The Carl D. Bradley, traveling light, departed Buffington, Indiana around 9:30 pm, Monday, November 17, 1958, and headed up Lake Michigan bound for the Port of Calcite. Roland Bryan, a sailor since age fourteen, was the master. This trip was the last for the season, the steamer was going home.
The Bradley never made it. In less than 24 hours the Carl D. Bradley was on the bottom of Lake Michigan and 33 of the 35-man crew were dead or missing.
Nearly all of the Carl D. Bradley crew hailed from Rogers City and other nearby Presque Isle County towns. Her loss is still felt today.
The Carl D. Bradley: A Ship of Innovation
The Carl D. Bradley was a self-unloading or “self-discharging” vessel delivering limestone for the Michigan Limestone and Chemical Company. When the Michigan Limestone and Chemical Company began operations, the company recognized the need for the delivery of stone to its customers. Prior to this time the consumers of limestone obtained it from the quarries near them, and those customers on the Great Lakes could receive limestone by a steamer with this feature.
The steamer was ordered because the Michigan Limestone & Chemical Company agreed to deliver one million tons of stone to the Universal Portland Cement Company’s new harbor at Buffington, Indiana. This steamer was 638 feet long overall, with a 65-foot beam, a depth of 33 feet and a cargo capacity of 14,000 tons of crushed stone. The unloading boom was 160 feet long. The boilers on the Bradley were water tube boilers instead of the usual fire tube boilers, which used coal. Her method of propulsion, moving the boat through the water, was provided by the use of turbo electric drive, and the Bradley was only the second ship built using this technology.
There were other innovations on the Carl D. Bradley. The auxiliary machinery, the unloading equipment and galley were powered with electricity, with the power coming from the main motor. The vessel was equipped with the latest navigational devices such as the gyro compass and gyro pilot (metal mike) radio direction finder. For its day, the Bradley was the most update and largest steamer on the Great Lakes and she was recognized as the Queen of the Lakes.
Her Final Year Was Anything But Ordinary
People greeted the Bradley with fervor and excitement when it first approached the Port of Calcite on July 28, 1927. The start of its final year, 1958, went much differently. Attempts at unionizing the sailors delayed the start of its season to April. It operated for a couple of months before being decommissioned in July due to slow business. In October, the Bradley and another ship, the White, were fitted out and returned to service to complete the year.
The Carl D. Bradley made her last delivery of the 1958 season to Buffington, Indiana, and set out that evening of November 17 on her final return home. The weather was already a challenge. Winds blew at 35 mph, and cold and warm fronts were mingling over the plains. The weather in Chicago had dropped 20 degrees over the course of the day and the forecast was ominous.
Preparing for Bad Weather
The crew prepared for severe weather by securing the unloading boom and the hatches. The steamer followed the route up the Wisconsin shore to Cana Island then changed course and cut across Lake Michigan toward Lansing Shoal. As the wind velocity increased, the crew filled the ballast tanks to maximum practical condition. By 4:00 pm the next day, November 18, the winds had reached 65 miles per hour. Even though the lake was rough and the winds high, the boat rode the heavy seas with no hint of an issue.
Captain Bryan had asked the cooks to serve an early dinner. He knew the turn from Lake Michigan toward Lake Huron would put heavy weather broadside of the vessel. He wanted to give the mess crew the opportunity to clean up and secure before turning.
About 5:30 pm First Mate Elmer Fleming radioed Calcite that the Bradley would arrive at 2:00 am. Then…a loud thud. In the pilothouse Captain Bryan and Fleming looked aft and saw the stern sag. Fleming immediately sent a distress signal over the radio. “Mayday! Mayday! This is the Carl D. Bradley. Our position is approximately twelve miles southwest of Gull Island. We are in serious trouble! We’re breaking up!” Captain Bryan sounded the general alarm, signaled the engine room to stop the ship, and blew the whistle to abandon ship. The power system failed and the lights in the bow section went out. The Bradley heaved upward near amidships and broke in two. The forward section rolled over and sank. The stern end plunged to the bottom. Within a few minutes the Carl D. Bradley was gone.
