Sinking into history: disaster claims the Cedarville

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
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From amidships, you couldn’t see the bow. You could hear the mournful horns from the other Great Lakes freighters, but the SS Cedarville was swathed in an almost apocalyptic fog.

David Erickson was on the main deck, fetching potatoes from the vegetable bin outside the galley. A friend, one of the other survivors, was with him.

“Look at this,” the friend said, pointing forward. Bearing down on them, emerging from the mist at an absolute and unstoppable right angle, was the sharp prow of another freighter.

It was 50 years ago today, early, in the Straits of Mackinac. Erickson had just enough time to think, “This can’t be real.”

But it was.

Erickson is 74 now, one of only seven living members of the fortunate 25 who escaped the sinking of the Cedarville.

Even the most modern of the storied shipwrecks seem like ancient history, the stuff of legend or in one case a song. The Carl D. Bradley, 1958, 33 dead with two survivors. The Daniel J. Morrell, 1966, 28 dead with one survivor. The Edmund Fitzgerald, 1975, all 29 gone.

They were claimed by November storms on the mercurial Great Lakes. The Cedarville was different, sunk by bad decisions and bad luck in the early spring of ’65, but it was an unimportant distinction to the widows and children of the 10 men who drowned or froze in the 36-degree water.

Erickson went back to the lakes for a few months — “going sailing,” the mariners call it — but thought better of it and spent the rest of his working life on dry land, at a quarry and then in maintenance at a resort.

He serves today as president and director of the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum, located in a former hardware store in downtown Rogers City. Retired sailors from the old Bradley fleet gather there for coffee every Monday morning.

They laugh and tell stories, and then sometimes they wonder:

When the elements and the law of averages come furiously into play, which boat will be the next to disappear?

A job on the water

Half a century ago the Bradley Transportation Division of U.S. Steel had a fleet of bulk carriers based in Rogers City, at the top of the mitten’s index finger on Lake Huron.

Near the end of every school year, the shipping company came recruiting at Rogers City High. Erickson signed up.

“When you first start sailing,” he says, “you go where they need you.” He labored on deck and in the engine room. Then he figured out that the off-duty weeks were more consistent if you worked the galley.

Seven years in, he was a waiter and a part-time cook when the 603-foot Cedarville set out for Gary, Indiana, with 14,411 tons of limestone from the local quarry.

Given the conditions, it was going too fast. So was a 423-foot Norwegian freighter, and the Topdalsfjord compounded the mistake by not answering radio calls.

Just inside the marker buoys near the Mackinac Bridge, they met.

Though the bow of the Topdalsfjord was pushed back 11 feet, it didn’t breach. Topside damage to the Cedarville was minimal, but water gushed through the hull.

Crewmen unrolled the boat’s emergency crash tarpaulin, Erickson says, “but it just got sucked into the hole, like a Kleenex.”

Quick thinking, survival

Steve Brisson, the deputy director of Mackinac State Historic Parks, helped open a shipwreck exhibit this week at the Old Mackinaw Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

Recent analysis, he says, suggests that Cedarville Capt. Martin Joppich was following orders from company headquarters in Pittsburgh: keep to the schedule.

But it was Joppich who ordered the starboard ballast tanks to be flooded to counteract a portside list, who didn’t turn toward the closest land when he decided to try to run aground, who never said to abandon ship even as the bow-heavy Cedarville began to roll and sink.

Erickson was in his assigned lifeboat on the starboard side when he heard someone say it wouldn’t release. He leaped out. When the Cedarville rolled to its right, most of the people who stayed in the lifeboat died.

He kicked to the surface, saw the Cedarville upside down, and swam to a raft. The survivors were rescued by the crew of a German freighter called the Weissenburg, then transferred along with several of the dead to the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw.

Many of the survivors never sailed again, Erickson says. Another didn’t even miss a shift. Joppich pleaded guilty to four counts of faulty seamanship, had his license pulled for a year, and never went back to the lakes. He lived out his years in Rogers City and never spoke of the day.

Erickson speaks about it often, whenever he’s asked.

“I can’t remember dinner yesterday,” he says, “but I can remember every minute of that morning.”

The collision itself was remarkably quiet. He remembers that. The impact felt like big wave, not a catastrophe; after he fetched his life jacket, he went to check on the steward and found him sitting on his bunk, reading a magazine.

Minutes later Erickson was in the water, fighting the elements and the fates, an unwitting piece of history.


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