By Jim Bloch
Nov. 18 marked the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the freighter Carl D. Bradley in the northern reaches of Lake Michigan in a storm powered by 65 mile per hour winds. The ship went down in 35-40 foot seas off Gull Island, at the western edge of the Beaver Island archipelago.
Thirty-three of the 35 crewmembers died.
While the sinking had its most devastating impact on the citizens of Rogers City, home to 23 of its victims, the ship has had a handful of connections to the Blue Water Area, as we shall see in Parts III and IV.
The Bradley goes down
When the American Ship Building Company launched the Bradley in Lorain, Ohio in 1927, it was the longest ship in the Great Lakes at 639 feet, making the vessel the Queen of the Great Lakes, a title the Bradley held until 1949.
The ship became one of nine in the Bradley Transportation fleet, based in Rogers City, population 3,873, located on Michigan’s far northeastern coastline, on Lake Huron. Until Nov. 18, 1958, there had never been a fatality on a Bradley freighter.
After delivering its final load of limestone to Gary, Indiana, the Bradley headed for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to have her cargo hold refitted over the winter. Then came a call from the ship’s owner, U.S. Steel, to return to Rogers City for one more load of limestone. With the storm building, Captain Roland Bryan hugged the Wisconsin coast up the lake, to the Cana Island lighthouse, where the Bradley struck out east, hoping that Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan and its many smaller neighbors, would provide respite from the gale force winds. But the storm was unusually intense, blowing from the south up the entire 300-mile length of Lake Michigan. The Bradley never made it to the north side of the archipelago.
As it neared Gull Island, the ship started heaving and then broke in two, according to Andrew Kantar in his 2006 book “Black November: The Carl D. Bradley Tragedy.”
Captain Roland Bryan issued the call to abandon ship and first mate Elmer Fleming sent out a mayday call from the Bradley just after dark on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1958: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Carl D. Bradley. We are breaking in two and sinking. We are 12 miles southwest of Gull Island. Any ships in the area, please come to our aid.”
Deckhand Frank Mays, 26, struggled to free the life raft on the bow. Other crew members tried unsuccessfully to launch the two life boats on the stern.
As the bow began to sink, a huge wave swept everyone overboard into the icy lake. Mays came to the surface a few feet from the life raft, which consisted of two pontoons, approximately 10-feet in length, onto which were bolted two decks made of wooden slats, each separated by a half-inch of space, one on the top and one on the bottom of the pontoons: When the giant waves flipped over the raft, the bottom became the top.
Mays hauled Fleming onto the raft as well as two other crewmen who would later perish. Screams of their fellow crewmen cut through howling storm.
“In the darkness, we could hear men yelling but we couldn’t see anyone,” said Mays in his 2003 oral history of the event, “If We Make It ’til Daylight.”
The bow sank first. The stern, with some of its lights still twinkling, its cables and wrenched steel visible, remained weirdly afloat before tipping, one of its life boat dangling above the water. Its propeller pointed momentarily skyward and then the stern sank. As the icy lake engulfed it, the Bradley‘s boilers exploded.
It wasn’t long before the cries of their fellow crewmen ceased.
“Soon, all we could hear was the wind whistling and the waves crashing around us,” Mays said.
Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.