a point of land, the Butler turned to run with the storm, hoping to clear any unseen shoreline. Late that day, the storm began to abate, and when the captain could once again see across the lake, the light at Outer Island in the Apostles was spotted. Now a new course was set to make for Duluth. The seas were still high, but the wind had let up and the snow had stopped. Some fifty hours out of Lorain, the Butler was once again on a steady course for Duluth. As they came abreast of Two Harbor, the Bransford was spotted making for Duluth. Further ahead another steamer was spotted. This turned out to be the Perry G. Walker, which had sailed from Duluth just two days earlier.[13]

Approaching Duluth, more freighters were spotted. The James Nasmyth was anchored out from Minnesota Point, sitting low in the water with a load of iron ore and a thick coating of ice. Then the bulk freighter Mataafa was spotted, sitting in the shallows of Minnesota Point and split into several parts. It was noon as the Butler steamed through the canal into St. Louis Bay, the R.W. England lying beached on the backside of Minnesota Point, a victim of the high winds the day before.

The Wrecks of November 28

Ship[14] Shipping Line Refuge/Wreck Site Damage
Isaac Ellwood (stmr) Pittsburgh Steamship Duluth aground
Mataafa (stmr) Pittsburgh Steamship Duluth aground
R.W. England (stmr) Tomlinson Duluth
Crescent City (stmr) Pittsburgh Steamship Lakewood (7 m NE of Duluth) aground against cliffs
Lafayette (stmr) Pittsburgh Steamship Encampment Island (7 m NE of Two Harbors, Minnesota) ‘broken up’
Manila (barge) of Lafayette Pittsburgh Steamship Encampment Island (7 m NE of Two Harbors) aground
William Edenborn Pittsburgh Steamship nr Split Rock River hard ashore & broken in two
Madeira (barge) of Edenborn Pittsburgh Steamship Gold Rock (3 mi NE) sunk and broken in two
George Herbert (scow) Two Island, nr Schroeder, Minnesota smashed to pieces
George Spencer (stmr-wooden) Thomasville (nr Tofte, Minnesota) hard aground
Amboy (barge) of Spencer hard aground
Monkshaven (stmr) Pie Island, Port Arthur, Ontario on the rocks
W.E. Corey (stmr) Pittsburgh Steamship Gull Island (Apostles) stranded
Western Star (stmr) Fourteen-Mile Point nr Ontonagon, Michigan stranded tight
Coralia (stmr) Pittsburgh Steamship Point Isabelle (east side Keweenaw Peninsula) ‘hung-up’
Maia (barge) of Coralia Pittsburgh Steamship Point Isabelle (east side Keweenaw Peninsula) ‘hung-up’
Ira Owen (stmr) NE of Outer Island (Apostles) foundered
Percy G. Walker (stmr) Two Harbors Badly damaged deck house
Vega (stmr) Gilchrist Transportation Co. South or North? side of Fox Island 'broke in two and pounded to pieces'


Split Rock Lighthouse was built on Lake Superior, off Silver Bay, Minnesota, because of this storm.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Minnesota
  2. ^ C. F. Schneider (1905-12-06). Report For November 1905: Michigan Section of the Climate and Crop Service of the Weather Bureau in Cooperation With the Michigan State Weather Service. Grand Rapids, Michigan Weather Bureau Office. p. 4. 
  3. ^ Daily Weather Map Series (United States Weather Bureau). 1905-11-27. 
  4. ^ a b Alfred J. Henry and Norman B. Conger (1906). Weather Bureau Number 350: Meteorological Chart of the Great Lakes. Summary for the Season of 1905. No. 2, 1905. Government Printing Office. p. 3. 
  5. ^ Daily Weather Map Series (United States Weather Bureau). 1905-11-28. 
  6. ^ War Department Corp of Engineers Bulletin Number 25: Survey of Northern and Northwestern Lakes. United States Lake Survey Office, Detroit, Michigan. April 1916. p. 36. 
  7. ^ Daily Weather Map Series (United States Weather Bureau). 1905-11-29. 
  8. ^ GenDisasters: Duluth, MN Steamer MATAAFA Disaster, Nov 1905, by Stu Beitler
  9. ^ The Infamous Freighter Mataafa, The Mind of James Donahue, by James Donahue
  10. ^ Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals, William Ratigan, published by Galahad Books, Book IV: DOOMED ON SUPERIOR, November 1905, pg.274
  11. ^ Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals, William Ratigan, published by Galahad Books, Book IV: DOOMED ON LAKE SUPERIOR, Chapter 8, pg.274
  12. ^ GenDisasters: Duluth, MN Steamer MATAAFA Disaster, Nov 1905, by Stu Beitler
  13. ^ a b c Bowen, Dana Thomas, Lore of the Lakes; Freshwater Press, Inc.; Cleveland, Ohio; 1940, pp. 216-229
  14. ^ Wolff, Julius F. Jr., Inland Seas, Volume 18; Havighurst, Walter, ed.; The Great Lakes Reader; The Macmillan Company, New York, New York, 1966, pg 306-308
  15. ^ Pepper, Terry (2003). "Split Rock Light". Seeing The Light: Lighhouses of the western Great Lakes. Retrieved 2010-01-16. 
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