Wreck of the Carl D.: A True Story of Loss, Survival, and Rescue at Sea

Wreck of the Carl D.: A True Story of Loss, Survival, and Rescue at Sea

by Michael Schumacher

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On November 18, 1958, a 623-foot limestone carrier—caught in one of the most violent storms in Lake Michigan history—broke in two and sank in less than five minutes. Four of the 35-person crew escaped to a small raft, to which they clung in total darkness, braving 30-foot waves and frigid temperatures. As the storm raged on, a search-and-rescue mission


On November 18, 1958, a 623-foot limestone carrier—caught in one of the most violent storms in Lake Michigan history—broke in two and sank in less than five minutes. Four of the 35-person crew escaped to a small raft, to which they clung in total darkness, braving 30-foot waves and frigid temperatures. As the storm raged on, a search-and-rescue mission hunted for survivors, while the frantic citizens of nearby Rogers City, Michigan, the hardscrabble town that was home to 26 members of the Carl D. Bradley's crew, anxiously awaited word of their loved ones' fates. In Wreck of the Carl D., Michael Schumacher reconstructs the terrible accident, perilous search, and chilling aftermath for the small Michigan town so intimately affected by the tragedy.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Great Lakes historian Schumacher (Mighty Fitz: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) profiles another nautical tragedy. The Carl D. Bradley, a 638-foot limestone carrier, sank to Lake Michigan's cold bottom 50 years ago this November. Known as the "Queen of the Stone-Carrying Fleet," it was the most expensive wreck in the history of the Great Lakes, totaling $8 million. The human cost was far greater, as many of the 33 deceased lived in one city, the ship's port of Rogers City, Mich. Schumacher is a rigorous reporter and researcher, covering the ship's shaky state, the harrowing wreck and risky rescue with assurance and clarity. There are a few missteps, a chapter on the wreck of the Cedarville in 1965 feeling like padding. By profiling the Carl D. 's crew and detailing their lives in Rogers City, Schumacher gives a human face to the tragedy, infusing the book with dramatic substance to match the riveting narrative. (Nov.)

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Kirkus Reviews

Nonfiction veteran Schumacher (Mr. Basketball, 2007, etc.) gives a graphic account of a 50-year-old maritime disaster.

On November 18, 1958, the limestone carrier Carl D. Bradley suddenly sunk to the bottom of Lake Michigan in fierce weather. Only two sailors from its crew of 35 survived after the huge vessel, more than 600 feet from bow to fantail, broke in half amidships. Launched in 1927, the hardworking ship was weather-beaten, rusty and popping rivets. But it was never determined whether the calamity was due to delayed maintenance or the captain's faulty judgment. It might have been the rush to make port with a massive load that provoked the catastrophe, suggests Schumacher, who wrote of a similar disaster on Lake Superior in Mighty Fitz (2005). He details Carl D.'s sinking with articulate dispatch and sympathetic directness. The major part of his engrossing text concerns the mariners who went out and never returned, their families, the two survivors, the people of Rogers City, Mich. (the boat's home port, where most of the crew lived) and the rescue teams from other nearby maritime towns. Rescue gave way to recovery efforts, then to wakes, an inconclusive Coast Guard Board of Inquiry and, most recently, exploratory visits to the broken ship resting in 350 feet of water. Moving this narrative smoothly and vividly through a half-century, the author lays claim to the title of master popular chronicler of Great Lake shipwrecks. Endmatter includes a necrology of crewmen, material from the Coast Guard inquiry and a superfluous glossary.

A signal contribution to nautical Americana.


"Schumacher... writes with a steady hand, never letting the drama or emotion of the moment overwhelm the storytelling. A solid and sometimes heartbreaking addition to the maritime-tragedy genre." —Booklist


"Twenty-six of the twenty-eight men from Rogers City who sailed on the Bradley's last voyage did not return. Schumacher has given them and their ship the dignity of a well-told story and a quiet, scholarly memorial." —Bloom

HSM Chronicle

"A well-researched and -written entry concerning the wreck of the 623-foot limestone carrier, Wreck of the Carl D. also explores the effect the sinking had on the community of Rogers City, home to 26 of the ship's crew members." —HSM Chronicle, Winter 2011, Vol. 33, No. 4

Indiana Magazine of History

"Schumacher has written an exceptional book... carefully omitting the hype, mystery, and artificial drama so popular in the shipwreck media of today. He readily proves the point that an accurate story can be far more interesting and dramatic than fictionalized accounts." —Indiana Magazine of History

From the Publisher

"Schumacher... cover[s] the ship’s shaky state, the harrowing wreck and risky rescue with assurance and clarity.... By profiling the Carl D.’s crew and detailing their lives... [he] gives a human face to the tragedy, infusing the book with dramatic substance to match the riveting narrative." —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.38(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Wreck of the Carl D.

