Black November: The Carl D. Bradley Tragedy

Black November: The Carl D. Bradley Tragedy

by Andrew 'Andy' Kantar

Michigan’s "storms of November" are famous in song, lore, and legend and have taken a tragic toll, breaking the hulls of many ships and sending them to cold, dark, and silent graves on the bottoms of the Great Lakes. On November 18, 1958, when the limestone carrier Carl D. Bradley broke up during a raging storm on Lake Michigan, it became the

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Michigan’s "storms of November" are famous in song, lore, and legend and have taken a tragic toll, breaking the hulls of many ships and sending them to cold, dark, and silent graves on the bottoms of the Great Lakes. On November 18, 1958, when the limestone carrier Carl D. Bradley broke up during a raging storm on Lake Michigan, it became the largest ship in Great Lakes' history to vanish beneath storm-tossed waves. Along with the Bradley, thirty-three crew members perished. Most of the casualties hailed from the little harbor town of Rogers City, Michigan, a community that was stung with grief when, in an instant, twenty-three women became widows and fifty- three children were left fatherless. Nevertheless, this is also a story of survival, as it recounts the tale of two of the ship’s crew, whose fifteen-hour ordeal on a life raft, in gale-force winds and 25 foot waves, is a remarkable story of endurance and tenacity. 
     Written in a style that is equally appealing to young adults and adult readers, Black November is a tale of adventure, courage, heroism, and tragedy. Kantar, the author of 29 Missing, a book about the loss of the great lakes freighter the Edmund Fitzgerald, has once again crafted a dramatic narrative that is both informative and compelling. Although the Carl D. Bradley has been called "the ship that time forgot," Black November recalls that tragic day nearly fifty years ago and is a moving tribute to the ship and its crew.

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Michigan State University Press
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By Andrew Kantar

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2006 Andrew Kantar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-783-9

Chapter One


The Great Lakes of North America are some of Earth's most impressive treasures left to us by the massive glaciers of the Ice Age 11,000 years ago. Stretching 1,160 miles from New York to Minnesota, these magnificent fresh water seas have at once fascinated, terrified, and beckoned us for centuries. Composed of five bodies, they are, from east to west, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior.

If you were to make a Great Lakes' journey, following the shoreline of all five lakes, you would pass the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, and the Canadian province of Ontario. The entire voyage (including islands) would take you a staggering 9,700 miles! And the states you would visit account for one-third of our nation's population. In fact, some of North America's major metropolitan areas developed on the shores of the Great Lakes—Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, and Toronto.

Together, these lakes comprise twenty percent of the world's fresh water. In addition, many state and national parks along their shores attest to their recreational and historical value. Each year tourists trek to Lake Superior's mysterious Pictured Rocks or to the untamed wilderness of Isle Royale. Many are drawn to Lake Michigan's famous sand dunes, such as the mythical Sleeping Bear Dunes, and every year thousands are transported back in time on Lake Huron's historic Mackinac Island.

The lakes have also served as the water highways of commerce, making a vital connection between the Northeast and Midwest. The workhorses on these routes are huge freighters that haul iron ore, limestone, coal, grain, and petroleum. These giants of the lakes, sometimes longer than three football fields, sail the inland seas with crews of skilled and hard-working men.

Most of us look out from the shore of the endless body of water until it meets the horizon, marveling at its sheer size. We experience the lakes in summer, feeling the cool, refreshing one-foot waves lapping gently as the sun reflects its warmth off of the water. But the captain and crew of the steamship freighters are aware of another side of these awesome waters, and it is something for which they have a great deal of respect. They have seen how quickly the lake's personality can change. Working a season that goes well into the treacherous month of November, those who sail the lakes have experienced the pitching and rolling of their ship in the teeth of strong winds and massive waves. They know the dangers that may lie ahead and of the thousands of vessels that never made port.

Lake Michigan, whose name comes from the Algonquian word michigami, meaning "Great Water," is the only Great Lake that resides entirely within American boundaries, providing scenic coastline for Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Only Lake Superior is deeper, and in terms of size, Lake Michigan is just slightly smaller than Lake Huron. Lake Michigan is as much as 923 feet deep, and its spectacular shoreline extends more than 1,600 miles (including islands).

