The Sea Wing Tragedy
"Maybe we should heed the words of that preacher." Randina Olson held her skirts carefully, so she wouldn't trip going up the gangplank onto the paddle wheel riverboat. "You know the Scripture: 'Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.'" *
Randina's fiance guided her with a gentle hand on her elbow. "But, the captain said it's certainly safe. Those dark clouds look threatening, but he wouldn't let us board if he thought we couldn't make it back to Red Wing before the storm hits."
"Hey, there, boy, what are you doing with that!" The captain's voice rang out toward a group of young people. "Take off that life vest. You'll be frightening the ladies."
Sunday, 13 July 1890, the Mississippi riverboat Sea Wing, with its barge the Jim Grant lashed alongside, carried 215 passengers and crew. The overcapacity numbers were enjoying a day-long excursion on an expanse of the river known as Lake Pepin. The event was a welcome reprieve from the summer heat wave. But, as with any hot weather in the upper midwest, people know to observe cautious watchfulness. Such weather can turn deadly in short order. Just the previous Wednesday, the heat spawned a tornado which killed nine people further to the north and west, in Fargo, North Dakota.
The mood turned a bit ominous when passengers, boarding that morning from the Wisconsin bank of the Mississippi, reported the words of an itinerant preacher passing through Diamond Bluff. Two days earlier, he had warned that the Sea Wing would face destruction in a storm on Sunday, and lives would be lost.
"He said he couldn't stand to wait around and see the disaster," one breathless lad reported. "He was packing up his belongings to leave when I last saw him."
Captain David Niles Wethern, however, had confidence in his 109-ton sternwheel rafter. He turned aside all detractors, certain their fears were without merit. Why, his own wife and sons were on board, for pity sake.
The military band and other entertainment at Camp Lakeview, the day's destination, had grown more subdued around five in the afternoon as the north-west sky grew dark with a bank of black clouds. But, after a cloudburst of rain around seven o'clock, it seemed the storm danger had receded. Yet, a few timid souls refused to board the Sea Wing for the return trip home to various ports on the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the river. Others were happy to take advantage of the abandoned places on board. So, the Captain started back up the river with even more passengers than he had at first landing.
Little did the Captain know, but at the time he was paddling out of the port at Lake City, the storm was already tearing through Red Wing, some eighteen miles north. It wasn't long before one of the crewmen spotted the funnel cloud up stream, directly in the path of the riverboat and its occupants.
"Oh, God!" Shouts and cries undulated across the rising velocity of the wind. People prayed aloud, strapping on life vests. Most of the women and children fled to the cabin compartments, as the steamboat tossed from side to side with the waves. Those cabins would seal their fate.
The men on the barge, fearing the riverboat was about to capsize, pulling them over on top of the distressed vessel, argued about cutting the ropes that linked the two together. Somehow, whether by hand or by providence, the barge broke free and the men watched, horrified, as the Sea Wing rolled completely over, trapping those on board. Adding to the ordeal by wind and wave, egg-size hail battered bodies, dead and alive.
Many escaped, swimming to shore through the choppy water. Many others perished in the effort. Because of their long skirts, the women were particularly vulnerable. Entire families were lost. While the Captain managed to break out of his pilot house as it filled with water, his thirty-one year old wife, Nellie, and eight year old son were among the ninety-eight souls lost.
Randina Olson's lifeless body was recovered from the river, three days later. July 16th would otherwise have been her wedding day.
* Amos 3:7 (KJV)
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