A True Story of Loss, Survival, and Rescue at Sea

By Michael Schumacher

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Michael Schumacher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59691-484-1


THE THIRTY-FIVE MEN ON BOARD THE CARL D. BRADLEY HAVE NO way of knowing that their ship, at one time the largest vessel on the Great Lakes and the flagship of the Bradley Transportation Company fleet, will be plunging to the bottom of Lake Michigan in half an hour. As far as anyone on the 638-foot limestone carrier can tell, the Bradley is sailing as smoothly as can be expected, given the late-autumn storm that's been lashing the lake and intensifying by the hour.

It's 5:00 p.m., Tuesday, November 18, 1958. The Bradley has been out on the lake all day, edging its way northward along the Wisconsin coastline. Its destination: Rogers City, Michigan. According to the planned course, the boat will continue up the coast until it reaches the top of Lake Michigan. It will then turn east, move along the northern shore of lower Michigan, slip through the Straits of Mackinac and into Lake Huron, and eventually arrive at the Port of Calcite in the wee hours of the morning — later than originally projected, but not all that bad, given the circumstances.

Dusk has settled over the lake, and it will be totally dark very soon. Thick, dark clouds hang low overhead, offering a strong hint of rain or, maybe later, when temperatures fall, snow. The wind has picked up substantially over the past hour, and the sound it makes, as it screams through the Bradleys wires and railings, is deafening. Sea spray assaults anyone who happens to be on deck. Huge waves roll up under the ship, twisting it and lifting it in sections. The men on board the Bradley take note of all this, but they're not concerned. They've been in storms before, and they'll deal with this one. The ship is laboring, but it's working exactly as it's been designed to do.

When the Bradley left Gary, Indiana, the night before, it had been greeted by winds of twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour blowing out of the southwest, but at that point the seas hadn't built into anything noteworthy. Weather forecasters called for gale-force winds and thunderstorms the following day, but Captain Roland Bryan, the Bradleys skipper, reasoned that the Bradley would be well on its way before the really heavy weather set in.

So far, everything has gone according to plan. Rather than take the Bradley's usual course from Gary to Rogers City, which would have placed the boat closer to the Michigan side of the lake and saved time, but which, in this instance, also would have exposed the vessel to heavier seas, Bryan has positioned the Bradley within five to twelve miles of the Wisconsin shore, where waves won't have as much room to build. The course is standard operating procedure for boats heading north on Lake Michigan when a storm is coming out of the southwest.

Another option would have been to take the Bradley into a harbor and wait for the storm to blow itself out. The storm is moving much faster than the original forecasts had anticipated; in all likelihood it will be out of the area within the next twenty-four hours.

Bryan, though, is not a commander given to dropping anchor and waiting out a storm in safe harbor. The fifty-two-year-old captain prides himself on delivering his cargo on schedule. Every dockside hour can be measured in dollars — thousands of them — and at this point in time, a couple grand represents a sizable percentage of the average worker's annual income. Company officials can grow impatient with timid captains. They would never admit to placing commerce above safety, but they also have subtle ways of letting their skippers know that they aren't being paid to sit around.

Ed Partyka, who worked on nearly all of the Bradley fleet boats, including the Carl D. Bradley, during a thirty-one-year career that saw him advance as high as first mate, remembers the kind of pressure the companies could put on the boats' captains.

"They claim it's up to the captain, but that isn't always true," he says. "I've seen some nasty letters coming from the office, stating the fact that, last month, there were ten boats running and you're the only one that had twelve-hour delays. None of the others had them. Well, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. You might have been in a spot where you had to take those delays. The other boats were down on Lake Erie someplace, hauling coal, where the weather was nice. Some skippers got some snotty letters from the office."

John Czcerowsky served for forty-three and a half years, including a number as captain. He had little patience for corporate officials inquiring about when his boat was going to pull anchor when the officials were safe and sound while he was facing the prospects of going out in a storm.

"When you go to anchor," he says, "you call in and tell them where you are. An hour later, they'll call you and say, 'When are you gonna get going?' If I went to anchor, I'd call and tell them where I was anchored. I'd say, 'Don't bother calling. I'll let you know when I get going.' I cut them off because most of the time when they're calling you, they're down in their basement, looking out a window, and they don't know if it's blowing or what the hell's going on. I used to tell them, 'You don't know what it's like out here. That's why you're paying me out here. So don't bother calling.' They didn't call, either."

