It’s late November, so when talk turns to Minnesota shipwrecks, Lake Superior quickly comes to mind. The Edmund Fitzgerald vanishing in a 1975 gale with 29 aboard. The frozen bodies chipped from the icy deck of the Mataafa just off Duluth’s piers in 1905. And so on.
But Minnesota’s largest maritime disaster went down some 200 miles south of Duluth Harbor in Lake Pepin, that rodent-in-the-snake widening of the Mississippi River.
On July 13, 1890, 215 people in Red Wing piled on to the Sea Wing, a wooden paddle-wheeler less than three years old, and its barge cohort, the Jim Grant. The people, decked out in Victorian Sunday finery, were on an excursion to Lake City — where Gov. William Rush Merriam and other dignitaries gathered for a weekend exhibition at the Minnesota National Guard’s summertime encampment. Cannons would be fired, bands would play, soldiers would march in formation and a grand time would be had by all.
It was hot, humid and sticky. So many people wanted to take the pleasure cruise — perhaps hoping it would be cooler out on the water — that the barge was tied on to the Sea Wing to accommodate about 70 of the 215 passengers.
Scattered showers and some squalls foretold the trouble to come. At 5 p.m. in St. Paul, a tornado spun across Lake Gervais, killing six and injuring 11.
David Niles Wethern, the storekeeper skippering the Sea Wing, wouldn’t have known about the lethal twister in St. Paul, but he sensed conditions were growing ominous. He blasted the Sea Wing’s whistle at 7:30 p.m. and sailed north for Red Wing at 8 p.m.
Passengers were crammed shoulder to shoulder in the cabin on the skinny boat — 135 feet long but only 16 feet wide with a 22-foot-high pilot house. Straight-line winds began to whip Lake Pepin, with waves swelling from six to eight feet.
The barge rocked violently behind the Sea Wing, whose crew cut the line connecting the boats — figuring they’d fare better, lurching and rocking on their own.
At 8:30 p.m., a monster wave in the middle of the river channel lifted the Sea Wing — not yet as far north as Maiden Rock on the Wisconsin side. Passengers on the now-severed barge would later recount how the Sea Wing climbed to a 45-degree angle before completely flipping over and capsizing.
In the packed cabin, suddenly tossed upside down, water flooded in. Those who escaped and clung to wreckage in the river were pelted by “hen’s egg-sized” hail. It would take three days to recover all the bodies.
Men in town, hearing of the disaster, piled into rowboats despite the wicked conditions, trying to save whom they could. Lifeboats weren’t required on river boats. Life jackets were there, but few donned them, thinking they could wait out the downpour in the cabin.
Many of the 98 bodies pulled from the cabin and the water were pocked with hail stones. Fifty of 57 females on board were among the dead and 77 of the victims were from Red Wing — including sisters Anna and Julia Persig, both in their 20s.
Their great niece, Diane Johnson of Cottage Grove, doesn’t know for sure. But it’s possible her husband Fred Johnson’s great grandfather might have hauled their corpses up to the funeral home in Red Wing.
A Swedish immigrant who worked in the King’s stable in Stockholm, Carl Oscar Anderson worked as a wagon driver in Red Wing. He scurried with his team to the levee to transport the dead.
Nearly 125 years later, Goodhue County Historical Society director Dustin Heckman and author Fred Johnson are trying to rekindle interest in what might be the biggest Minnesota disaster no one has ever heard of.
Johnson, 69, is a retired elementary teacher who taught for 34 years on St. Paul’s East Side. In the mid-1980s, he wrote a book called “The Sea Wing Disaster: A Tragedy on Lake Pepin.” He recently updated the book, published by the Goodhue Historical Society, with more photos and family stories sparked by the first edition.
“I’ve learned over a lifetime that virtually no one in Minnesota knows the story of the Sea Wing,” Fred Johnson said. “Such a large number of people died suddenly and were forgotten.”
On the Tuesday after the storm, 44 funerals were held in Red Wing alone — then a town of 6,000. Authorities in Washington were aghast and ordered steamboat inspectors to conduct a hearing.
They found Captain Wethern negligent of overloading the boat and starting off in the face of dangerous weather. Their findings were forwarded to the federal district attorney’s office in St. Paul, who never prosecuted Wethern. Among the dead were his wife and one of their two sons. Maybe they felt he’d suffered enough for his flawed judgment.
A permanent display about the Sea Wing, including a lifejacket, bell, whistle and an upright bass played by a band member, can be seen at the Goodhue County Historical Society, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1166 Oak St. in Red Wing.
As the for Sea Wing itself, its pilot house was rebuilt and the boat was returned to the water after repairs were made. A plaque at Red Wing’s Levee Park chronicles its plight.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history will appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org