Did Captain John McKay Float a Bottle Note as the Manistee Sank?
Houghton, Michigan 1889- Robert N. Dennis Collection
by Kathy Warnes
Captain John McKay was swift and sure, but did he have time to post a note in a bottle before the Manistee sank in a fierce November Lake Superior storm?
The Lake Superior waves had evened out into long comers and transformed from smashing to soothing by the time the tug Maytham arrived in Houghton, Michigan on Thursday, November 22, 1883.
A few days before, a storm had brewed on Lake Superior with the wind blowing fiercely from the northwest, the temperature plummeting far below zero, and the waves building mountains. Now in the calmer days after the storm, the tugs Maytham and Bontin searched the area for traces of the missing propeller Manistee. The Maytham crew discovered a water bucket and a piece of the pilot house from the propeller Manistee floating in Lake Superior about forty miles from Ontonagon.
The Manistee Founders In A Lake Superior Storm
According to a story about the Manistee in the Janesville (Wisconsin) Gazette dated November 22, 1883, the Manistee probably foundered in the Friday, November 16, 1883, west of the Keweenaw Peninsula off of Eagle Harbor, Michigan.
Nothing of the Manistee, built in Cleveland in 1850, and rebuilt in 1868 and 1881, remained except pieces of wreckage. Her latest owners, Leopold & Austrian, of Chicago who ran the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior Transportation Company valued her at $25,000.The 190 feet long, 28 feet beam, and 960 tons burthen Manistee had been operating on Lake Superior since 1872, carrying freight and passengers between Duluth, Minnesota, and Houghton, Michigan.
No trace of the Manistee’s crew appeared. Some newspaper accounts estimated that there were at least 25 people aboard. TheNew York Times story said that the crew consisted of 18 men and one woman, and many of them were from Chicago. The crew included Captain John McKay, purser George Seaton, steward F.M. Killey, first mate Andy Mack or second mate Harry Smith. No trace appeared of the first and second engineers, the cook, waiters, sailors, chamber maids or deckhands.
The Port Huron Times of Friday, November 23, 1883, reported that the propeller Manistee had left Duluth, Minnesota, on Saturday, November 10, 1883, and anchored in the harbor at Bayfield, Wisconsin, while the storm raged out on Lake Superior. On Thursday, November, 15, 1883, while the Manistee laid wind bound, the propeller India also ran into Bayfield for shelter. The Manistee transferred her passengers to the City of Duluth bound for Houghton and Captain John McKay, a venturesome navigator, immediately let his lines go and started out into the storm, clearing for Ontonagon at midnight.
According to the Marine Record, on Thursday, November 29, 1883, the captain of the steamer Hackley reported running through portions of the wreckage of the Manistee between Ontonagon and Portage Canal, fifteen miles off shore.
Trout Fishermen Find A Message In A Bottle
Sparse but definitive evidence revealed the fate of the Manistee, but the fate of her crew proved to be more elusive. A message in a bottle seemed to shed some light on the fate of the Manistee’s crew. On May 26, 1885, a story from St. Paul, Minnesota, reported that a note from Captain McKay was found in a bottle in Fish Creek in Ashland, Wisconsin.
The Detroit Post of Wednesday, May 27, 1885, picked up the story. A party of trout fishermen angling up Fish Creek which runs into Lake Superior at Ashland, Wisconsin, found a sealed bottle. They pulled a piece of paper from inside the bottle with a written message that said: “On board the Manistee-Terrible storm tonight, may not live to see morning. Yours to the world. John McKay.”
The people in Ashland who had done business with Captain McKay carefully compared the handwriting on the slip of paper with receipts and other documents that Captain McKay had signed and they declared that the handwriting on the message in the bottle was his without a doubt. They sent the message in the bottle to Captain McKay’s widow Elisabeth and his son George in Cleveland, Ohio, for further identification.
The Captain John McKay that they knew certainly could have written the message while his ship sank under him and he contemplated a cold, Lake Superior end of his career and his life.