Imagine luxuriating on soft, sandy beaches, photographing spectacular sunsets from the Michigan shore, fishing for trophy salmon, exploring islands large and small, or visiting a coastal resort that offers sailing, swimming, hiking, biking—just about any outdoor activity. Because of its extraordinary natural beauty, Lake Michigan has become a recreational paradise.

Lake Michigan, however, is not "all play and no work." It is also a busy shipping route. American and international freighters that travel these pathways of commerce have contributed to the growth and prosperity of cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee. Each of these freighters is capable of delivering thousands of tons of cargo to a destination. Their cargo of iron ore and limestone led to the production of steel for burgeoning industry along the lake. The Great Water has indeed served us well for many generations.

But all of this has not come without a price. Lake Michigan is known for violent and destructive storms that can develop without warning and with devastating consequences. For this reason, seamen have long held a special respect for the Great Water. According to shipwreck expert William Ratigan, Lake Michigan's unique storm patterns may be attributed to its long shape, which allows winds to push the length of the lake, raising the big water higher and higher. And when the storms begin to howl, Lake Michigan offers very few natural harbors for safety, making it doubly hazardous.

One of the first ships to sail the Great Water was the Griffon, which was built by the wealthy French explorer René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle, and sailed Lake Michigan in 1679. Named after the mythical creature that was half eagle and half lion, the Griffon was a small, handsome craft, only about sixty feet from bow to stern. After some rough going on Lake Erie, the Griffon made a difficult voyage across Lake Huron, all the way to Green Bay on Lake Michigan. She began her return trip without La Salle and loaded with a heavy cargo of beaver pelts. Steering a course around the islands of upper Lake Michigan, through the Straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron, she encountered a fierce September storm that lasted four days. She was never heard from again.

The Griffon disappeared without a trace, becoming the first shipwreck on the Great Lakes. Sadly, it would be the first of over 10,000 wrecks, the bones of broken ships, scattered across the muddy bottoms in silent testimony to the centuries of devastation brought on by the lakes' violent moods.

Knowing its unpredictable nature and sudden storms, it comes as no surprise that Lake Michigan has a long history of shipwrecks and maritime tragedy. Many of these vessels simply disappeared after being dragged down to Michigan's great depths, never to be found. Few would remember the schooner Black Hawk that sank in November of 1847, or the steamer Omar Pasha that was lost eight years later in the same deadly month. Another schooner, Thomas Hume, disappeared in May of 1891, and in late October of 1898, the L.R. Doty, a steamer, was forever lost with all hands. The Great Storm of 1913 marked one of the most brutal weeks in shipwreck history. Throughout the November siege, the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron, were relentlessly battered, taking the horrific toll of hundreds of lives and millions of dollars in lost or damaged ships and cargo.

One of Lake Michigan's most famous storms was the Armistice Day Storm of 1940. On the eleventh of November, that most treacherous of all months, there were reports of wind gusts ranging from 70 to 125 miles per hour and waves more than thirty-five feet high. That day, three ships were lost to the sea. Two steamers, the Anna C. Minch and William B. Davock, were sailing the same waters on the eastern side of Lake Michigan when tragedy struck. Both disappeared without a trace. There is some speculation that the two may have collided, causing the Minch to lose her stern. Others believe that the two were actually four hours apart and disappeared for different reasons. The Minch, they speculate, developed a huge crack in her hull due to the heavy pounding of the seas. This could have led to a structural failure that would have caused the ship to break in two. Those same violent waters might have battered some of the Davock's hatch covers open, allowing massive amounts of water to enter. One thing is certain. No one lived to tell the story. On that day, the entire crew of both ships, including twenty-four men on the Minch and the Davock's crew of thirty-two, vanished.

During that same terrible storm, the crew of the Novadoc would face its own struggle for survival. Sailing north, along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the 250-foot vessel encountered the very storm that swallowed the giant steamers Minch and Davock. The Novadoc's captain attempted to turn the ship around, but the high water would not allow it. The embattled ship was in view of the red-brick Little Sable Point Lighthouse as the sea relentlessly pushed it toward the shore. The seas were so rough that when the Novadoc would dip into a wave's trough, the lighthouse would actually vanish from sight, only to reappear when the ship reached the crest. Eyewitness accounts describe waves "like mountains" that were so powerful they exploded the windows in the ship's wheelhouse, causing it to flood. The keeper of the lighthouse sent word to the Coast Guard station at Ludington as the captain and crew of the Novadoc fought for their lives. Eventually, the crippled vessel ran aground on an offshore sandbar and broke in half. But the crew's ordeal was just beginning.

