Life Boat Station Ludington, Mich., completes first rescue, overcoming odds

Coast Guard Station Ludington, Mich., Jan. 25, 1955.

Coast Guard Station Ludington, Mich., Jan. 25, 1955.

One characteristic of a life-saving crew is to never give up.

A second is to always try to overcome all odds.

This is exactly what the first crew of Life Boat Station Ludington, Mich., did for their first rescue, Nov. 20, 1979.

On Nov. 18, 1879, the three-masted schooner Mercury, of Grand Haven, Mich., laden with 251, 000 feet of pine planking, left the harbor of Ludington at noon bound for Chicago. The schooner was commanded by Capt. Louis Sterling and had a crew of seven men.

When the crew neared Little Point au Sable Light, a lighthouse located about 20 miles south of Ludington, the wind shifted to the southwest and blew a gale taking the vessel off course and making the crew sail for the Manitous, a group of islands north of Ludington.

By 10 a.m., the next day the crew had reached Point Betsy, and by noon the winds hauled to the northwest, blowing with a fearful violence accompanied by a blinding snow storm.

64597_292657090800405_1301835562_nIn the storm the vessel lost part of the canvas, the yawl-boat and some of the cargo. The vessel also took on heavy seas and became water-logged.

The crew tried to handle the vessel with the foresail but could not prevent falling into the trough of the seas and taking on more water.

The captain made the decision to run the schooner aground near Grand Point au Sable, but they were unable to do so.

By the morning of Nov. 20, 1879, the crew was unable to control the boat and it drifted ashore two miles south of Pentwater, Mich., fifteen miles south of Ludington.

The Mercury was covered with ice and already beginning break up. The seas constantly broke over the vessel and the crew was unable to stay on the deck and took refuge in the cabin.

In the cabin the water was over knee deep. The crew succeeded in getting a fire burning in the stove which they placed on a table. The men huddled around it to prevent from freezing to death.

Famished, the men knew that any attempt to try to make it to shore would result in death so they stayed in the cabin waiting with the expectation of their doom.

Several efforts were made by the people living near Pentwater. The final attempt being made by three volunteers in a yawl, which resulted in the death of one volunteer after the yawl capsized in the fierce waves caused by the storm.

Though the wire lines were down, word of the ship wreck finally reached Capt. Joshua Brown, the keeper of the closest life saving station.

The station, No. 7 of the 11th Life Saving District in Ludington on Lake Michigan was then being built and was not ready for service. A crew had not been sent yet but fortunately a portion of the gear, including the lifeboat was there.

After hearing of the schooner, and knowing that the scene of the wreck was far beyond the sphere of the operation of the station, Brown without a moments hesitation ran to collect a crew.

Capt. Louis Sterling, commanding officer of the Mercury

Capt. Louis Sterling, commanding officer of the Mercury

News of the Mercury quickly spread through the town and several volunteered to help. Capt. Sterling of the Mercury was well know and reputed to have faced danger many times on Lake Michigan to help others.

Nevertheless, the storm was so severe that all of the captains of the tug boats needed to get the lifeboat near the Mercury for rescue refused to help because they would face possible death and destruction of their own tugs.

Finally, Capt. Smith, of the little steamer Magnet, volunteered his services and within 30 minutes had the boats fires going and steam on.

While Smith got the steamer ready, Brown had to rush into town to get oars and other equipment needed for the rescue. Then take them to the lifeboat and get it ready to get underway.

By 9 p.m., the lifeboat, crew and steamer were ready to face 15 miles of stormy seas to try and rescue the men of the Mercury.

The journey to Mercury was perilous with waves lashing incessantly at the boats and washing over their bows.

If the steamer or lifeboat were to go down all aboard would surely perish.

After two hours of combating the storm the crews were one mile away from the Mercury. At that time the crew of the lifeboat continued the last leg of the journey alone.

Brown and the volunteers began to row the life boat toward the Mercury.

As they approached the broken and ice-clad schooner, there was neither sight nor sound of life on board.

The Mercury was stranded in ten feet of water still taking on the heavy seas.

The life-saving crew rowed up under the stern but there was not a response to their shouts.

Three times the lifeboat crew was swept away from the schooner by winds but on the fourth attempt the fait cries were heard from inside the boat.

Coast Guard Station Ludington, Oct. 14, 1955

Coast Guard Station Ludington, Oct. 14, 1955

A few figures appeared on the deck. After having been huddled inside the cabin the Mercury’s crew found new life in their famished half-frozen bodies with the arrival of the rescuers in the dead of the night.

Within a few minutes of securing the lines from the rescue boat, the men from the Mercury began to climb into the lifeboat.

In their eagerness to get off the Mercury the first man missed the lifeboat and fell overboard, but was caught by some of the lifeboat volunteers and dragged in. The transfer of the others proceeded with more caution and in a short time all were in the lifeboat.

The saved men were very weak but with the storm at its height and the seas still violent, all the men took hold of an oar and rowed the mile to the Magnet.

After reaching the Magnet it was determined that due to the conditions of the rescued men they should sail for Pentwater instead of back to Ludington.

The lifeboat and steamer arrived safely in Pentwater at midnight.

The rescued men were so exhausted after giving the last bit of strength rowing the lifeboat to safety that they had to be lifted into the wagons which conveyed them to a neighboring hotel where they were treated for hypothermia and frostbite.

It was not until April 1980, that Life Boat Station Ludington received its first set of permanent crew to serve under Brown.

They were: Jesse T. Brown, Will Brown, Henry W. Beaupre, Arthur Foster, Christopher Robson and Arthur Goodrich.

In 1884 the station building was moved to a new site and a crew quarters was built.

In 1882 Capt. Brown was succeeded by Robert Broadbent who was then succeeded by Charles Tufts in 1884.

Tufts would later go on to become a United States senator.

Crew of the Life Boat Station Ludington participate in the rescue of a stranded crew of a wrecked ship off the coast of Michigan.

Crew of the Life Boat Station Ludington participate in the rescue of a stranded crew of a wrecked ship off the coast of Michigan.

On Sept. 26, 1930, another of Station Ludington’s crew would be entered into history as taking part of a daring rescue.

Capt. Nels Palmer and crew set out to find the schooner Our Son, which was reported to be in distress. The crew of Our Son was rescued by another ship but Palmer and his crew became famous for their seamanship after they arrived safely in Sheboygan, Wis., after braving 30-foot waves in their open motorized rescue boat.

In 1880 decision to build a lifesaving station in Ludington was agreed upon because that is an area where lives needed to be saved.

The men and women who have served at Life Boat Station and now Coast Guard Station Ludington exemplify the characteristics of never giving up and over coming odds. They are carrying on to the tradition of saving lives set by Brown and the volunteers who rescued the crew of the Mercury 134 years ago.


Editors note: Much of the text was taken from the book Wreck Ashore, The United States Life-Saving Service by Fredrick Stonehouse and other sources.



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