The Cleveland, Ohio, Lake Erie waterfront in the early 1840s, particularly just east of the settlement was a hazard to shipping because of its shallow, rocky nature. Ships leaving Cleveland harbor heading that direction needed to stay at least a couple miles offshore.
Because of the shallow conditions, winds of even modest force whipped the lake into a frenzy of white water.
The morning of Tuesday, January 2, 1844, dawned in a way that made experienced sailors fearful of leaving a safe harbor. The sun rose above the horizon, coloring the sky pumpkin-orange beneath swirling leaden storm clouds. “Red in the morning, sailors take warning.” The barometer plunged from 29.55 inches of mercury to below 28:00-inch mark. Winds were blowing 20 to 25 knots with gusts to 35.
Eben had finished his coffee that morning and announced to his sons James and Lewis, he intended to ride out along Wall Street to see the conditions of the lake before heading to town and wondered if the boys wanted to ride along.
“We can’t Pa. We promised to help Henry get vegetables from the root cellar and crate them up for the market.”
“Good for you, boys. Business before pleasure,” Eben said.
Kissing Lovisa on the cheek and giving her fanny a friendly pat, Eben said, “You’ve raised some mighty fine young’uns, Mrs. Stark.”
“Just following Captain’s orders, sir.” (That’s creative non-fiction),
As Eben rode along Wall Street, his horse moved cautiously, head low, pausing a couple of times in the gusts. The wind must have picked up to 40 knots or better, Eben thought.
When Eben approached the lake, he could see four men, probably farmers, silhouetted against the dull gray background of the lake, and one was pointing offshore. Eben saw nothing in that direction and asked, “What’s going on out there?”
“A ship Captain, under bare poles. Must have anchors down because it has been there for some time.”
Eben began to make out the shape of the ship in the distance, a three masted sailing ship apparently anchored about 800 yards offshore, trying to keep from being blown onto the rocks.
“Captain, Samuel here first noticed the ship about an hour ago, and in the last fifteen minutes, it seems to be getting closer. What should we do?”
“If her anchor’s dragging, there’s not much we can do. She’ll run aground well out of our reach and the pounding she’ll take on the rocky bottom will make short work of her.”
Then Eben asked, “Is there a skiff available? If some poor soul gets washed close to shore, we should try to pull him out.”
“I have a raft I use to gather mussels, Captain. Over in the weeds.”
“In this surf a raft is even better. Let’s hope the ship holds its ground so we don’t have to use it.”
As he spoke, it became apparent the ship was dragging its anchor. Several minutes later with the ship 200 yards from shore it heeled over briefly indicating it had hit bottom. At 150 yards it was fast aground, with swaying masts giving grim evidence of the damage that was occurring to the hull on the rocks below.
As Eben and the farmers watched they saw someone throw something overboard. It was a barrel.
“What are they doing, Captain?”
“They have probably tied a line to that barrel so that when it is blown to shore, they can use it as a lifeline.”
Then the watchers saw one of the crew lower himself over the side of the ship and into the churning water. They saw his head bob twice, several flailing splashes of his arms and then he disappeared.
“He’s gone,” said Eben. “And I don’t know what is keeping that ship together.”
At that moment the barrel, blown toward them, slammed into one of the rocks 30-feet from shore and broke into several pieces.
“Everyone to the shoreline,” Eben commanded. “Form a chain. If there’s a rope still tied to that debris and we can snatch it, maybe we can help.”
Even with four men forming a chain, Eben was unable to reach the rock. Suddenly, to the shock of the farmers, Eben released his grip and dove into the waves, swimming frantically toward the rock. With a sigh of relief, the farmers saw Eben reach the rock and pull himself onto the rock’s surface. Recovering quickly, Eben tossed aside the shattered pieces of barrel until triumphantly recovering a barrel stave still tied to the end of the rope. Pushing off the rock, this time carried by the surf, Eben was quickly grabbed by the men and pulled ashore.
Breathing heavily, Eben said, “We have no time to lose. Secure the rope around that stump and drag the raft over here. We need to get the raft out to the ship before it goes under.”
I’m going to need some help. Who among you can swim?”
“I can,” said the youngest farmer.
“Can you help me pull the raft hand-over-hand out to the ship?’ Eben asked.
“I can try.”
Caleb White was a strong lad of nineteen. With the help of his muscular back and arms, the two hauled the heavy raft against the storm surge out to the ship. There they found ten terrified sailors, relieved that the raft had reached them. All the while the ship rocked back and forth with sounds of cracking timbers rising from below.
A crewman spoke, “Our Captain went over the side hoping to establish a lifeline. Did he make it to shore?”
Eben merely shook his head.
“There’s no time to waste,” Eben said. “Make sure the rope is tied securely to the raft so we can control it from the ship. The raft will only support five of you. Spread out and lie flat. Now half of you get going.”
It took only minutes for the first five to reach shore. The raft was nearly back to the ship when a large crash and the sound of splintering wood was heard. The ship rolled to its side; its deck canted at a steep angle with only a portion remaining above the waves.
Grasping the rigging, Eben shouted, “Quickly, the rest of you get on the raft. You too Caleb. Now go!”
“But sir, what about you?”
“I’m next. Now go! Stay balanced on the raft. I’ll keep tension on the rope until you reach shore.
The raft was 30-feet from shore when the line controlling it from the ship went slack. The raft, free of it restraining line was tossed onto land with all survivors shaken—but safe.
Looking back toward the ship, the only thing visible were the three masts waving back and forth above the water.
“Oh my God,” whispered one of the farmers, “the captain is gone.”
“No look,” said another. “On the center mast … a figure. The captain is climbing the mast”
With that, the entire mast structure swung over and dropped below the water’s surface. But moments later it popped up again a few feet above the waves.
“He’s still there! I can see him! Hang on Captain!”
Again, the masts plunged and disappeared beneath the waves. Seconds passed. No one on shore spoke. Slowly the structure reappeared …only this time, no figure was seen in the rigging. Ebenezer was gone.
Author’s note: During my research, I found several citations reported by eyewitness farmers to “Ebenezer Stark’s heroic rescue of sailors during an offshore shipwreck.” Details of the rescue are imagined.
RIP, Grandfather. You are my hero.