Elmer Fleming’s account was harrowing. In those first minutes he realized he did not have a life jacket. He went to his stateroom two decks below to get the life jacket and returned to the deck of the pilothouse where he found the life raft. He saw Captain Bryan and other crewmembers pulling themselves along the boat’s railing to the high side of the bow. The forward section was listing (leaning) to the port side. Suddenly the bow lurched and he fell into the water. When he came to surface, the forward section was gone and he saw the after section swing to the port side. With the propeller high in the air, the stern plunged to the bottom with lights burning. As the stern section plunged there was an explosion and a flash of flame – the water had reached the boilers.
Survivors Cling to Life in a Raft
Four men made it to one of the life rafts: Fleming and deckhands Frank Mays, Dennis Meredith and Gary Strzelecki. They clung for dear life as waves tossed the raft. The night was long, filled with terror, mountainous waves, howling wind and bone-numbing cold water. Some of the men had very little or light clothing. Dennis Meredith had no shoes, only pants and sweat shirt. The raft tipped several times. Fleming could not remember how many times he fell from it into the icy water. He and Frank Mays hung on. Dennis Meredith and Gary Strzelecki did not survive. Frank Mays remembered thinking that someone would find them if they could last through the night. He also remembered ice forming in his hair and ice encrusted on his life jacket. He laid face down on the raft and gripped the sides of the raft to hold on.
The Search for the Carl D. Bradley Begins
The Coast Guard Radio Station WAD, Port Washington, Wisconsin, heard the Bradley’s Mayday. Radio silence was ordered except for emergency messages, and rescue operations began. Lieutenant Commander Harold Muth, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Sundew, piloted the vessel out. The weather was fierce. In a video recording, Muth said the waves were twenty feet high, and the winds were out of the south-southwest 50-55 miles per hour with gusts up to 65 miles per hour. Visibility was about 75-100 feet. The forecast indicated the storm would be strengthening. The cutter Sundew arrived at the scene of the last reported location of the Bradley around 10:45 pm and began the search using the searchlight. As the search continued the seas increased to 25 feet with the winds increasing to 65 miles per hour rolling in the heavy seas.
One of the vessels joining the search was the German cargo ship Christian Sartori. This vessel had recently passed the Bradley and was four miles away when the distress signal was sounded. Despite the raging storm, Captain Paul Mueller, master of the Christian Sartori, changed course and headed back to join in the search. Returning to the scene took an hour. The crew of the German ship searched for survivors using flares. Captain Mueller signaled that they spotted only a tank and a raincoat. Mays and Fleming later indicated that the Christian Sartori passed by them about one half mile away. That tank may have been their raft. Fleming tried desperately to light the last flare as the Sartori neared. The wet flare would not ignite.
The Sartori, at the request of Captain Muth, assisted in the search until about 1:30 am. Sometime after the German ship left the scene, the steamer Robert C. Stanley had joined in the search, as did the Coast Guard cutter Hollyhock. Coast guard aircraft were dropping flares, but the flares were not effective because of poor visibility.
Around 8:00 am a lookout on the Sundew told Captain Muth that he saw something ahead on the water. That something turned out to be a raft with two men on it. When the cutter pulled alongside the raft, two crewmen jumped to the raft to assist Mays and Fleming onto the cutter. The survivors were stiff and cold, unable to stand and needed assistance to get aboard the Sundew. Warren Toussaint, the cutter’s corpsman, said the survivors had icicles in their hair. Rescuers took the men to the Chief’s quarters on the cutter, wrapped in blankets and their vital signs checked. The corpsman fed them a little beef broth every half hour. The rescue party continued to search for survivors. Mays and Fleming requested to stay on board the cutter Sundew during the search for shipmates.
Toussaint later provided his own account of the Bradley rescue mission in a U.S. Coast Guard publication:
"May Day - May Day: The Words No One Ever Wants To Hear," Shipmates, April / May, 1997 (Warren Toussaint)
Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1958, at 5:31 p.m., the limestone carrier, Carl C. Bradley, was up bound on Lake Michigan, having delivered her last limestone cargo of the year to Indiana on November 17,1958. She stayed close to the Illinois and Wisconsin shores because of reports of severe weather conditions rapidly developing from the west. As it reached the area of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., it had to turn to the northeast in order to cross the upper area of Lake Michigan on its way to the homeport of Rogers City, Mich., on Lake Huron. Suddenly, the Bradley’s steering wheel went slack, as if the gears had suddenly disconnected. On the course it was on, the winds and waves were striking the ship on the aft quarter of the port side causing the ship to rock severely. First Mate, Elmer Fleming, knew the ship was in trouble. He jerked the radio telephone from its cradle and shouted a desperate call “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Carl C. Bradley. Mayday, mayday, mayday.”
