The Sea Wing Tragedy
July 13, 1890 started like many other Sundays. It was a warm and humid day that was to be a good one for the Wethern and Sparks families, or so they thought. It seemed like a great day to be on the water, the humidity and heat of the past week was getting to everyone and a warm summer's day on the water was just what they had been waiting for, all 215 of them. However, as most people in the upper midwest know, the summer heat also brings devastating storms. These summer storms act quickly and unpredictably, and on this day a large group of people would learn the hard way that when the wind picks up the party goes down, sometimes literally. So the story begins....
On this warm day, the Sea Wing would not be doing its usual work. Its usual work consisted of hauling rafts of wood to processing plants along the upper Mississippi. This was a fairly profitable profession at the time. No, today it would be taking a large group of passengers on a pleasure cruise. This cruise would include a 30-mile trip downstream starting at Diamond Bluff, Wisconsin, and ending at Lake City, Minnesota. The trip would be made with a barge, the Jim Grant, attached to its side so that passengers could pass from boat to barge with a fair amount of ease. The trip was promising a large crowd for the Sea Wing. At fifty cents a ticket, round trip, it appeared to be profitable. The passengers would not all come from Diamond Bluff, but instead, after leaving Diamond Bluff at 7:30 A.M. they would pick up passengers in Trenton at 8:30 A.M., Red Wing at 9:30 A.M., and arrive at the camp ground in Lake City at 11:30 A.M.. They visited the summer encampment of the Minnesota National Guard's First Regiment at Camp Lakeview. The return trip would include a little concert by the band on board.
The trip was doomed from the start. There was an elderly "walking missionary," Georgas, whowas staying in Diamond Bluff. Two days before the trip he told people that the Sea Wing would be destroyed. He even said that it would be due to a storm that would cause many people to lose their lives. He was successful in changing the minds of some people, but the boat still left right on schedule with the barge at its side. There was not a single person who knew how right the old man was. In spite of his claim, there still were 22 passengers that got on in Trenton and well over 100 in Red Wing.
The Sea Wing carried 215 passengers that day--30 passengers more than the permit allowed. The extras paid with their lives. In all, ninety-eight people drowned when the boat went down. When it sank it was four miles north of Lake City in the very middle of the lake, about even with Maiden Rock, Wisconsin. The people who survived were on the barge that managed to detach from the Sea Wing and run north closer to the Minnesota shore. The claim of the supervising inspector, John D. Sloane, was this:
"At the time the Sea Wing left on her return, about 8 o'clock p.m., there was every indication of an approaching storm, although the witnesses in behalf of the steamer claim that it could not be seen from where she lay behind the Lake City point."
The boat stood no chance in a storm. It was 22 ft. high and only 16 ft. wide. The six foot difference, along with the fact that it was a light weight, top heavy boat made it a kite on the open water.
The Sea Wing disaster was a terrible tragedy that, like most disasters with humans involved, was probably preventable. This is the story that caused many families years of pain and grief, so as we end our story, here is how one man expressed his grief after losing a friend in this terrible disaster.
In the early gathering twilight.
Gay and gallant as of yore,
He drove away, and we little thought,
That his last day's work was o'er.
Little dreamed we, that the morrow's sun
Would see him tempest [tost],
And that in the deadly struggle
Death would win, and he be lost.
Was it fate that he should venture,
On that boat doomed to capsize,
He whose only fear was water,
Be pinned so he could not rise?
Oh that fatal, fatal morning,
When he sailed away so brave,
Bent on seeking joy and pleasure,
Doomed to find a watery grave.
Is it right that he be taken,
In his manhood, pride and joy?
Should his mother's heart be breaking,
Weeping for her noble boy?
Should those restless feet be still
And that voice be hushed and dumb?
He has gone to God in Heaven,
We must say, Thy will be done.
Web page created by Ben Weisenbeck and Jesse Kralewski
March 17, 1999
The Pepin County Courier
The Sea Wing Disaster, Frederick L. Johnson
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