Captain Roland Bryan, a consummate company man, knows all this, but he also knows the Bradley. He's been with the Bradley fleet for seventeen years, had his master's license since 1949, and has commanded the Bradley for the past four seasons. He's seen enough in Great Lakes storms during his thirty-eight overall years of sailing to know what a ship can and cannot handle.

In the language of the sailors, he's a "heavy-weather captain."

"Bryan was always in a hurry," one lifetime sailor commented many years later. This was the case when the Bradley left Gary at about ten o'clock the previous evening. The Gary run was originally slated to be the Bradley's last trip of the season. After dropping off his cargo in the Indiana port, Bryan was to take his ship to a Manitowoc, Wisconsin, shipyard, where the Bradley was scheduled to sit in dry dock all winter and undergo significant repairs and upgrades, including installation of a new $800,000 cargo hold. The company had tacked on another trip at the last minute. Now, instead of heading to Manitowoc, Bryan is directing his ship back to Rogers City for another load of stone.

Bryan can't be any more pleased about this turn of events than the men serving under him. Unlike most of the Bradley crew, who make Rogers City their home, Bryan, a bachelor originally from Collingwood, Ontario, resides in Loudonville, New York. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, he's undoubtedly eager to get home and put what's turned out to be a disappointing shipping season behind him.

Normally one of the busiest ships in the Bradley fleet, the Carl D. Bradley had not been overwhelmed with work during this particular season. The steel industry, suffering a downturn in business, hadn't needed all the Bradley boats, and the Carl D., as the ship is affectionately known by those working on her, had been laid up for much of the season. She spent her July 1 to October 1 downtime in Rogers City, and her crew had been forced to find work on other boats. The crew returned when the Bradley was fitted out for a couple of months of fall work, but it was hardly enough to salvage the year's production. Prior to this trip to Gary, the Bradley had made only forty-three round trips during the 1958 shipping season. This doesn't make its master happy. It's been an unpredictable year, and Bryan would just as soon get it over with.

Then there's the matter of the Bradley's overall condition. Although it isn't at all old by stone boat standards, the Bradley is showing signs of the battering it has taken over thirty years in the punishing limestone business. All the loading and unloading, the accumulation of immense cargoes adding up to millions of tons over the years, the banging against the docks, the occasional groundings in shallow water, the bending and twisting in storms — time and heavy lifting have conspired to weaken the ship's hull, if not its determination.

As far as Roland Bryan is concerned, the Bradley won't be laid up in Manitowoc a minute too soon. Its cargo hold has seen better days — many years ago — and a common joke among those working on the boat is that rust is about all that's holding the Bradley together. In some places it's rusted out so badly that you can see from one compartment into another. The hold leaks like hell after a load of wet stone is dropped in, and crewmen are constantly sumping water out of the long tunnel extending from the front to the back of the boat. If the Bradley is running without cargo and has been ballasted to keep its propeller and rudder low in the water, the excess water will roll down the tunnel to the back of the ship, occasionally forming a pool, requiring boots for those sumping it out or moving about in the area.

More significantly, in terms of the sailing in rough weather, the Bradley has the well-earned reputation of being very "limber," as sailors like to call it, meaning that in storms it will bend and twist excessively in heavy seas. The elongated ore and stone boats are designed to be flexible, to avoid cracking when they're not at even keel, but even so, the Bradley snakes much more than any of the other big boats. If you were in a good storm and the winds were whipping up fifteen-to-twenty-foot seas, you could stand at the back of the pilothouse, look down the length of the ship, and not see the back end of the boat. You'd have a wave under the bow, while the stern, without any support from the wave, dropped down. It would reappear moments later, as if by magic. This was normal enough, but it could rattle you nonetheless.

"Many times, when you go down in the tunnel and you look forward, it almost looks like the stanchions are marching, it's moving that much," says Jerry Badgero, who put in forty-four years on the stone boats. "When you start rolling and you go to put your right foot down, the deck isn't there."

"You could see her moving," says Norm Quaine, who worked as a deckhand on the Bradley from 1945 to 1949. "We used to kid about being down in the tunnel, sumping out, and the back door to the engine room would go out of sight. The bigger ships do that."

Quaine, who eventually capped his thirty-five-year career as skipper on several boats, including the Rogers City and the Irvin L. Clymer, believes the Bradleys construction had a lot to do with the way she worked in heavy seas.