For thirty-six hours the cold and hungry crew huddled together, first in the captain's cabin, only to later be forced into the captain's office when the cabin door caved in. This was their last remaining refuge, and together, they resorted to breaking and burning sticks of furniture to stay warm, in the hope that somehow they would be rescued. A crowd of hundreds gathered on shore, watching helplessly as the human drama played out before their eyes. Two nights passed without rescue. The men, who had nothing to eat for two days, kept sending up rockets to signal to those onshore that they were still alive. Before help arrived, the men mourned the loss of two of their crew who were swept overboard by a giant wave.

Tired of watching and waiting, three brave fishermen decided to take action. Piloting their boat, Three Brothers, through the still-raging waters, they risked their lives to rescue the imperiled men. The Novadoc's captain and crew remained forever grateful to the three courageous fishermen who saved their lives during the Armistice Day Storm of 1940.

It is a well-known fact that in November the Great Lakes spawn storms of unimaginable fury. A legendary struggle unfolds when these great seas unleash their wrath upon the giant freighters that bravely endure gale-force winds and tall water. It is a struggle of epic proportions, man against nature, life and death. There are no higher stakes than survival.

The three most dramatic and horrifying ordeals on the Great Lakes have taken place on Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan. Many people are familiar with the tragic loss of the steamer Edmund Fitzgerald, which disappeared on November 10, 1975, during a monster storm on Lake Superior. This is the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history. The end came so quickly for the 729-foot giant, she never even sent out a distress call. Just seventeen miles from the safety of Whitefish Point, suddenly and without warning, the Fitzgerald dropped from sight off of the radar screen of the Arthur Anderson, the freighter that was following her. All twenty-nine men aboard perished.

Some believe that the Fitzgerald, after coming too close to a shallow point near Caribou Island, called Six-Fathom Shoal, might have scraped bottom, causing damage to her hull. Others theorize that the combined effects of taking in water through her hatches and the huge waves washing across her deck pulled her bow beneath the surface, propelling the Fitzgerald 500 feet to Lake Superior's muddy bottom. Upon impact, it is argued, the Fitzgerald then broke apart, perhaps exploding, leaving the bow upright and the stern inverted. But despite subsequent visits to the wreck site, to this day the cause of her sinking remains a mystery.

Before the loss of the Fitzgerald, the 601-foot Daniel J. Morrell was lost on Lake Huron, close to Michigan's "thumb." In her more than sixty years of service, the Morrell had survived storms with winds of 100 miles per hour. But Lake Huron's storm of November 28–29, 1966, was to be different. The Morrell had been sailing about twenty miles ahead of the Edward Y. Townsend when her failure to answer her sister ship raised concerns. On November 30 the Morrell had failed to radio in a required morning report. By then, nobody had a clue as to the whereabouts of the Morrell.

A Coast Guard search on November 30 located a raft that held four men from the Morrell. Three were dead, but one miraculously survived the ordeal. Dennis Hale, a 26-year-old deckhand and the father of four children, suffered from frostbite and hypothermia, but was the sole survivor of a storm that claimed the lives of the other twenty-eight members of Morrell's crew. It was later concluded that this majestic freighter had snapped in two during the November terror of 1966 due to her brittle, steel hull. Remarkably, after the bow sank, the stern continued past it, propelling the back half of the ship five miles before it, too, sank.

Before Lake Superior's wreck of the Fitzgerald and Lake Huron's destruction of the Morrell came Lake Michigan's assault on the Carl D. Bradley, the record-setting limestone carrier from Rogers City, Michigan. It is the largest ship to sink in Lake Michigan and one of the most famous shipwrecks in Great Lakes history. One cold and stormy November night in 1958, the captain and crew of the S.S. Carl D. Bradley struggled in terror against a violent, storm-tossed Lake Michigan. By the time the lake calmed, the Bradley, a fallen giant, rested in two pieces, 365 feet below. A grieving town would mourn the loss of thirty-three men and listen in horror to the tale of the two survivors. On that black November night, a lake, a ship, and a town would be unhappily intertwined, forever woven into the fabric of Great Lakes lore.