The Captain slammed the engine room telegraph to stop engines and sounded the general alarm. He grabbed the whistle cord and began to tug seven long blasts and one short – the signal to abandon ship. Fleming again called out the mayday. For a moment there was silence on the channel. All who heard the call were stunned.
A voice finally responded. It was the radio operator at marine radio station WAD, Port Washington, Wis. His response, “This is an emergency, this is an emergency. Clear the channel.” He then asked Fleming to repeat the ship’s position. Fleming did so and added that the ship was beginning to break up and sink. There were more thuds rumbling through the ship as he spoke. As he glanced aft from the rear windows of the bridge he thought he saw the deck heave up amidships. The sound of the alarm bell echoed up the stairway from one of the cabins below. Again, Fleming was on the telephone calling the mayday. The wheel house lights blinked out as the spar deck heaved up amidships and severed the power cable from aft. The radio telephone went dead in Fleming’s hand.
Almost every Coast Guard unit on the Great Lakes heard the calls, including Ninth Coast Guard Headquarters in Cleveland. The duty quartermaster on the USCGC Sundew, moored at its homeport in Charlevoix, Mich., had gone to the bridge to listen to the weather report when he heard the distress call. The call was also heard by all ships underway or at anchor on the lakes. In fact, many ships had to put anchors fore and aft to prevent drifting due to high waves and strong winds. Big ships rarely anchor on the Great Lakes, but many did that late afternoon. Waves were 25 to 35 feet high and winds were blowing up to 60 miles per hour. Whole gale warnings were in effect. Those ships that were underway were moving slowly, especially those downbound on Lake Michigan.
Minutes after the mayday call, the Coast Guard responded through Ninth District Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Cleveland. Some lifeboat stations in Northern Lake Michigan began to ready their 36-foot motor lifeboats, even before word reached them from Cleveland. Before the duty quartermaster on the Sundew could notify the commanding officer at the lifeboat station in Charlevoix, he called LCDR Muth, skipper of the Sundew, at home to tell him of the sinking and to notify him that Cleveland wanted him to get underway immediately. Sundew initiated a recall for its crew. Meanwhile, repeated attempts were made to contact the Bradley, but to no avail.
Even before help was on the way the 636-foot Bradley had broken in two and sunk beneath the waves of Northern Lake Michigan. Four men, including Elmer Fleming, jumped into the water as the forward section began to turn over. They surfaced alongside the sole life raft which had floated free from the forward section. After a few minutes all four men climbed aboard the raft.
One foreign vessel, downbound to Chicago, had spotted a ship on their radar. The foreign ship had seen the forward section go black, watched the lighted rear finally passed through the highway bridge. Citizens of Charlevoix, along with anxious Coast Guard wives, were standing on the shore and could not believe the Sundew was actually going out in the storm. She had to go. “You have to go out, but you do not have to come back”, is an old Coast Guard saying. Many believed they would never see the Sundew again.
As the Sundew passed the Charlevoix Lifeboat Station a 36-foot motor lifeboat followed her out the channel and entered Lake Michigan. The 36-footer was pitching so violently that LCDR Muth ordered her back to the station. His reasoning was that he would be looking for one big ship and did not want have to be looking for a small one.
The Sundew’s journey to the vicinity of the last known section begin to dive under, then saw smoke billowing.
Moments later nothing was visible by naked eye or radar.
Conditions Make Search Difficult
The Sundew was moored port side to at the Coast Guard Buoy Depot in a small channel between Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix. It was customary to get underway by going through the open railroad bridge in Lake Charlevoix, turn around, go back through the railroad bridge into Round Lake, blow the signal to open the highway bridge, then proceed down the channel out into Lake Michigan. The Sundew had trouble getting back through the railroad bridge opening because the strong winds kept blowing the ship off course until finally the ship had to proceed at an angle in order to reach the opening at just the right moment and at the correct speed.