"The Bradley had a different type of framing. She had what they called an Isherwood type of framing. That meant she was built longitudinally for strength. That meant fore and aft framing. They did that for two reasons: they used less steel and she could haul more cargo. She had a different ride than the other ships with vertical framing. When I was getting my license, I was talking to one of the guys who had been on her, and he said, 'God, she's got more sounds than a new bride.'"

The snaking action is murder on the already overburdened cargo hold. At the time of the Bradleys construction, the hulls and holds were riveted rather than welded, and in especially harsh conditions, the twisting will sheer off rivets by the bucketload. They'll snap and go flying belowdecks like so many spent shell casings and, depending on where they're being lost and how much water might be leaking in, crew members might have to scramble to make temporary repairs. Pieces of broom handles are a popular method of plugging the holes. The rivets will be replaced later, during the ship's winter layup, but this hasn't happened during the Bradley's most recent winter downtime. Over the 1957–58 layup, workers, reasoning that there was no point in putting in new rivets if the cargo hold was going to be replaced, had substituted carriage bolts for the missing rivets.

The Bradley has other issues. A couple of years earlier, on April 3, 1956, the Bradley had collided with the White Rose, a Canadian vessel, in the St. Clair River near Detroit. The Bradley had suffered some damage below the waterline, but it wasn't considered serious, and the ship had been temporarily patched and put back on the lakes. Later, in dry dock for permanent repairs, workers detected a number of hairline fractures in eight of the Bradley's bottom plates. These were repaired by cutting out and replacing the damaged sections.

Then, earlier in this current season, on a spring trip, the Bradley had touched bottom in shallow water near Cedarville, sustaining damage so minor that repairs weren't even called for. Six months later, only a couple of weeks before the Bradley set out on this trip to Gary, the ship had bottomed out near Cedarville again, but with more serious consequences. A fourteen-inch crack had ruptured one of the hull plates, leading to repairs back in Rogers City. Repairmen welded a patch over the crack, and the Bradley was given a clean bill of health.

Neither of these groundings or repairs was reported to the Coast Guard, as required by law.

The Coast Guard inspected the Bradley twice during the 1958 season, once in the spring for its in-depth annual inspection, and then again, briefly, on October 30, when inspectors had observed the Bradley crew conducting lifeboat and fire drills. The spring inspection began on January 30, when Coast Guard Lieutenant Frank M. Sperry visited the Bradley and thoroughly inspected the interior of the boat's hull, and it continued on February 25, when Commander Mark L. Hocking checked the engine room. The inspection was completed on April 16-17, ending with a going-over of the Bradley's life-saving equipment. Sperry had watched repairmen burning out old, worn rivets and replacing them, as well as missing rivets, with carriage bolts. The long, thick bolts were pounded through the rivet holes and fitted with nuts in the back. This wasn't a standard repair, but Sperry was willing to allow it, since the Bradley was already scheduled for major repair work on the side ballast tanks and cargo hold after the current season. He wasn't satisfied, however, with the missing rivets he'd seen. Hocking noted that the Bradley's Chadburn — the communications device connecting the pilothouse and engine room — was malfunctioning, but the boilers, turboelectric power system, and steering system were all in good working condition. At the end of the day on April 17, the Coast Guard issued a certificate of inspection to the Carl D. Bradley on condition that its owners make three required repairs:

1. Make necessary repairs to electric engine order telegraph to comply with section 113.35-40(e);

2. Install lagging or other suitable protection for persons in way of hot piping in exposed areas; [and]

3. Renew wasted side tank plating and replace rivets where missing at first available yard date during the 1958 season.

The Bradley repairmen performed the first two on the list, but when she made her first trip of the season five days later, the plating and rivets had not been touched. That would be done during the off-season.

These inspections might have signified an official endorsement of the Bradley's seaworthiness, but on at least two occasions earlier in the year, Captain Bryan had privately expressed reservations about his ship's condition. The boat might have seemed seaworthy when it was being inspected while tied to a dock in calm waters, but Bryan wondered how it might handle a storm.

"The boat is getting pretty ripe for too much weather," he confided in a letter to his girlfriend in Port Huron, Michigan. "I'll be glad when they get her fixed up. Supposed to go to Manitowoc this Fall to lay up. They say it won't be until the 10th of Dec. I hope it's before that. It's been a screwy season all the way through."


Excerpted from Wreck of the Carl D. by Michael Schumacher. Copyright © 2008 Michael Schumacher. Excerpted by permission of Indiana 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.

Meet the Author

Michael Schumacher is author of nine books, including Francis Ford Coppola, There but for Fortune, Crossroads, Dharma Lion, and The Mighty Fitz.

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