The Ghost of Lake Michigan’s Ironsides Shipwreck

Some say one of the wreck’s youngest victims still calls out for help where the ship sank years ago.

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Is a young Milwaukee boy, who died nearly 150 years ago, still awaiting rescue from Lake Michigan’s perilous waves? That is a question some have been asking since Aug. 6, 2000, when the US Coast Guard vessel, the Mackinaw, captured mysterious cries for help during the annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival held in Michigan.

Ironsides, owned by Milwaukee based Englemann Transportation company, was a 218 foot wooden steamer, designed to transport both passengers and cargo on the Great Lakes. When she launched in 1864, she offered passengers the finest comforts available on the Lakes. Those who booked passage in one of her 44 state rooms enjoyed twinkling chandeliers, marble bath fixtures and even hot and cold running water in the rooms – something many homes of the day did not have.

Above the waterline, the ship dazzled passengers, but below deck, things looked grim. The sailors knew the ship was leaky. Each time they would unload the cargo hold, the load was wetter than it had been on its last journey. Rumors circulated among the mariners that she was unseaworthy and that the company was willing to pay the crew more than the going rate to sail on the increasingly dangerous ship, rather than making the needed repairs. The sailors believed she required a complete overhaul, but her owner disagreed. The company added a few coats of paint, and replaced some boards, which was all that was needed for her to pass inspection. She was officially declared to be in “excellent shape” during the winter of 1872-73. Despite the glowing review, in less than a year, she’d be permanently at rest beneath Lake Michigan’s waves.

   

Milwaukeean Henry Valentine, a clerk with Englemann Transport, secured passage for his wife and young son on Ironsides for the night of Sept. 13, 1873. Toddler Henry, clad in a brand-new blue sailor suit purchased for the journey, was eager to set sail. The elder Henry, unable to join his small family on their jaunt across the lake, felt confident the pair were safe because he’d gotten them tickets on what he believed was the finest passenger boat available on Lake Michigan. As he waved at them from the dock, he had no idea that would be the last time he would see his family alive.

The September winds were mild on both sides of the lake when the ship set sail, but just after midnight a storm rolled in. Heavy waves and howling winds punished the boat. She twisted in the waves in the fight to stay afloat. Quickly, cracks appeared in her body and the leaks in the boat rapidly multiplied. Water rushed in from each new break in the steamer. The ship’s pumps were no match for the streams of water that flowed from every fault in the battered ship. By morning, the water was knee-deep in the belly of the boat and the gangway door was smashed. With little hope of being aided by another ship in the midst of the violent storm, and no possibility of making to the harbor in the Ironsides, the crew quickly distributed life preservers and readied the passengers for the inevitable sinking of the ship.

Soon, all passengers and crew were aboard one of the five lifeboats. The wild winds tossed the lightweight crafts through twelve-foot waves. As the boats battled the stormy water, occupants were thrown from the lifeboats. Three of the five lifeboats capsized, abandoning all aboard to the merciless lake. Two lifeboats made it to shore, yet twenty people drowned in their pursuit of land.

When the storm dissipated, the remaining crew returned to where Ironsides went down, in hope of recovering additional survivors. All that was found were lifeless bodies bobbing in the waves. Nettie Valentine’s body was quickly located, then young Henry was discovered, half buried in the sand. When he was pulled from the waves, his delicate skin was unmarred by the tragedy. He was described by the recovery team as appearing to be asleep. The mother and child were placed together in a wooden box for their return journey to Milwaukee.

The tale of the Ironsides does not end there. Today, there is a persistent belief that the spirit of the child lost in the sinking of the ship remains earthbound. Those who are convinced the ghost of Henry Valentine continues to linger in the area got all the proof they needed on Aug. 6, 2000, the final day of the annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven, Michigan.

On that day, the USCG vessel the Mackinaw, a 290-foot icebreaker, was sailing through heavy fog when the crew heard the distinct sounds of a child calling for help. When the crew could not locate the child in distress, they contacted the Grand Haven Coast Guard station, who quickly sent a rescue boat to search for the child.

The deployed rescue boat joined the icebreaker, and both boats could hear the child in distress calling for help from the depths of the fog. Their search was thorough, but fruitless. Unwilling to leave a child in peril, the crew contacted nearby boats to see if help was needed, to no avail. Next, local law enforcement was contacted to see if anything had been reported, but there had been no accidents and no calls for aid. The crews on both boats were baffled. They needed an explanation for the cries they heard, and reassurance that there was not a child in danger who needed their help. Despite the teams diligently scouring the area, no one in distress was ever discovered.

Later, it was noted the Mackinaw was sailing over the sunken remains of the Ironsides when the cries were heard. Could the Coast Guard crews have detected a call for help that has been sounding since the awful storm that took the Ironsides, as well as Henry Valentine, his mother and 18 others, in 1873? For some, the answer to this is question is an emphatic yes, and this strange tale is offered as proof that the boy continues to wait for the rescue that did not reach him all those years ago.


Anna Lardinois is the author of Milwaukee Ghosts and LegendsStoried and Scandalous Wisconsin, and the soon-to-be-released Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes: Tragedies and Legacies from the Inland Sea.

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