The Wreck of the Sea Wing

How it happened

Wednesday, July 9
The Midwest is in the grip of a heat wave. A tornado in Fargo, N.D., kills nine people.

Thursday, July 10
A notice appears in the Red Wing Argus advertising a day-long excursion aboard the Sea Wing and an accompanying barge, the Jim Grant. The Sunday trip will take voyagers to Camp Lakeview, near Lake City, for a day of military exhibitions and a picnic. A live band will be aboard. Tickets are 50 cents.

Friday, July 11
An itinerant preacher known only as Georgas tells people in Diamond Bluff, Wis., that the Sea Wing will be destroyed in a storm in two days and many lives will be lost.

Sunday, July 13, 8:40 a.m.
The Sea Wing, piloted by Capt. David Niles Wethern, leaves Diamond Bluff with 10 crew members and 11 passengers.

9 a.m.
The ship arrives at Trenton, Wis., and picks up 22 passengers.

The ship leaves Red Wing with about 165 additional passengers.

11:30 a.m.
The Sea Wing reaches Lake City. Passengers disembark for the afternoon’s entertainment at Camp Lakeview.

Shortly after noon
Georgas packs his belongings and leaves Diamond Bluff, saying he can’t bear to share the upcoming sorrow of the townspeople.

Funnel clouds are reported in the Gervais Lake area, 60 miles to the north. Tornadoes kill five people, 11 are injured and several are missing, apparently swept into the lake. In Hastings, high winds uproot trees and damage homes.

5 p.m.
In Lake City, the sky to the north turns dark.

About 7 p.m.
A rain squall interrupts military exercises at Camp Lakeview.

About 8 p.m.
The rain lets up. Capt. Wethern deems the weather safe. Although some passengers do not reboard out of fear, the ship cruises north with more passengers than it had carried to Lake City.

After 8 p.m.
The Red Wing area is hit by a southbound storm. Winds topple trees. Roofs and chimneys are ripped from houses. A Red Wing weather observer measures the wind speed at 60 mph before his anemometer breaks from the force.

Aboard the Jim Grant, intoxicated male passengers begin singing bawdy songs. Most of the women leave the barge for the Sea Wing before the singers are quieted by Chief Engineer Mel Sparks.

Only a mile into the return trip, Boze Adams of Lake City and several other young people begin putting on life jackets. Adams is reprimanded by Capt. Wethern and told “Take that off . . . You will frighten the ladies.”

8:15 p.m.
The storm hits the Sea Wing. Many passengers crowd into the main cabin area. Wethern now encourages passengers to don life vests if they wish.

Crewman Ed Niles spots a funnel-shaped cloud darting across the ship’s path, 500 yards ahead. Passengers begin tying on life preservers. Many start to pray, as wind and waves rock the vessel.

Aboard the Jim Grant, passengers attempt to separate their vessel from the rocking steamboat. The barge, which may have been stabilizing the Sea Wing, is either cut or broken loose. The steamer rocks onto its right side, balancing momentarily at a 45-degree angle. Horrified barge passengers watch as the Sea Wing overturns completely, with more than a hundred people aboard.

Capt. Wethern is trapped alone in the submerged pilot house as it fills with water. He makes two attempts to escape by bracing his feet against the spokes of the pilot’s wheel and pushing against the windows with his back. On his second attempt, he is freed and swims to the surface.

Many of those trapped in the vessel are women and children who had sought refuge from the storm. Of the 57 women believed to have been on the return voyage, few survive. Even some of those who escape the cabin compartment meet tragic ends, struggling to swim in long dresses.

As many as 25 survivors cling to wreckage and the ship’s overturned hull. The weather worsens and victims are pelted with egg-sized hail.

The barge drifts toward Central Point, just north of Lake City. Several youths dive into the water and swim to the shallows off the point. Of them, Harry Mabey is among the first to reach shore.

About 8:45 p.m.
Mabey runs to town and rings the alarm bell at the fire hall. Rescue efforts begin. Before long, goals change from rescue of survivors to recovery of bodies.

Monday, July 14, 6 a.m.
The rafter Ethel Howard arrives at Red Wing with 42 bodies recovered during the night.

11 a.m.
Artillery fire is used in a vain attempt to raise bodies from the lake. Dragging with barbed wire and underwater dynamite blasting will also be tried without success.

Monday afternoon
The ships Ethel Howard and Luella pull the Sea Wing nearer shore. National Guardsmen extricate about 15 bodies from inside its decks.

Tuesday, July 15
Only one body is recovered from the lake.

Wednesday, July 16
The sternwheel rafter Menomonie passes over the disaster area. A body rises to the surface. Subsequent passes agitate the water, but decomposition causes some 31 bodies to surface.

In St. Paul, inspectors arrive from the Galena, Ill., Steam Vessel District to investigate the accident and conduct hearings.

Thursday, July 17
The 98th and final body, that of an 11-year-old Red Wing girl, is recovered. Her 8-year old brother had also died.

Wethern writes a letter that is published in the St. Paul Dispatch, defending his ship and crew.

Friday, July 25
A memorial service is held in Red Wing for the victims of the disaster. A 20-foot obelisk with the names of the 98 victims is erected in the the city park where services are held. Trains arrive carrying mourners from Rochester, Lake City, Zumbrota and Cannon Falls. More than 5,000 people attend.

Two weeks after the accident
The steamer, Netta Durant, tows the Sea Wing and Jim Grant back to their home port, Diamond Bluff.

Aug. 27
The official inspector report of the accident is published in the Red Wing Advance Sun. Capt. Wethern’s license to pilot is suspended. Criminal prosecution is recommended but never carried out.

Dec. 12, 1893
Wethern has regained his pilot’s license and rebuilt the Sea Wing. He persuades a county clerk to request an official change of name for the ship. Wethern never follows through, but runs the ship under its given name for 12 years before selling it for scrap.