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Thirty-one of the 43 victims of two shipping disasters were from Rogers City, a town of 3,800 known as "The Nautical City" in northern Michigan on Lake Huron.

Steamship Carl D. Bradley Went Down 50 Years Ago on November 18

New Book Mayday! - Tragedy at Sea Examines Sinking of Bradley, Cedarville

November 13, 2008       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: The writer of this review, Dave Rogers, recalls covering the Cedarville sinking in May, 1965, and, on the dock at Mackinaw City, the weeping wives and children of the 10 victims entombed in the ill-fated ship as one of the most poignant events of a long career as a newspaper reporter.)

Rogers City, Michigan, became the Great Lakes town with the highest percentage of fatherless children after the sinking of the steamships Carl D. Bradley in 1958 and the Cedarville in 1965.

Thirty-one of the 43 victims of two shipping disasters were from Rogers City, a town of 3,800 known as "The Nautical City" in northern Michigan on Lake Huron.

James L. Hopp, longtime Journalism teacher at Rogers City High School, has produced a memory-evoking little self-published book of 262 pages that examines the sinking of the two ships that so affected the lives, hearts and souls of Rogers City folk.

"Human tragedy, an inherent part of our existence, strikes like a terrible swift sword," he writes, noting that tragedy, with its emotion-tearing suddenness, has an uncanny way of uniting its victims."

The Carl D. Bradley 50th Anniversary Edition of this book "is presented as a memorial to those who have sacrificed their lives at sea, and as a tribute to those who still ply the Great Lakes in long, gray ships."

With the novelist's deft touch and a wordsmith's expertise, author Hopp interlaces the stories of the Bradley and the Cedarville and the agony of the city of Rogers City.

He asks the pithy questions:

  • "Did the Carl D. Bradley really break in two during a 65-mile an hour Lake Michigan storm? and ...

  • "What fatal navigation error was made after the Cedarville collided with the Topdalsfjord in the Straits of Mackinac?"

    Besides the investigative reporting of this excellent book, there is a poetic quality to the story underscored by the historical setting of a small northern Michigan town as the satellite Explorer rises to launch America into the Space Age even as the Cold War rages between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    Hopp writes that a stranger would become aware that "Rogers" was a limestone town, strongly committed to religious values and the work ethic as well as the home of long, gray ships at Calcite harbor in the heart of town.

    One of the 54 historic photographs in the book shows a stalwart Carl D. Bradley, engineer who marshaled the fleet of self-unloader vessels at Rogers City, at the Bradley's christening in Lorain, Ohio, in 1920. At 638 feet, the stone carrier was the longest freighter on the Great Lakes, operated by the Bradley Transportation Company, division of U.S. Steel Corp.

    The nub of the story is carried in the message broadcast on the fearful night of Nov. 18, 1958 by First Mate Elmer Fleming as the ship "smashed through a raging hell" on Lake Michigan: "Mayday! Mayday! This is the Carl D. Bradley! Our position is approximately twelve miles southwest of Gull Island. We are in serious trouble!"

    The final voyage of the 1958 shipping season had been transformed from placid to gloomy when "the southwesterly wind increased its velocity, persistently whipping the greenish, toiling waves" and "darkness smothered the ship as it continued a homeward journey."

    "The ship is breaking up in heavy seas! We're breaking up! We're going to sink! We're going down!" Fleming screamed on the crackling radio.

    Fleming, 43, and deckwatch hand Frank Mays, 26, tossed 14 hours on raging Lake Michigan waves before being rescued about five miles northeast of Gull Island but the other 33 crew members were lost.

    Recalled Mays: "I've never been so cold in my life. The ice was forming on my jacket and in my hair. But I never stopped praying."

    Two thousand mourners filled St. Ignatius Catholic Church for funeral rites for the Bradley crewmen. There were 60 pallbearers and the procession was made up of 500 cars. The funeral oration was given by Bishop Stephen Woznicki of the Diocese of Saginaw. "Don't become bitter against God," he urged.

    The Detroit Times launched a fund-raising drive that garnered $154,000 for the children of the victims. After years of wrangling, $1.2 million was paid to the families by Michigan Limestone.

    After half a century of reflection and millions of words, questions linger: Was the massive steamer a victim of metal fatigue? Had the ship broken in two after being caught between two giant waves? Had it struck uncharted rocks or a reef?

    Although hairline cracks up to six feet long had been discovered in the Bradley's hull, according to Coast Guard Commandant Alfred C. Richmond, the final Coast Guard report recommended only improvements in life jackets and life boats and the addition of flares.

    The tragic steamer lies in 360 feet of water. Several diving expeditions have determined that it lies in two pieces on the bottom, with parts of the ship strewn nearby. "We may never know exactly what happened that fateful November day," wrote Hopp.

    The Cedarville is another story: we do know exactly what happened -- two ships collided in a dense fog on May 7, 1965. The same number of crewmen, 35, was aboard the 588 foot long Cedarville as had been aboard the Bradley.

    There were eerie similarities in the two disasters: Both ships had been built the same year, 1927; both had the same home port, Calcite; both were self-unloaders; both had the same destination, Gary, Indiana; Elmer Fleming, Frank Mays and Leonard Gabrysiak (Cedarville survivor and uncle of the book author) had sailed on both ships; the Coast Guard Cutter Sundew was involved in both rescue attempts, etc., etc. And, of course, the fact that many crew members were from Rogers City.

    The Cedarville, loaded with more than 14,000 tons of open-hearth limestone, was cut in half by the Norwegian ship as it steamed through the Straits at 12.3 miles per hour about 9:50 a.m.

    The collision occurred about 6,600 feet from the south tower of the Mackinac Bridge on the Lake Huron side. Author Hopp documents the minute-by-minute drama of the collision that gouged a 20-foot gash in the hull of the Cedarville, abreast of the seventh hatch.

    The ship sank as Captain Martin Joppich ran for the shore at Mackinaw City amidst rolling waves driven by 25-mile per hour winds.

    "No, not again," moaned students at Rogers City High, as news broadcasts told the story of another disaster involving local residents.

    Soon, flag-draped stretchers would be appearing at Cheboygan Community Hospital and "the community of Rogers City bravely endured," wrote Hopp. ###

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    Dave Rogers

    Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
    respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
    (Contact Dave Via Email at

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