Read an Excerpt
Benjamin NobleOut beyond the surf, between the shore and the horizon, lies the gallant ship, Benjamin Noble, and her people … Victims not of Lake Superior but of economic ills of a year best forgotten 1914. Dwight Boyer, a notional inscription for a nonexistent memorialApril 21, 1914Captain John Eisenhardt was very apprehensive, and he knew most or all of the other seventeen men that would be making the passage with him from Conneaut, Ohio, to Duluth, Minnesota, were equally anxious. Eisenhardt stood on the Ohio port city’s Dock Three and looked at Benjamin Noble, hull number 206240, sole vessel of the Capitol Transportation Company and named for one of its main investors. At 239 feet, the vessel was short enough to fit into the locks of the Welland Canal, which connected Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, bypassing Niagara Falls, and was hence dubbed a “canaller.” The sturdy little ship had been built in Wyandotte, Michigan, just five years earlier. The well-liked young captain had just ordered a halt to the loading of a cargo of railway rails, and two full boxcars of them still stood on the nearby siding. For six days, he had directed the loading of the heavy steel rails, the crew painstakingly moving them aboard one at a time with the ship’s tackle. For six days, he had meticulously overseen the securing of the rails on the cargo deck, watched the men arduously nudge each rail butt-end to the one next to it with crowbars, ensured that each layer was separated by pieces of wooden blocking and had additional blocking at the ends of its rows to prevent the rails from shifting if the ship encountered heavy seas. For six days, he watched the increasing weight push his ship deeper and deeper into the cold water of the port. Eisenhardt’s boss, J.A. Francombe, owner of the Capitol Transportation Co., had made it clear that all of the rails needed to be transported in one shipment. He knew the businessman had been busy all winter, aggressively lining up cargoes for Benjamin Noble to carry throughout the spring and summer, and that he had made the low bid on a contract to move rails from Ashtabula, Ohio, to Duluth. And he knew that the company would probably lose money if it could not fit them all on board the freighter at one time. But, with Benjamin Noble’s anchors dipping into the water, Eisenhardt had said “no more!” Mr. Francombe might not be happy, but he would be a lot less happy if his ship sank at its moorings. Benjamin Noble rode very low in the water now, the cold waters of the lake lapping almost two feet past its normal loaded draft of 17 feet. The canaller tended to look like it was riding low anyway, as it had a fairly unique construction designed to handle loading and unloading of deck cargoes that over its four previous seasons had included coal, pulpwood, railway iron, scrap iron, and stone. Its cabins, fore and aft, were on elevated forecastle and poop decks, respectively, emphasizing the low-slung effect. Under any kind of rough seas at all, he knew its decks would be continuously awash. There were ships, however, that would not be loaded all that year, would not be carrying cargo anywhere, would not be providing work to crews like his own or captains like himself. There was not a man signed on with Benjamin Noble that could not have been replaced with 100 others, and they all knew it; jobs were scarce in 1914, and there were innumerable sailors who would take almost any risk for the opportunity to put a deck under their feet again and get paid for it. And this was Eisenhardt’s first command! As far as he knew, at just 31 he was the youngest lake captain working, and he was grateful for the opportunity. If he resigned his commission now, no one would ever know the circumstances or care. He would be branded as undependable and might never command a vessel again. And, having gotten married not long before, he now had more than just himself to think about. And so, Eisenhardt knew he had to put his fears into a watertight hold and lock them down, out of sight and apart from the thoughts he would need to safely pilot this vessel to its destination. This was Benjamin Noble’s first cruise of the season, and it had to be a success. Everything else would be easier after this. Out of the corner of his eye, Eisenhardt could see the dock foreman sidling up to him in the twilight. He half turned to glance at the man as he stopped nearby and took a turn at surveying the overloaded vessel. “She’s riding pretty low, skipper,” the foreman said. Eisenhardt glanced toward the foreman and tried to keep his face from showing the irritation he felt at these words. Of course it was riding low! And he would be the one sailing out with it the next morning; if a landsman could see the problem, he most assuredly could, too. He turned back toward the ship. “We’ll be hugging the shore the entire course,” he said, inadvertently muttering his words and feeling even as he said them that they sounded weak and hollow. He could have kept talking, but felt his face flush, and quickly turned away and walked off without saying anything more. “Hell, he ain’t goin’ to get very far up the lakes,” one of the dock workers said when his foreman repeated the words Eisenhardt had told him.