Captain John McKay, Pioneer Lake Superior Captain
Captain John McKay and his vessels fitted into the Lake Superior maritime timeline after the bateaux of the early explorers. He captained some of the first ships operating on Lake Superior, including the Algonquin and the Mineral Rock. These early ships carried supplies to trading posts along the Lake Superior Shore and returned carrying such commodities as furs, wild rice, maple sugar and salt fish. Some of the early vessels and their crews prospected for copper and iron ore.
In 1845, Captain McKay moved his family to Sault Ste. Marie so that he could be master of the Algonquin.The 1850 Federal Census of Chippewa County shows that at this point in his life Captain McKay was 40, and his wife Elisabeth only 31. They had three children: George 12, Elisabeth, 10, and John, 7.
Captain John McKay Meets Bishop Frederic Baraga Aboard The Mineral Rock
By 1850, Captain McKay had moved from being master of the Algonquin to master of the Mineral Rock, and in 1859, Father John Cehbul of La Pointe Mission and Bishop Frederic Baraga encountered Captain McKay during a trip from Sault Ste. Marie to Ontonagon on the Mineral Rock.
When Bishop Baraga visited Bayfield and LaPointe for the last time. His health had deteriorated to the point where his hands trembled constantly, and he was partially paralyzed. Father John Chebul accompanied Bishop Baraga on the return voyage to Marquette, and Captain McKay noticed that Bishop Baraga seemed very feeble. At dinner, Bishop Baraga tried to eat a little bit of soup, but his hand trembled so violently that he spilled most of the soup before he could bring the spoon to his mouth.
According to Father Chebul’s account, Captain McKay noticed the Bishop’s condition and he motioned for Father Chebul to take his place at the head of the table. Father Chebul reluctantly moved, because he didn’t know what Captain McKay meant to do. Captain McKay went down to Bishop Baraga and seated himself beside the Bishop. Captain McKay fed the bishop with a spoon, holding the Bishop’s head with his other hand.
The sight of the Captain’s compassion for Bishop Baraga moved the passengers to tears, because Captain McKay usually appeared to be a brisk, rough spoken man. After dinner, the passengers followed Captain McKay out of the dining room, thanking him in the name of humanity and Christianity for his kind act to Bishop Baraga.
Did Captain John McKay Write The Note In The Bottle?
Captain John McKay’s son George was born aboard the steamer Commodore Perry in Toledo, Ohio, on January 13, 1838, and began sailing on his father’s ships while he was still a boy. In 1858, about a year after his father moved the family to Cleveland, George McKay married Mary Ann Swaffield and 1883, he came ashore to become general manager of the Cleveland Transportation Company’s fleet.
After the 1885 Detroit Post story about the note in the bottle that Captain John McKay supposedly wrote, the note in the bottle story appeared in several other newspapers around the Great Lakes and beyond for at least a decade. In June 1897, the Marine Review reported that Captain George P. McKay of Cleveland, had investigated the note and he stated that it was false.
The Marine Review story said that Captain McKay investigated the note and decided that his “brother”, (probably his father) had not written the note. The Marine Review story alleged that the newspaper correspondent in Bayfield had been seduced by the “bottle message fiends”. The Marine Review said that the Bayfield correspondent was not fit to be a newspaper reporter and the correspondent should be prosecuted for inventing stories to make a few dollars from them.
Despite the moral indignation of the Marine Review, the mystery still remained. What happened to the bottle and the note from the day in 1885 that the trout fishermen found it to the day in June 1897 when the Marine Review pronounced the message a fraud? Why hadn’t Captain George McKay’s findings been publicized much sooner? And most importantly, did Captain John McKay hastily scribble the note and thrust it into the bottle as the Manistee sank into the deep blue waters of Lake Superior?
Bohnak, Karl. So cold a sky: upper Michigan Weather Stories, 2006.
Mansfield, J.B., ed. History of the Great Lakes, Volume I, Volume II. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Company, 1899.
Rupp, N. Daniel, The Diary of Bishop Frederic Baraga: First Bishop of Marquette, Michigan. Wayne State University Press, 1990.