Chapter Two


Welcome to Rogers City—the Nautical City." That is the message on the sign that greets you as you enter the city limits of Rogers City, Michigan. Located on the shores of Lake Huron, at the northern reaches of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, this place could be called the little town on the big lake. With one stoplight, one movie theater, and a population of about 4,000, this sleepy little community is the epitome of small-town America. Well-maintained brick and clapboard homes with neatly trimmed lawns line the residential streets that ultimately lead you down to the shores of the Great Lake.

On a cool summer's evening you might take a walk down to Lakeside Park, along the marina, where dozens of sailboats and fishing boats are lined up awaiting tomorrow's activities. Families wander the park, eating ice cream and hot dogs. A band might be performing a concert in the open band shell, or parents and grandparents could be watching their favorite Little League teams playing on one of four diamonds, so close to Lake Huron that the outfielders hear the waves slapping the shoreline. It is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else—their family, their church, their graduating class, and who they married. Rogers City is also home to the world's largest limestone quarry, which is located just a couple of miles down the road, at the Port of Calcite. It is there that a harbor was created for the giant stone-carrying freighters to take on their cargo for departure to the steel mills along the lakes. All of this made Rogers City not only a world center for limestone processing but also home port to a fleet of freighters.

Growing up in this port city, boys saw their dads, uncles, cousins, and brothers go to sea. They would be away for long stretches of time, and for the residents of Rogers City, working on the big freighters was a way of life for generations. Each family's sacrifice was significant. Fathers would often miss their children's school activities, even holiday celebrations and birthdays. Indeed, sometimes the men were out to sea during the birth of their children! But that was day-to-day life for the families of this seafaring town, and it was accepted. It was not unusual for boys, when they turned sixteen, to drop out of high school and join the fleet. After all, the pay was considered good, and it was a life they had grown up knowing. So began many careers aboard the freighters, careers that would sometimes span more than 35 years.


Excerpted from BLACK NOVEMBER by Andrew Kantar Copyright © 2006 by Andrew Kantar. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Mark Thompson
"...Andrew Kantar does an admirable job of describing the almost unbearable sadness that settled over Rogers City when word came that there were only two survivors. The pain is still there, just below the surface. I shed some tears reading about that Black November."--(Mark Thompson, author, A Sailor's Logbook and Graveyard of the Lakes.)
Thomas Farnquist
"Andrew Kantar's riveting account of shipwreck, tragedy and survival captures the real life-and-death struggle of sailors caught in a classic Great Lakes November gale. Kantar takes you on an emotional journey into the minds of the dying, the survivors and the unbearable sorrow borne by a small Michigan community who suffered the loss of so many of their own brothers, husbands, fathers, and sons. A story of tragedy and triumph detailed through meticulous research and personal interviews that makes your heart ache and your spirit soar for those who survived in spite of Lake Michigan's dark side."--(Thomas Farnquist, Executive Director, Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society)
Dianne L. Monson
"This remarkably clear account of the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley. . .is enriched by the description of events that led up to the disastrous end. Kantar gives the necessary context for the tragedy, with crucial information about the condition of the ship and the weather on that stormy November day. Perhaps most important, he provides a description of the personal qualities of the two men who survived, their courage in the face of almost insurmountable odds, and the sadness that engulfed the small community that lost so many brave men."--(Dianne L. Monson, Professor Emerita, University of Minnesota)
Frederick Stonehouse
"Black November captivates readers, putting them right in the pilothouse of the Bradley during those fateful minutes before she 'took the plunge' to the bottom of Lake Michigan."--(Frederick Stonehouse, author, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Great Lakes LighthouseTales)

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Meet the Author

Andrew Kantar is Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Ferris State University. His first book, 29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, was designated a Michigan Notable Book. He has also written Black November, a history of the Carl D. Bradley, the largest ship to break up and vanish during a raging storm on Lake Michigan. Kantar served as a Fulbright Scholar in Norway for two years.

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