Fear of food shortage becomes reality

Copper Country's past and people

The Lake Superior mining district communities were very frail frontier establishments in the 1840s. Their only lifeline was Lake Superior which then, like now, was prone to violent temper tantrums. Severe storms on the Lake during late spring, and throughout summer, were not a cause for alarm, because eventually, a vessel would arrive with more provisions. Fall and late fall were different stories.

In those early years, there were few stores other than those operated by mining companies at their individual locations. Those few, like the Sutler’s Store at Fort Wilkins, offered nearby company stores competition, but they also competed with them for very limited cargo space on the few ships plying the Lake.

In September 1844, when the brig John Jacob Astor was wrecked inside Copper Harbor, there was but one other vessel on Lake Superior, at about half the size of the brig. The loss of the Astor created severe winter food shortages across the Upper Peninsula, extending as far as La Pointe, in the Apostle Islands.

Just three years later, Keweenaw Point was again confronted with a severe winter food shortage, again due to the loss of a Lake cargo vessel, which was bringing the last of the supplies for the shipping season.

The Julia Palmer was built in 1836 as a fore-and-aft schooner. At 108 feet in length, it was a sizable ship. It was converted to a steam-powered side-wheeler in 1839, and put on Lake Superior at the beginning of the 1846 shipping season.

The Palmer’s captain, whose identity is still questioned (but evidence suggests it was Samuel Moody), discovered a major design and engineering flaw in the vessel nearly as soon as he piloted the steamer. Converted to a side-wheeler, the ship could drift with perfect ease before a gale, but it was completely uncontrollable heading into one.

With a handicap of that magnitude, the Julia Palmer had no legitimate excuse for attempting a late-season run from Sault Ste. Marie to Keweenaw Point in November. Not only was Moody putting his crew and his ship in jeopardy, but the loss of the ship would put everyone on Keweenaw Point at risk from a food shortage. And those two things are exactly what happened.

The Palmer left the “Soo” on Nov. 4, 1847, carrying provisions of winter food for Keweenaw Point. Not far from the departure, the vessel ran headlong into a gale. Moody tried to reach safety behind Whitefish Point, and that was the time the Palmer disappeared, with all hands — and all the provisions. During a series of violent storms that lasted two weeks, families of crew members began making funeral arrangements.

To the surprise — and horror — of residents there, on Nov. 20, what was left of the Julia Palmer floated into Copper Harbor, with all hands, but minus the provisions. The ship was wrecked. Its nine-foot-high smoke stack was gone, the rails, guards and guard beams were broken, most of the pilot house interior was gone, and the Palmer’s machinery was held together with monkey wrenches. It was the last trip the battered vessel ever made.

Moody and his crew gave the details of the days the vessel was lost. For the entire two weeks the storms raged, the Palmer could not be controlled to any degree. After the first storm, in which Moody tried to make for Whitefish Point, the ship laid up until the storm passed. Setting out again for Keweenaw Point, the ship was again caught out in the open, and that storm carried the vessel all the way back to the St. Mary’s River. After the second storm, Moody, undaunted, set out yet again, only to seek shelter behind Whitefish Point for two days, hiding from a third storm. When it finally blew itself out, Moddy again set out, this time making for Bete Gris, on the south side of Keweenaw Point, and protection from northwest winds. He missed.

Completely discombobulated by storms, he thought he was near Keweenaw Bay. His crew disagreed, countering that they were near Stannard Rock, on the east end of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Ignoring their arguments, he set out in a thick fog, at night, for where he believed Keweenaw Point to be.

He was wrong, his crew was right, and when the fog lifted, they could see the north side of the peninsula 18 miles behind them. Nearly out of fuel now, the vessel was caught out in the open waters of the Lake when a violent storm blew the crippled vessel nearly to Isle Royale before the wind switched direction, blowing the ship east and back into open waters.

Burning wooden furniture to fire the boilers, the ship consumed more fuel than they had. In calm weather, the Julia Palmer consumed 100 cords of wood just traveling from the Soo to La Pointe. The crew tore down doors, ripped off trim, railings, and anything else that would burn — including pork and beef were even thrown into the furnace. To lighten the ship in an attempt to get it to answer to the rudder, more than 250 barrels of food stuffs were thrown overboard.

The Palmer, now completely battered by waves, was next blown south when the wind again switched direction, back toward Keweenaw Point.

More than two weeks after the Julia Palmer set out from the Soo, it limped into Copper Harbor, coming to rest near the government dock, near Fort Wilkins. Moody survived, as did the 45 members of his crew, but the ship had been killed — and the winter’s food gone. All or it.

Twice in three years pioneer residents were confronted with critical to severe food shortages, because fall storms destroyed vessels. It would happen again in the future, and would continue to be a high risk until such a time that roads from Green Bay to Keweenaw Point would be constructed to allow for overland transportation of goods.