Some of the worst storms on the Great Lakes in recorded history have taken place in November. These storms have proven deadly to late season shipping. Perhaps the best known example of this is the sinking of the ore freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in November 1975 on Lake Superior, immortalized in a song by Gordon Lightfoot. But there have been many others, including the loss of the S.S Daniel J. Morrell on Lake Huron in November 1966.
At 11:00 P.M on Saturday November 26, 1966, the 603 foot long ore freighter S.S. Daniel J. Morrell departed the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York, and headed out into Lake Erie. The trip into Lackawanna was supposed to be the last one of the season, but another one of Bethlehem Steel’s ships had broken down in Taconite Harbor, Minnesota. The Daniel J. Morrell, which was also owned by Bethlehem Steel, would have to make one more run and go to Minnesota to get that load of iron ore and bring it back to Lackawanna.
The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell was built in 1906, and although it was one of the older freighters on the lakes, it had been well maintained and reliable. Captain Arthur Crawley was in command of the vessel. He was 47 years old, and had served on Great Lakes ships since he was 18. The Daniel J. Morrell was accompanied on this trip by an almost identical ship, the S.S. Edward Y. Townsend, which was under the command of Captain Thomas Connelly.
After stopping to take on fuel in Windsor, Ontario early on Monday the 28th, the Morrell headed into Lake Huron. A blizzard was hitting Michigan that dumped 16 inches of snow on the state’s Upper Peninsula, along with 70 mile per hour winds. The brunt of the storm headed southeast into the Lower Peninsula and Lake Huron.
Deteriorating Weather on Lake Huron
At 8:30 Monday evening, Crawley and Townsend discussed the deteriorating weather conditions over the radio. The Morrell was somewhere ahead of the Townsend, both steaming into a 35 mile an hour north wind, with eight foot waves. At 10:00 PM, winds had increased to 50 miles per hour, and the waves were twelve feet. A little after midnight, the waves had increased to 20 feet, with 65 mile per hour winds. The two ships could barely move forward in the high winds and waves.
The Sinking of the S.S. Daniel J. Morrell
At approximately 2 AM on the 29th of November, 26 year old crewman Dennis Hale was asleep in his cabin in the bow of the ship when he heard a loud banging sound. The lights were out in his cabin and Hale rushed outside without getting dressed to see what was going on. Hale heard someone yell to put life jackets on. He went back into the dark cabin and grabbed his life jacket and his wool Navy peacoat, but was unable to find his pants or shoes in the dark. He went back out on deck.
Then Hale and the other forward crew members saw an incredibly horrible sight. The center of the ship was higher than the stern, having been pushed up by a giant wave. Rivets popped out of steel plates, and metal cracked and broke. Then the stern slowly raised up. Realizing the ship was breaking up, the crew headed to the life raft.
The life raft was a pontoon and wood design, and was too heavy to launch. The crew, perhaps a dozen men (others were on the stern section of the ship) boarded the raft and waited for the ship to sink, and the raft to float.. The steel plate in the center of the ship ripped all the way around, and with a loud blast of steam, the ship split in two. The stern, which had never lost electrical power and was still lit up, continued plowing forward, and rammed the bow. The bow angled downward, and a wave smashed into the raft, sending all aboard into the cold lake, with its 25 foot waves and 65 mile per hour winds.
Only four men, including Dennis Hale, made it back to the raft. They noticed the stern section still steaming away without the bow, like a ghost ship. The stern would go five miles before it sank. When the power went out on the bow, it took communications down, so no distress call was made. No one knew the Morrell had sunk, so no one was looking for them.
Captains of Bethlehem Steel’s fleet of ships reported in to headquarters at 9 AM every day. When no report came in from the Morrell, it was thought that the ship’s radio antenna was damaged in the high winds. Other ships were told to watch for the Morrell and to keep trying to make radio contact with her. At 9 AM on Wednesday the 30th, there was still no contact with the ship. Inexcusably, the Morrell was not reported to the Coast Guard as missing until noon on the 30th.
The Coast Guard sprang into action immediately, with helicopters, planes, and ships joining in the search and rescue operation. It wasn’t long before bodies wearing life jackets were discovered and pulled out of the still turbulent lake. At 4 PM, a Coast Guard helicopter spotted a raft grounded on Michigan’s shore and went in to investigate what appeared to be four more bodies. But incredibly, 38 hours after the Morrell sank, with no food, and bare legs and feet, and nearly at the end, Dennis Hale was still alive. He was the only survivor of the tragedy. Twenty eight men perished; all but two bodies were recovered, the last on May 27th, 1967 on the Ontario shoreline.
An investigation of the wreck followed. It was determined that the type of steel used in ships built before 1948 was susceptible to cracking in cold weather and high waves. Because of its chemical structure, this steel became brittle and was not flexible enough to accommodate the stress placed on it by high seas. Older ships were ordered to be reinforced to prevent breaking up under adverse conditions. An inspection of the Edward Y. Townsend immediately after the storm showed severe cracks in the hull. There were very nearly two ships lost that night, and in fact, the Townsend never sailed again and was sold for scrap.
For nearly 30 years, Dennis Hale refused to talk about the tragedy. As the only survivor, he was haunted by “survivors guilt” wondering why he was spared. But in the 1990’s Hale began to talk about his experiences, and it helped him deal with his feelings. Hale now speaks frequently to groups about the ship and her crew, and has made it his mission in life to keep the memory of the S.S. Daniel J. Morrell alive.
Feather, Carl E. “Daniel J. Morrell’s Sole Survivor”. The Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio) June 19, 2009.
Janega, James. ” I lived, ‘now I can be there for them’ “. Chicago Tribune, November 29th, 2006.
Kantar, Andrew. Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2009.
“Sole Survivor Tells Sinking of Ship in Lake”. Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1966.