The Sinking of The Vernon, Lake Michigan, WI, USA, 29 Oct 1887

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While this event did not occur on Arranmore Island, it did impact on the lives of the people of the Island


On 28 Oct 1887, three Gallagher sister boarded the Vernon, a Chicago-based passenger steamer plying the Great Lakes. Catherine (24 yrs) and Mary (23 yrs), and their sister Bridget (28 yrs), who was married to John Green, were children of Michael R. (Mahal Ruah) Gallagher and Susan (Susie) Mooney. Both Michael and Susan had been born on Arranmore Island, then emigrated to Canada, settling on Beaver Island, Michigan. The bodies of Catherine and Mary were found with their long, red hair tied together; they are buried in Beaver Island. The body of Bridget Green was not recovered - she left behind a young family. For more on this family, see the Townland Notes of the 1901 census Ballintra

Also lost was Hannah Molloy, 20y, who was on her way to Chicago to get married. She was the daughter of Daniel Molloy and Fanny O Donnell, both b. in Arranmore, who emigrated to Beaver Island.

The Dark Voyage

The fatal voyage of the Vernon began on October 20, 1887, when she departed Chicago for Cheboygan with stops at Manitowoc, Suttonís Bay and St. Ignace. The northbound trip was uneventful. The return trip began at Mackinaw City in the Straits about 3 a.m. on October 26th when the Vernon cleared port in the company of the steamer Hurd. The two ships proceeded to Beaver Island where the Vernon stopped for passengers and freight while the Hurd headed on to Chicago. The ship departed Beaver Island the next day and by 1 p.m. had passed the village of Leland. After stops at Glen Haven and Frankfort, the ship headed out across the lake for the western shore on the evening of the 28th.

The stage was now set not only for the tragedy, but also for the development of one of several Vernon mysteries which remain unsolved to this very day: Exactly how many passengers were aboard the fateful steamer? In those days, the active passenger list was kept aboard the vessel itself, although records of individual departures were sometimes retained at each port. To complicate matters, itinerant persons might board or depart a boat at any port, often without record. This system made it very difficult to ascertain the precise number of passengers aboard a ship at any given time. In the case in point, the Vernonís passenger list was almost impossible to reconstruct with certainty after the calamity. Accounts indicate that at least 20 travelers were aboard, perhaps as many as 25, which would bring the estimated total of passengers and crew to anywhere from 44 to 50 individuals, although some reports cite 37 persons as the minimal number. As the ship headed out across the lake, a northeast gale came up at about 10 p.m. The weather steadily worsened, with the wind shifting to the north where the full fetch of the lake allowed huge rollers to develop. The Vernon struggled onward, but headway became progressively more difficult in the mountainous seas. Finally the immense waves swamped the steamer, filled the lower holds with water and extinguished the fires. Without power, the vessel was no match for the raging storm and it soon foundered in deep water. The sinking occurred between 3 and 4 a.m. on Saturday, October 29, at a spot due east of Rawley (Twin Rivers) Point.

The stormy sea was filled with wreckage, drifting cargo and dying castaways. This terrible event did not go "sight unseen", since other vessels were in the vicinity and passed through the huge field of floating debris. However, not a single one stopped to help, thereby breaking a basic law of seamanship in shameful fashion. After all, failure to assist victims of a shipwreck is considered to be the cardinal sin of seafaring! The exact number of vessels which ventured upon the scene without rendering aid is unknown ... another Vernon mystery.

Late Saturday night, the schooner Joseph Paige arrived in Milwaukee and reported seeing that morning several people clinging to the floating wreckage of a large white propeller. Likewise, the steambarge Superior, under the command of Captain Moran, encountered several rafts bearing survivors who were signaling for help. Nearby was a yawl holding a woman and two men, one of whom waved his coat for assistance. Moran also saw several persons floating in life preservers next to a platform containing an inert body. The captain thought he recognized some gold scrollwork on drifting wreckage as ornamentation unique to the steamer Vernon. Midday on Saturday, the schooner William Home passed through floating rubble where several buoyant bodies were noted, as well as a lifeless man lashed to the shattered pilothouse. The tug Anderson also intersected the flotsam on Saturday and Captain John Tobin observed two floating corpses who probably had died from exposure. The schooner Blazing Star likewise encountered the debris field, but continued on her way.

Every vessel which passed the wreck of the Vernon offered some excuse for not rendering aid. The schooner Joseph Paigeís sails had been shredded by the storm winds and the vessel supposedly could not be maneuvered. After coming upon the flotsam, the Paige apparently ran up a distress flag which was seen by the tug Arctic in Manitowoc. The tug took no action because the schooner seemed to be proceeding southward without difficulty. The Arcticís captain explained that it made no sense to believe that there was a shipwreck behind a vessel displaying a distress sign. The captain of the steamer Superior claimed that his ship had suffered a disabled rudder and could not be steered, thus making it impossible to assist anyone. Captain Hawkins of the William Home stated that the seas were too rough on Saturday morning to attempt recovery of the dead bodies seen in the debris field. Inexplicably, none of these beleaguered vessels sought shelter at nearby Manitowoc, but rather proceeded onward to Milwaukee where they finally reported the disaster.

Search and Recovery
Whereas the hapless victims received no help from adjacent ships, no aid came from shore either! One would have expected passing vessels to have immediately notified authorities of the disaster, who in turn would have telegraphed the news to rescue services along the shoreline. Unfortunately, none of the captains who witnessed the calamity put into Manitowoc or Sheboygan to report the catastrophe. To make matters worse, it was Saturday night and all telegraph offices were closed, so no messages could be received by those who might render assistance. In fact, no one in Manitowoc or Two Rivers learned of the foundering until Sunday when the Milwaukee Sentinel arrived!

Eventually a total of 19 bodies were found. For purposes of identification and examination, the recovered corpses were laid out in a temporary morgue at the Two Rivers fire station. There Mr. Burke found the body of his son, F. W. Burke, who had been the clerk on the Vernon. Silence gripped the assemblage as the grief-stricken father recognized the remains of his 21-year old boy. Afterwards, officials were able to identify six other crewmen including Captain Thorpe, mates Sullivan and Higgins, assistant cabin boy Charles Curtis, and attendants Martin and Henry LeBeau. Two passengers from Milwaukee, E. B. Borland and Adolph Haselbarth, were also identified. The remaining bodies were photographed by the coroner who also made detailed notes describing each person. These photos and descriptions were widely published in the news media and were also circulated on handbills to facilitate the identification and reclamation of every victim.

One Man Survives
Early Monday morning, October 31, the schooner S.B. Pomeroy was headed from Chicago to Green Bay when she intersected a life raft drifting about 8 miles northeast of Sheboygan. Aboard that craft were two prostrate men: one was dead from exposure, but the other was still alive. That individual, Axel Stone, a 23-year old immigrant from Sweden, had been a watchman aboard the Vernon. Monday evening the Pomeroy delivered this lone survivor to Green Bay where he was interviewed by newspapermen. Although Stone had been in the USA for only a year and his English was imperfect, he vividly related a shocking tale of death resulting from maritime negligence.

Extract from Wisconsinís 'Underwater Heritage'
A publication of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association

Full Article June 2000


Further reading:

Wisconsin Historical Society - Marine Man recalls loss of "Vernon" in 1887

Midwest Scuba Diving - a two page spread on Diving the Vernon  Part 1  Part 2


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Lindel Buckley

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