The location of the Bradley was proving difficult. The maelstrom now caused almost all of the crew that had responded to the recall to be seasick. After rounding a point of land and moving in a West to Northwest direction the real fury of the waves took effect. Some of the radio equipment shorted out because water sloshed into the radio room, just aft of the bridge. Radio Cleveland called the Sundew but she could not reply. Everyone on the bridge heard Radio Cleveland ask everyone in the area if they could see Sundew.
After reaching the last location of the Bradley and not finding any trace of the ship, they initiated a search grid, which meant the Sundew took the full fury of the wind and wave ultimately on the port, then the starboard side. The only relief came for a few brief minutes as the ship turned to run with the wind before again turning in the grid.
They turned on searchlight on the flying bridge and swung it from side to side. Occasionally, they saw a body, but before they could make any attempt to recover the body, it was out of the beam of light. The Sundew also made contact with a foreign vessel, the only ship that had seen the demise of the Bradley.
It was difficult to communicate with the foreign ship because of language problems. She did offer to search the immediate area but informed Capt Muth that she had to get to Chicago in order to return and clear the St. Lawrence Seaway before it closed to navigation for the winter.
During the entire rescue effort the Sundew was sealed. No one was allowed outside, not even onto the bridge. Because of the mooring status sailors had not tied down everything, and there was no time before departure. Gas bottles broke loose and rolled over the side. Every can of paint in the forward locker burst. They found paint sloshing two feet deep when the locker was finally opened several days after the event. Because of the difficulty in moving about, many of the crew tied themselves to the mess tables to prevent injury. No one went below to the crew’s quarters. Between manning the searchlight and checking on the crew, the corpsman had to report their status to the captain. To state that there were some anxious moments is stating it mildly. The ship rolled several times in excess of 50 degrees with water spraying down the stack, causing sputtering in the main electric board in the engine room.
The Sundew Makes a Rescue
At 4 a.m. on the 19th, the corpsman laid below to try to get some rest because the Captain determined that they’d need the corpsman’s services after daylight. The HM2 lay below to sick bay, where he loosely tied himself to a bunk. The winds had begun to abate, the seas were not as rough. Suddenly about 8:15 a.m., the corpsman awoke to a crew member telling him that a raft had been sighted with at least two men on board. He ran out to the buoy deck and saw a raft about 500 feet off the port side. The team brought out blankets and stretchers. All hands responded to the welcome sight of possible survivors. The Captain maneuvered the Sundew alongside the raft, which was then tied to the ship. They let a cargo net over the side. A Bos’n mate went down the net to assist the two survivors. He literally threw each of the men up on the buoy deck where they wrapped them in blankets, placed them on stretchers, and took them to the chief’s quarters where there was sufficient room for them to be attended to properly. The two survivors were in good shape, despite their ordeal. At 9:15 a.m., the Sundew sent a message stating, “Picked up two survivors on raft 5.25 miles from Gull Island.” The two survivors had been on the raft for almost 15 hours and fell into the water several times when the raft capsized. The other two men that had been on the raft attempted to swim ashore during the night but both were lost.
Coast Guard aircraft notified Sundew of bodies in the water, and sighting an overturned lifeboat on the shore of one of the small islands in the area. After making sure there were no more survivors, the Sundew sent a small boat out to recover the lifeboat, which was empty. All the bodies they took from the lake and checked for any sign of life and identified. They placed all personal effects in envelopes and marked accordingly.
The Sundew Returns to Shore
By the afternoon of the 19th it was decided to return to Charlevoix with the two survivors where they could receive extensive medical attention. The bodies on the buoy deck were covered with a tarp. At 4:23 p.m. the battered Sundew, her flags shredded, weary crewmen leaning on the rails, returned to Charlevoix, escorted by boats from the lifeboat station and planes over head. The silence of the city around the mooring area was eerie. The only sound was that of the ship moving through the channel and waters at a slow pace. Everyone in the area knew of the loss of life. The local contract doctor came on board to officially declare the men dead and to check on the status of the two survivors. After removing the bodies, the two men who survived were taken to the local hospital for further treatment and reunion with their wives who had been flown to Charlevoix from Rogers City. The long night and day was over — for now. The Sundew returned to search the area at dawn on the 20th and 21st and spent all the daylight hours there, but found no trace of the Bradley and no more survivors or bodies. Out of a crew of 35 on the Bradley, just two survived, and the Sundew found 18 bodies. Fifteen bodies were never found.
