It started off as a sunny Sunday morning in July of 1890, on what was to be the “event of the season”— a river valley cruise from Diamond Bluff, Wisconsin to Lake City on the Sea Wing, a 135-foot sternwheeled steamer and attached barge carrying more than 200 passengers and crew.
Twelve hours later, just after 8 p.m., the 109-ton Sea Wing was floating—barely, temporarily—in Lake Pepin. Upside down. Capsized. A dozen or so people clung to the overturned ship’s hull. All around, passengers—men, women, children—were drowned or drowning. Down below, dozens of passengers were trapped underwater.
Soon, though, the rescue mission turned into a recovery mission.
And so it went, for the next four days, until Thursday, July 17, when the 98th and final victim was pulled from the lake. It was Rosa Rehder, an 11-year-old Red Wing girl whose dad led the orchestra that played on the Sea Wing. Rosa’s little brother, 8-year-old Henry, also died.
And Randina Olson and her fiancé Alexander Anderson, whose bodies were found on July 16, which was to be their wedding day.
And Kate Schoeffler, 25, who was found clinging to her six-month-old son, Frederick. And Kate’s husband John. And John Jr.
And 89 others.
This month marks the 125th anniversary of the sinking of the Sea Wing, one of the state’s worst—and arguably least-known—disasters.
Sunday, June 13, 1890. 8 a.m.: The Sea Wing, the 135-foot steam-powered sternwheeler—taller (at 22 feet) than she is wide (16 feet) and with a flat bottom for navigating the shallows of the Mississippi—departs from Diamond Bluff, Wis. (just across the river from where Treasure Island Resort and Casino now sits) with 10 crew members and 11 passengers.
Normally a commercial vessel (she is a log-rafter, towing new-cut logs to river-edged mills), today, the Sea Wing has been cleaned and polished for a daylong excursion. Passengers pay 50 cents per ticket for the 30-mile round trip voyage, which will include a stop in Lake City, which is hosting a day of military exhibitions and picnics. The trip will include a live band. A barge, the Jim Grant, has been tied to the port side of the Sea Wing to carry extra passengers. The trip—coupled with the Lake City event—makes this one of the most anticipated trips of the season.
The captain, David Niles Wethern, is a 36-year-old Diamond Bluff merchant and Sea Wing co-owner who regularly pilots the ship on timber raft runs. Today, he brings his wife Nellie (who serves as unofficial hostess) and two sons, Roy, 10, and Perley, 8.
Sunday, 9 a.m.: The Sea Wing stops in Trenton, Wis. and picks up 22 passengers. At 9:30, another 165 people board the boat in Red Wing when she makes a stop at the levee.
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.: Passengers disembark for the afternoon events at Camp Lakeview. Opportunistic Lake Citians greet passengers with stands selling ice cream, lemonade, and popcorn. Bands play patriotic songs. Cannons are fired. Soldiers march in formation.
Sunday, 5 p.m.: Sixty miles to the northwest, a tornado rips through Lake Gervais, just northeast of St. Paul, killing six people. The storm front shifts southeast. Ominous clouds begin to gather over Lake Pepin.
Sunday, 7 p.m.: A rain squall interrupts military exercises at Camp Lakeview.
Sunday, 8 p.m.: The rain subsides. Although some passengers are reportedly fearful to reboard and remain behind, many others purchase tickets to steam north. Capt. Wethern deems the weather safe. The ship leaves Lake City with more passengers—215—than it had carried into Lake City.
Meanwhile, the Red Wing area is hit by a southbound storm. Winds topple trees. Chimneys are ripped from houses. A Red Wing weather observer measures the wind speed at 60 mph.
Sunday, 8:15 p.m.: After navigating through a steady wind, Capt. Wethern now watches a squall line moving directly toward the Sea Wing. He turns the ship to face it head on. Many passengers crowd into the main cabin area. The flat-bottomed boat starts to sway and roll back and forth. The lines attaching the barge to the Sea Wing pull hard, and passengers on both sides debate whether the barge should be cut loose.
Sunday, 8:25 p.m.: A funnel-shaped cloud appears directly in the ship’s path, 500 yards ahead. Passengers begin putting on life preservers. Passengers start to pray.
The barge Jim Grant is either cut or breaks loose from the Sea Wing. The steamer, hit by the wind, lurches. The Sea Wing rocks onto her right side, and balances, for an instant, at a 45-degree angle. She could, it seems, go either way. But she overturns completely. More than a hundred people are aboard.
