On Sunday, June 4th, 1972, a goodly number of our Detroit area members were making their weekly trip on the excursion steamer to Bob-Lo Island, a relatively short voyage down the river from Detroit. They were very pleased to see and photograph the self-unloading bulk carrier SIDNEY E. SMITH JR. (II) as few had seen her in her new colours, those of the Erie Sand Steamship Co. which had purchased the vessel last winter and had just placed her in service after a major refit. None of the photographers could have guessed that they would never again see the SMITH operating.
Just before 2:00 a.m., the SMITH was making the turn around the C.S.L. dock at Point Edward and attempting to straighten away for the run up under the Blue Water Bridge and out into Lake Huron. At the same time, the Canadian steamer PARKER EVANS of the Hindman Transportation Co. Ltd., Owen Sound, was downbound under the bridge. At this point in the river, there is a very fast current running and the SMITH apparently failed to negotiate the turn to starboard. The efforts of her Second Mate, who was the only officer on watch in the pilothouse (the Master had gone to bed previously), to correct the course of the SMITH wore in vain and the vessel swung to port across the path of PARKER EVANS. The SMITH was struck on the starboard side and immediately began taking water through the wound which was just aft of the forward cabins. She is alleged to have struck the dock of the Peerless Cement Company and then drifted downstream settling as she went. In a very short distance, she sank and rolled over onto her starboard side, blocking a considerable portion of the already narrow shipping channel. Her crewmen were rescued by the Sarnia pilot boat which had heard the danger signals sounded by the sinking vessel.
When she came to rest on the bottom, the SMITH's bow extended over a deep cut leading to the Peerless wharf and it was not long before the ship began to crack under the weight of the cargo of coal and the unloading equipment. Seeing that the hull was breaking up and hoping to avoid spillage of the vessel's bunker oil, efforts were made to begin pumping the Bunker C from the wreck. McQueen Marine Ltd. used a derrick, oil scow, and the tug AMHERSTBURG for this purpose, but the operation was slow due to unseasonably cold weather which turned the oil very thick and heavy. All the oil was removed by mid-June and just in time, for the stern section of the wreck was slipping outwards toward the middle of the channel and the bow was dropping into deeper water. Finally the two sections separated and the bow fell off to settle on its starboard side in very deep water.
At first it was suggested that the vessel might be salvaged and Erie Sand was understandably reluctant to give up hope that its new steamer might yet sail again. However, it became more clear as time passed that SMITH was beyond hope of salvage for future operation and the owners officially abandoned the wreck at 4:00 p.m., June 21st.
Almost immediately, the Corps. of Engineers, U. S. Army, moved in to attempt salvage. By early August, the stern section had been partially floated by means of plastic foam inserted into the hull. Once a degree of buoyancy was attained, the stern was hauled by cables towards the shore where it was secured to anchors sunk in solid ground. The same method of salvage is being used on the bow at the time of writing; however, this job will be more difficult in view of the 85 feet of water in which divers must operate.
In addition, much trouble is being caused by passing vessels and especially by cruisers on the river which threw up extremely large wakes. Current estimates call for the job to be completed sometime in October and lake shipping companies undoubtedly are hoping that there will be no delays since at present, one way traffic only is being permitted past the wreck and vessels must often go to anchor and await their turn to pass.
To show the difficulty encountered by vessels trying to pass the wreck, it is reported that the buoy placed above and to the east of the sunken SMITH has been knocked out of position by other ships on almost a dozen occasions. A very narrow escape from disaster was made on August 15 by the barge WILTRANCO whose towline snapped while passing downbound near the remains of the SMITH. The barge was recaptured by its tug before anything serious occurred.
PARKER EVANS received surprisingly little damage in the accident. She did dent her bow rather severely, but she was never in danger of sinking. After the incident, she anchored near the American shore and then went to Sarnia where her grain cargo was removed. She proceeded to Port Weller where the damage was repaired but unfortunately, on her first upbound trip after the repairs were completed, she was in collision with a salt water vessel in Lake Huron some distance above Point Edward. Damage in this accident was minor.
Meanwhile, the lawyers for the parties involved are getting their cases ready. Already one action has been commenced by the owners of the coal cargo and others are expected. Until a decision on liability is reached, the costs of removal of the wreck are being borne by the U. S. Coast Guard.
Until the wreck is removed end the two sections of the ship floated off to scrapyards, photographers and observers can get a good look at the wreck from both sides of the river as well as from the Blue Water Bridge. In addition, the salvage operations are most interesting to watch.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.