Terror manifests itself in many ways. All the crew of the Sundew recall being very hot, then very cold. However, when the seas calmed, everyone responded immediately to help the survivors and bring the bodies onboard. Some of the younger members of the crew had never seen a dead body, yet they too responded to the call for help.
The Coast Guard Buoy Depot in Charlevoix received the lift raft, along with the life boat. The life raft has since disappeared. In 1994 the lifeboat was found at Put-In-Bay in Ohio and is now at the marine museum on Beaver Island. The First Mate, Elmer Fleming, passed away several years ago after retiring from the Bradley Steamship Company. The other survivor, Frank Mays, never sailed again on the lakes and is now retired and living in Florida. Mr. Mays returned to the area in 1995 and participated in a search of the newly located wreck. He descended in a mini-sub and viewed his old ship, even noting that the red paint was still on the rails that he had put there only a few days before the disaster.
Capt. Muth retired from the Coast Guard and resides in Florida. The corpsman retired in 1981.
The Bradley sank because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. With wind and waves coming at her from the rear and riding high in the water, despite full water ballast, she simply broke in two and was lost.
Why Did the Carl D. Bradley Sink?
Corpsman Toussaint offered his opinion. But what really happened? Why did the Carl D. Bradley sink? The Coast Guard began an inquiry to answer those and other questions. Rear Admiral Joseph Kerrins, commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District was in Rogers City three days after the vessel sank to begin the investigation. After completing his investigation in Rogers City, Admiral Kerrins traveled to Charlevoix to listen to the testimony of Elmer Fleming and Frank Mays. When the interviews were completed, Admiral Kerrins indicated that the formal inquiry was ended. Additional information was to be collected, checked and assimilated. This process would take about 30 days.
There was speculation, of course. Initial newspaper reports stated that the evidence pointed to an explosion. This idea was probably based on the testimony of Captain Paul Mueller of the Christian Sartori. He testified at the Coast Guard inquiry that a violent explosion preceded the sinking of the Bradley. After Mays and Fleming told their story, speculation shifted to the vessel breaking in two. Frank Mays was adamant in his story. He stated that he “saw the Bradley break in half. I saw two distinct pieces of her hull. I saw severed electrical wiring flash when it broke in half, and I saw two separate pieces of the hull go down.” Letters by Captain Bryan seemed to support Frank Mays. He wrote, “This boat is getting ripe for too much weather…. I’ll be glad when they get fixed up….” He wrote in another letter, “the hull is not good… have to nurse her along… ‘take it easy’ were my instructions… the hull was badly damaged at Cedarville….”
Retired master Forrest F. Pearse of Rogers City expressed another possible theory of the loss of the steamer. He was master of the Bradley for 16 years. His theory was that metal fatigue combined with effects of a tidal wave may have led to the loss of the steamer. He described a tidal wave this way: “On the Great Lakes there are certain small areas during a storm that have a lower barometric pressure than the surrounding area. Because of these differences a few waves often build up to twice the height of other waves. Usually there are two or three such giant waves in succession. We were told that waves out there were 25 or 30 feet high. The tidal waves might have been from 45 to 60 feet high. The ship might have been caught on two or three of these waves, with the bow and the stern high on the waves and the amidships just hanging in the air. That could have caused the breakup. I’ve experienced those tidal waves many times in the fall. They are just there. There’s nothing to be done about them. You just have to weather them.”
The Bradley may have experienced “hogging” or “sagging.” “Hogging” applies to vessels when the bow and the stern are drooping. “Sagging” is the opposite. It refers to the condition when the midship section has fallen. Both “Hogging” and “sagging” cause stress on the hull of the vessel. There were hairline fractures in the bottom plates.
In the course of its inquiry, the Coast Guard learned that the Bradley was scheduled for extensive maintenance work on her cargo hold during the winter of 1958-59. The investigation also learned that the Bradley had run aground twice during the 1958 season and may have experienced hull damage. The two groundings were not reported.