Capt. Wethern is trapped in the submerged pilot house as it fills with water. He pushes off from the pilot’s wheel and, finally, manages to escape and swim to the surface. Many of those trapped in the vessel are women and children who had sought refuge from the storm. Some of the women who manage to escape the cabin compartment—who manage to find an opening in the water’s darkness, who manage to swim free of the submerged topsides—then drown as they struggle to swim in their long, heavy dresses.
As many as two dozen survivors cling to wreckage and the ship’s overturned hull. A farmer and his son cling to a plank. An experienced swimmer makes his way to the Wisconsin shore. Two railroad workers struggle to keep their girlfriends, both non-swimmers, afloat. The victims are pelted with “hailstones the size of hen’s eggs.” The water is filled with debris and bodies and cries for help.
Two Lake City boys, Harry Mabey and Theodore Minder, had leapt from the capsizing Sea Wing and swam to the barge. When the barge drifts to the shallow waters, Mabey and others swim for the shore. Most, though, remain on the barge, which has taken on water but is still seaworthy.
Sunday, 8:45 p.m.: Upon reaching shore, an exhausted Mabey runs two miles to the Lake City fire hall to ring the alarm bell. Rescuers in rowboats launch vessels from along the lake. Mabey and Minder commandeer a boat themselves to rescue passengers. Few are saved. Before long, the rescue of survivors turns to the recovery of bodies.
And so it goes, for the next four days, until Thursday, July 17, when the 98th and final victim is pulled from the lake. It is Rosa Rehder, the 11-year-old Red Wing. Rosa’s little brother, 8-year-old Henry, also died.
Along with ten-year old Lenus Lillyblad.
And Randina Olson and her fiancé Alexander Anderson.
And Joseph Carlson, 21.
And Kate Schoeffler, 25, who was found clinging to her six-month-old son, Frederick. And Kate’s husband, John. And John Jr.
And 89 others.
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 city park where services are held. Trains arrive carrying mourners from Rochester, Lake City, Zumbrota, and Cannon Falls. More than 5,000 people attend.
Capt. David Wethern, who lost his wife and one of his children in the disaster, was found guilty of “unskillfulness” and of “overloading his ship.” His pilot’s license was suspended. He registered an appeal to legally change the name of the ship but never followed though. Wethern moved to Prescott, Wis., where he lived with his surviving son, Roy. David piloted the rebuilt ship under the Sea Wing name for a dozen years before selling it for scrap. He remarried in 1905. A 1909 history of St. Croix County reports Wethern was a member of the Masonic orders in Red Wing and Prescott.
He died in 1929 at age 75 and was buried in Diamond Bluff. There, a simple stone, marked “DNW,” sits among his family members and others who died in the disaster.
His son, Roy, went on to serve as a riverboat/towboat pilot along the Mississippi River, based in St. Paul.
Today, some items from the Sea Wing, such as one of the ship’s bells, are on display at the excellent Goodhue County Historical Society in Red Wing.
Out Of The Crowd
Would-be rescuers rushed to the Lake Pepin shore. Corporal B.L. Perry chose a four-seated rowboat and asked for volunteers to help him row. At first, men in the crowd were eager to go out, but someone spoke of the still-dangerous waters and offers of help were silenced. Frustrated, Perry began to push off by himself when Lake City resident Wesley Hills stepped forward, saying he would row, even though he wasn’t able to swim. The pair were the first to reach the capsized steamer. They made three trips out and back saving three women, one child and five men.
Small Town Charity
Most of the victims were Red Wing residents. Shortly after the disaster, at a town meeting in Lake City, attorney Wesley Kinney proposed a resolution urging the town to pay for all bills resulting from the residents’ rescue and salvage efforts. The town passed a resolution that no such bills “be permitted or forwarded to the town of Red Wing for payment.” Without being asked, the city of Red Wing later paid all expenses incurred by the town and residents of Lake City.
As the ship and barge moved northward from Camp Lakeview, Charlie Sewall disliked the darkening skies. Passing a familiar landmark, he turned to his comrades and said, “Goodbye boys!” before jumping from the barge and swimming more than 300 feet to shore.
Twists Of Fate
Two days before the voyage, a walking missionary known only as Georgas, who was staying in Diamond Bluff, was widely reported to have made predictions that the Sea Wing would be destroyed in a storm on Sunday. Several would-be passengers heeded the warning and obtained refunds for their tickets. By noon on Sunday, Georgas packed and left, saying he couldn’t bear to remain and share the sorrow of the townspeople.