Broken: Lost Ships of the Great Lakes
The tragedy of the SS Carl D Bradley hit Rogers City particularly hard
At the time of her sinking the SS Carl D Bradley was the largest ship to go down on the Great Lakes at 639 feet long. Built in 1927 she was the biggest ship sailing on the Great Lakes until 1949. Built like most lake freighters of the time she had a forward pilot house and rear engine room and crew quarters. The ship was considered state of the art and had a unique propulsion system shared with only a handful of other ships. The Bradley used a turboelectric drive, meaning her boilers powered an turbine electric generator and the electricity then powered an electric motor connected to the drive shaft. Because of her size the Bradley often acted as an icebreaker to open each new season and would be the first ship through the Straits of Mackinac. She would break ice with her concrete filled bow all the way to Indiana where damaged plates would be replaced before starting the season.
The Bradley's self unloader in action
By the late 1950s the Bradley was showing her age and an $880,000 overhaul of her hull and cargo hold was scheduled over winter layup in Manitowoc, WI after the 1958 season.
After what was supposed to be its last trip of the season to Gary, IN the Bradley got a call from US Steel that it was to head to Calcite, MI to run one last load for the season. This last minute decision would end up being her demise. Instead of heading to Manitowoc, WI for winter layup the Bradley's captain plotted a chart back to Calcite, MI for that last load.
Approximate route the Carl D Bradley took
The Bradley left Gary, IN around 10pm on November 17, 1958 and winds were already blowing at 25-35 mph out of the south. A storm was building and the winds were expected to shift to the southwest and build to 50-65 mph by the next day. In preparation the captain ordered the ship to be readied for heavy weather and took a longer route hugging the Wisconsin coast to protect from the wind.
Sometime around 4pm on November 18th the Bradley turned away from the Wisconsin coast and headed towards Lansing Shoal. At this point winds had built to the expected 60-65mph and waves had built to 20 feet. Around 5:30pm the Bradley was around 12 miles southwest of Gull Island when the Chief Mate reported hearing a loud thud followed by a vibration in the ship. The Chief Mate looked aft and saw the rear of the vessel sagging. The crew immediately signaled the general alarm and were told to prepare to abandon ship. Mayday calls were received by several stations and a nearby ship the MV Cristian Sartori.
With the Bradley broken in 2 it did not take long for her to sink. The crew at the front began prepping the life raft, which was nothing more than 2 steel pontoons with a wooden deck. There as only one life raft on the bow section with 2 lifeboats at the stern. The crew at the stern attempted launching their lifeboats but one became entangled in cables and the other was impossible to launch due to the ship listing.
An example of the type of life raft the Bradley carried
As the crew on the bow section prepared the life raft the ship sank below the waves and the raft floated free. Four men managed to find their way to the raft in the churning water.
The Cristian Sartori had immediately turned around and made way towards the Bradley once the mayday was heard. The Sartori only 4 miles away witnessed the ship go down. They reported the front half's lights going out first, then the rear, followed by an explosion shortly after. Though the Sartori was only 4 miles away it took them 90 minutes to turn around and make their way to the position of the Bradley due to the conditions. The Sartori did not find any survivors reporting they only found a raincoat and a tank. The men on the life raft later reported seeing a ships searchlight nearby at one point and it's thought the "tank" the Sartori saw was in fact the life raft. The Sartori unfortunately never came across the men again and eventually had to seek shelter herself at nearby Washington Island due to the weather.
Coast Guard Cutter Sundew set out from Charlevoix, MI shortly after the mayday was heard and arrived on scene by 10:40pm and another cutter (Hollyhock) from Sturgeon Bay, WI arrived by 1:30am. It wouldn't be until 8:37am that the men on the life raft would be found by the Sundew. The men were encrusted in ice and could barely move. One of the four had already perished from the conditions and another would succumb shortly after being taken aboard the Sundew. The 2 remaining survivors insisted the ship stay out and continue its search for any remaining crew members. Unfortunately those 2 men would be the only crew members to return home.
