Howard Gerken

Shipwreck: #225429
Wreck Location:
42.27358, -80.056
7.74 miles @ 11 degrees off Erie can buoy 79′ depth

Howard Gerkin 000688a

Ship Name:
Howard Gerken

Type of Ship:
Twin steam propeller/sandsucker

Ship Owner:
Gravel Products Corporation
Buffalo, New York

Net Tonnage:
803

Year Built:
1917-1918


Also Known As:
1917 as Rosamod Billet finished 1918 at Troiis River, Quebec by Tidewater Ship Building Launched as the freighter T.P. Phelan

Ship Size:
241′ x 41′ x 14′

Gross Tonnage:
1322

Typical Cargo:
Silt/Sand

The Story of the Loss:

Sunk Sandsucker Howard S. Gerken
By James Donahue
When we first heard the report of the 1926 sinking of the steamship Howard S. Gerken on Lake Erie, our first question was: What ship is this? That may be because this modest 241-foot vessel was a literal chameleon during the brief years it spent on North American waters.

When launched at Quebec in 1910 the steamer was designed for use as a riverboat on Manitoba’s Red River. She was given the name Rosamund Billete. Sometime before 1918 the vessel apparently was sold to new owners and given the name City of Winnipeg.

According to lake’s historian Dave Swayze’s shipwreck data, the steel-hulled steamer was dismantled in 1918, shipped to Quebec, and rebuilt there as a new vessel named T. P. Phelen. The one blurred photo we could find of the Phelen shows it to be working as a small coastal freight hauler.

The ship was sold to United States owners in 1920, moved to Buffalo and put to work as a sandsucker with its final name: Howard S. Gerken.

The Gerken had been busy removing silt at the entrance to the harbor at Erie, Pennsylvania and was steaming for Buffalo on August 21, 1926, when it was caught in a fierce late summer gale packing 50-mile-per-hour winds. Because it is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, sailors say Lake Erie can be quickly worked into a frenzy during storms.

That day under command of J.B. Gamble the Gerkin began taking on water. Because its holds were heavy with wet mud sucked from the lake bottom, the boat was already riding low in the water. The steamer sank so fast that the 20-member crew launched three lifeboats and abandoned ship before the Gerkin foundered about eight miles from Erie.

The captain and 15 other members of the ship’s crew were rescued after the car ferry Maitland saw emergency flares and successfully found two of the life boats. The Maitland remained at the scene throughout the night and into the following day, looking for the missing boat with four more men on it. They were never found.

Listed as lost were George McMinn, mate; Richard Freeman, watchman; Herman Wageman, fireman; and William Logan, derrick engineer.

Sports divers reported finding the Gerkin using a sonar device in 2009.

The Gerkin was launched as the freighter T.P. Phelan. In 1926  the Buffalo Shipbuilding Company converted her to a sandsucker and she changed nationality from  Canadian to United States. She was renamed Howard S. Gerkin shortly before her loss. She had just completed some work in Lake Erie off of Presque Isle on the evening of Friday, August 20, 1926 and was returning to Buffalo when she was lost.

“We traveled from Erie to Buffalo during the day Friday and were just setting out to return at 8:00 P.M. that night . A thirty mile wind which was blowing when we pulled out of the harbor increased to 50 miles at 8:30. Water poured over the decks and imperiled all aboard as the gale, blowing from the southeast, rose to 82 mile an hour around 9:30. We sent out distress signals by radio and lights which were not seen in the Erie port.

“We turned back to port, but the rain and hail was so heavy that it was impossible to get our bearings. With death staring us in the face, we soaked a mattress with kerosene and set it on fire atop the engine house. It brought the Maitland to our aid, and only through the heroic bravery of its captain and crew were we brought to safety.”

The car ferry Maitland, running from Ashtabula, Ohio to Port Maitland, Ontario had seen the flames from the burning mattress and gone to the aid of the sandsucker. At 1:30 AM, Saturday, August 21 st the sandsucker gave up. Having sprung a leak, she rolled on her side. The men aboard managed to launch three life boats with nine men in one, four in a second and seven in the third. At that moment the Maitland appeared on the scene and picked up the lines of the three lifeboats. Unfortunately, one one line snapped in the wild waves and driving hail and the boat disappeared in the night. The car ferry searched the waters for three hours. Nothing was to be found of the missing lifeboat.

The sixteen men skillfully rescued by the Maitland were taken to Ashtabula, Ohio. The following day, one occupant of the missing lifeboat, Fireman Norman Wagerman, was later plucked, semiconscious, from the lake by the Coast Guard 15 miles northwest of Erie. The fish tug Uranus recovered the the lifeboat at noon that day. It was overturned and empty. Three men, mate George McMinn, watchman Richard Freeman, and engineer William Logan had lost their lives amidst the hailstones in a stormed tossed sea.

1. Wachter, Georgann & Michael. 2003. ERIE WRECKS EAST, 2nd edition. Portland/Impact, Avon Lake Ohio.
2. Alchem Incorporated
3. Article, Donahue, James. “Sunk Sandsucker Howard S. Gerkin”
4. Frew, David. Kiss of the Devil Wind. Erie County Historical Society.

Sidescan Sonar Images

Gerkin_20130815_140504

 
 
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