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Shipwrecked on Lake Pepin: The Sea Wing disaster

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The steamer “Sea Wing,” c.1889.

The July 13, 1890, capsizing of the steamer Sea Wing on Lake Pepin and the deaths of ninety-eight of its passengers horrified Minnesota and the nation. The accident ranks among the most deadly on America’s inland waterways.

Captain David Niles Wethern typically used his 135-foot steamboat Sea Wing to tow log rafts to lumber mills along the Mississippi River. He made extra money operating his vessel as a no-frills excursion craft. In July 1890 the captain announced he would take the Sea Wing on a day-long voyage and visit Lake City, located on Lake Pepin about sixty miles southeast of St. Paul.

Captain Wethern based his steamboat in Diamond Bluff on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi. He counted upon great interest in his excursion among townspeople of Red Wing, the largest city along his proposed route. Eager Red Wing residents greeted the riverboat as it approached the levee at 9:30 a.m. on July 13. More than 150 excited customers surged onto the Sea Wing and an attached barge.

Excursionists found Lake Citians prepared for their visit with popcorn, ice cream, and lemonade stands at the ready. Planned activities ran smoothly until a late-afternoon rain squall scattered the crowd, disrupting the schedule. Shortly after 7:00 p.m. Captain Wethern blew the ship’s whistle to recall his passengers.

A chaotic scene greeted the excursionists at Lake City’s Washington Street landing. Threatening clouds had gathered even before boarding began. Some bystanders cautioned passengers to stay on shore. A number of ticket holders had yet to appear, while some new customers bought tickets and got on.

At eight o’clock Sea Wing and its barge, now with 215 on board, left port. It sailed onto Lake Pepin, a 21-mile-long widening of the Mississippi. Captain Wethern did not know that a few hours earlier a storm front moving into the region had produced a tornado on the outskirts of St. Paul that killed six people.

Half an hour out of Lake City Wethern observed a powerful gale coming off the Minnesota shore. He turned the riverboat to meet the storm. Many of those on board, including most of the fifty-seven female excursionists, crowded into the ship’s cabin. Sea Wing rode up on a massive wave to about a forty-five-degree angle before a blast of heavy winds capsized the steamer.

Lightning illuminated the scene. Those tossed into the roiling waters struggled to survive by clinging to wreckage or swimming for shore. About twenty-five survivors, including Captain Wethern, took refuge on the overturned steamboat’s flat bottom. Unfortunates trapped in the cabin quickly drowned. The wreckage, along with the barge and its passengers, drifted downriver.

The overturned steamboat’s pilothouse touched bottom at Central Point near Lake City and rolled onto its port side. Survivors on the craft’s slippery hull were pitched into the water. A number of passengers on the barge jumped off as their vessel reached Central Point’s shallow waters. They ran to Lake City to alert the populace.

National Guardsmen and Lake City volunteers began removing bodies from the Sea Wing’s main cabin around midnight. They carried the dead to shore, later moving them to another steamer, Ethel Howard, for shipment to Red Wing. At 6:10 Monday morning, that boat arrived at the city levee. It carried fifty-two lifeless forms.

Guardsmen continued to labor around Central Point throughout the morning recovering more of the drowned. They had found about ten by noon. Officials reported that some forty passengers were missing. Retrieval efforts continued at Central Point until Thursday, when the last body was discovered. The death toll was ninety-eight.

The catastrophe nearly overwhelmed the city of Red Wing, home to sixty-seven victims, with another eight from nearby townships. The death toll among females proved grim; fifty of the fifty-seven died.

Demands for an investigation into the Sea Wing disaster arose, prompting a response from government officials. Formal hearings began in St. Paul on July 20 and concluded a week later. A final report noted that Sea Wing had been overloaded and did not have a properly licensed pilot and crew. The inspectors labeled Captain Wethern’s actions unskillful.

Federal officials did not bring Captain Wethern to trial for reasons that went unreported. He faced severe condemnation in the days following the accident but also received some sympathy. His wife and one of his sons had died in the accident.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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