When the Coast Guard issued its report one of the conclusions was that the steamer must have developed an undetected structural weakness or defect. Another conclusion was to blame the vessel’s master Roland O. Bryan with exercising poor judgment in making the decision to cross northern Lake Michigan from Cana Island toward Lansing Shoal.
The commandant of the Coast Guard, Vice-Admiral A. C. Richmond disapproved the conclusion of the board regarding Captain Bryan. He also disapproved of the board’s conclusion implying that the cause of casualty resulted because the steamer encountered an unusual wave condition while in ballast. In other words, the Bradley may have been supported by heavy waves in the middle but not at the forward and after ends of the boat (called hogging). The pressure at the middle would cause the vessel to break as the ends sag. Commandant Richmond stated the unexplained presence of hairline cracks, two unreported groundings, and extensive renewal of the cargo hold planned by the company for that winter led inevitably to the conclusion that the vessel had developed an undetected structural weakness or defect.
Since the Bradley disaster underwater searches have located the hull. In 1959 the Army Corps of Engineers verified the position, size and shape of the hull believed to be that of the Bradley. Sonar equipment aboard the survey boat M. S. Williams confirmed that the Bradley was lying on the bottom of Lake Michigan 53 and one-quarter miles northwest of Boulder Reef.
Another search conducted later appeared to dispute the findings of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, which concluded that the Bradley had broken in two before sinking. Through the use of an underwater television system, the vessel Submarex established that the sunken steamer “as it lie, apparently has continuity of the lower cross section of her hull structure confirming” an earlier sonar finding – that the vessel lay in one piece.
Another attempt to locate the wreck of the steamer was moderately successful in August 1995. An expedition spearheaded by Fred Shannon made several dives to investigate and document the wreck. Frank Mays, the only living survivor of the Bradley, was on the expedition, too. He was to have the privilege of diving in the two-man submarine Delta to look again at the vessel he escaped in November 1958 as she was going to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Several dives were made but were not successful due to weather conditions and poor visibility below the surface of the water. Frank Mays and Delta pilot Chris Ijames did go down in the mini-sub Tuesday, August 15, but visibility suddenly became poor at 300 feet. They did, however, reach their target. They landed on the stern section, port side, of the Bradley. When they landed, Chris Ijames announced that the Bradley name had been spotted. A plaque engraved with the names of the Bradley crew and members of the expedition was released from the mini-sub near the engine room of the hull. With the limited visibility no videotapes could be made of the condition of the wreck. The question was left unanswered – was the Bradley in one piece or two?
The answer came two years later. Another Fred Shannon expedition with Frank Mays and James Clary dove to the hull of the Bradley in May 1997. She was found in two pieces on the bottom of a trench about 370 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan. The two pieces are upright and remarkably about 90 feet apart, nearly in line with each other. The stern and bow are free of mud, but the midsections are buried in mud. The forward section is separated from the stern at about number ten hatch. The A-frame that supported the unloading boom is intact and surprisingly the unloading boom was still cabled to the saddle down the center of the spar deck. A remote-controlled submarine was used to provide video images of the pieces lying on the bottom. According to newspaper reports, the pieces are only slightly damaged with zero damage at the bow. It seems Frank Mays was right when he testified that he saw the Bradley sink in two pieces November 18, 1958.
Just exactly what happened that November 18, 1958, may never be known. The Coast Guard Marine Board of investigation in its final report put forth 23 opinions. Other people have indicated still more theories or opinions. Perhaps a combination of foul weather, structural weakness and poor judgment were responsible for the loss of the Bradley
Watch November Requiem, the Emmy-winning Documentary
November Requiem is the winner of two 2010 Emmys (Best Documentary and Best Original Music – Michigan Chapter), a 2010 Silver TELLY (Editing), a 2009 Golden Eagle CINE, and winner of Best Documentary at the 2010 Grand Rapids Film Festival. The documentary, featured on regional PBS stations, is about the sinking, and aftermath, of the Carl D. Bradley in November of 1958.
Produced by Anne Belanger, Directed and Scored by Brian Belanger, and Edited by David Peterson, made possible through the Presque Isle District Library.
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