The Sundew returned to Charlevoix with the men and eight bodies later that afternoon. The Hollyhock pulled into Charlevoix that night with an additional 9 bodies. Only one more body would be found after that by the freighter Transontario on its way to Milwaukee. This man found by the Transontario was still breathing when found and a doctor was being prepared to fly in via helicopter. Before the doctor could arrive though word came that the man had passed. The remaining men were never found. Of the 33 men who lost their lives that night 23 were from the small 4,000 person town of Rogers City. Just to give some sense of what the scale of this loss was to the community, imagine that 9/11 claimed 50,000 lives instead of 3,000 in New York City.
The wreck wouldn't be found until the next spring due to weather and ice on Lake Michigan. The Coast Guard located the wreck and took sonar images but was unable to conclude whether the ship had broken in half or not.
The eyewitness reports that she broke in half were not believed by US Steel so they commissioned a dive company out of California to verify the status of the ship in 1959. The divers reported that the Bradley was resting on the bottom in one continuous piece. US Steel did have motivation for this survey to come back how it did. If the ship had in fact broken in two then US Steel would be in a position of far greater liability. As it was the families ended up settling for far less than they initially sued for.
Carl D Bradley's pilot house
Both survivors always maintained their story that the ship had broken in two and it wouldn't be until 1997 that they would be vindicated. This 1997 dive found that the Bradley was in fact in 2 pieces but remarkably were only 90 feet away from each other and nearly in line. Besides the midsection where she broke apart the Bradley was in remarkably good shape. Whether those divers in 1959 were mistaken due to the coincidence of both halves coming to rest practically inline or simply gave US Steel the answer they wanted will probably never be known.
Screenshot of the Bradley's generator from the above dive video
Makings of a Disaster
The Bradley was about midway through her life on the Great Lakes and was showing signs of her age. The captain of the ship was concerned about the state of the vessel and was glad the ship would be reworked over the next winter layup. To one correspondent he wrote, "This boat is getting pretty ripe for too much weather, I'll be glad when they get her fixed up." The 1958 season did not make things any better, twice she ran aground, neither time being reported to the Coast Guard. And her second grounding required repairs to the hull. The captain grew even more concerned about the state of the ship writing to another correspondent, "The hull is not good...have to nurse her along...The hull was badly damaged at Cedarville."
Like many of the large ships of the era, crew members recount picking up buckets worth of sheared off rivets after rough weather as the Bradley got on in age. These large vessels had to withstand enormous stresses in heavy weather. The materials and designs of the time just meant this was something to be dealt with. Rivets would be replaced with bolts and the crew would go on the next one.
Adding to the tragedy are the reports that the Bradley was ordered to make one last trip for the season at the last hour. The Bradley would have steamed past her winter layup home of Manitowoc mere hours before disaster. Had she gone there instead of heading back for one last load, the repairs scheduled might have meant she never would have sunk. Certainly she would not have sunk that day at the very least.
The Coast Guard's report on the Bradley concludes that the Bradley likely hogged up, meaning she broke 2 from the top down. This sort of failure generally occurs from design related deficiencies or material related ones. Ships built before 1948 are now know to have had a far more brittle steel and 2 other similarly built ships would suffer similar failures in the 1960s.
All of these factors may have added up to structural deficiencies in the Bradley's hull that could not withstand the stress of the storm. Whether it was inherent deficiencies in the design or materials, or damage from her groundings, or just a general lack of maintenance that did her in will likely never be known.
Painting of the Carl D Bradley by Steve Witucki
The last living survivor from the wreck of the Bradley just passed away at the beginning of the year on January 8, 2021. Frank Mays can be seen in the video below talking about his story of survival.
While there may no longer be any of her crew to remember, the Bradley and her crew will live on the memories of loved ones and in the lore of the Great Lakes.
This story is also posted to opposite-lock
Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals. William Ratiger. 1960.