As many of you know, I began my professional writing career back in the 1980s, writing for local publications like the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Northern Express, Traverse City Business News, Traverse Magazine and others through the years.
Around the turn of the century, I switched to national publications to support my growing family, writing for the New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Los Angeles Times and hundreds of others, including as a U.S. correspondent for The Times of London. In 2015, I launched Old Mission Gazette, which is now my full-time job. I’m happy to be writing about my beloved homeland once again.
Of all the thousands of stories I’ve written, the one that has perhaps garnered the most attention was a little story called “Misadventures Aboard the Metropolis,” published in the Record-Eagle. I’ve lost count of the number of requests from people and organizations asking to re-print the story, most recently from our own Mission Point Lighthouse, as part of their historical exhibit.
Thus began my search for that little story. I sifted through boxes of my Record-Eagle clips stored in the basement. The universe teased me by unearthing the very last paragraph of the story, with “continued from page 7” noted at the top of the clip. So I sent my husband Tim back through the boxes to search some more. No luck finding the beginning of that Metropolis story.
I couldn’t find it online anywhere, including extensive searches through Newspapers.com, my go-to source for stories pertaining to local history. I did find a reference to my story in a report titled “The Schooner Metropolis: A Field Report,” published by the Nautical Archaeology Society in Northwest Michigan, via Northwestern Michigan College.
Their team studied and surveyed the wreck of the Metropolis during several field trips in the summer of 2009, and a report was written by C. Golden, D. Hendrix and K. Jaroh. Read it here. The photo by K. Meara pictured above, featuring diver D. Hendrix at the Metropolis site, is from that report. (I plan to kayak out there this summer and take a few photos for the Gazette and my own archives.)
Having exhausted my own search methods, I did what I should have done in the first place – contact the wonderful folks in the research department of the Traverse Area District Library (TADL). Within a day or so, I received an email back from TADL researcher Katheryn Carrier. She’d found the story, but it wasn’t in the main part of the Record-Eagle. It was in a “Northern Seasons” supplement, published on August 20, 1998; these Record-Eagle supplements are not archived in Newspapers.com.
And here is my public service announcement: If you’re searching for anything that’s been published locally, contact the TADL Research Team at (231) 932-8502, or [email protected]. If it is out there, they will find it. A big thank-you to Katheryn for her help! You can also find a lot of info online through the TADL website.
So at long last, here is my story about the Metropolis that ran in the August 20, 1998 edition of Northern Seasons, a supplement to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. And a big thanks to my dad, OMP historian Walter Johnson, for helping me to research this story and so many others. (I wish you were still here, Dad, to be my right-hand man on Old Mission Gazette, but something tells me you still are.)
Misadventures Aboard the Metropolis
Originally published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Northern Seasons supplement, August 20, 1998
Snowflakes swirled around the hull of the schooner Metropolis as she pulled out of Elk Rapids late one night on November 26, 1886, loaded with rough-sewn pine boards and pig-iron.
Had Captain Duncan Corbett known that this blustery night would signal the proud sailing vessel’s last voyage, he never would have attempted this one last run to Chicago before winter set in.
But the frigid waters of Lake Michigan beckoned, and the 124.7-foot schooner set out on her journey only to run aground near Old Mission Point around 3 a.m. Captain Corbett and crew managed to scramble ashore.
Though there was a heavy northwest gale, an attempt was made to salvage the vessel, and a wrecking tug was brought in from Cheboygan. After two days, however, they abandoned the effort, and the Metropolis would soon succumb to the crushing weight of the bay’s ice. So ended her days on the Great Lakes.
According to marine historian Chester Reddeman, the Metropolis was built in 1857 by the Peck and Masters Shipyard in Cleveland, Ohio, and launched in April of that year. Her owners, W.T. Richmond and Captain John Waters, registered her home port as Chicago. Captain Waters would command her during that first season, making regular lumber runs between Buffalo and Chicago.
During her 29-year career, the Metropolis was plagued by many mishaps. In October of her first year, she went ashore on Middle Island in Lake Huron. In November, 1867, she again went aground, this time near Waugoshance in Lake Michigan, and was reported to be a total loss after breaking in two. The report was unfounded, however, and the schooner was later discovered to have released herself; apparently, part of her cargo of grain washed overboard, lightening the vessel enough to re-float her.
In September, 1871, she lost her fore-topmast in a Lake Michigan squall. The following year, fully laden with coal, she struck a reef at Hog Island near the Straits. Once again, the vessel suffered only minimal damage, arriving at her Chicago destination a day or two later. And, in October, 1873, her sails were damaged in a Lake Michigan gale, and she put into port for repairs.
In an essay on the schooner written in 1983, Michael Neumann cited another incident: “On December 7, 1883, the Metropolis left Elk Rapids for Chicago with a cargo of miscellaneous goods. Though clearing port with a fair wind, she got no farther than the Leelanau Peninsula before encountering difficulties. Later that day, a dispatch was received from Northport, by the Elk Rapids Progress, stating that a schooner ‘closely resembling the Metropolis‘ was ashore at Light House Point and that her deckload of lumber was being jettisoned. It was later ascertained that the location was just south of Light House Point, at ‘Weiderman’s.’ The loss to vessel and cargo was reported at $150.
By this time, Captain Corbett was manning the vessel. Though a resident of Chicago, Corbett also maintained a home on River Street in Elk Rapids.
In September of that year, Corbett’s brother, John, fell victim to the vessel’s curse. While the Metropolis was being loaded with pig-iron at the Dexter-Noble docks at Elk Rapids, John fell through an open hatch. Several pigs of iron plummeted on top of him before anyone realized his predicament, but he survived the incident with only a broken leg and a number of bruises.
After the loss of the Metropolis, Captain Corbett purchased the three-masted schooner Waukesha, formerly the Nabob, and operated her on runs between Elk Rapids, Chicago and Cleveland. In November, 1896, ten years to the month after losing the Metropolis, the Waukesha foundered at her anchorage during a heavy gale at Muskegon. Of the seven crew members, six were lost, including Captain Corbett.
Dr. Ed Wright, a local historian and Old Mission resident, noted that although the Metropolis seemed to be jinxed, maritime mishaps were common in those days due to the lack of modern equipment. “The schooners didn’t have the aids that modern vessels have now,” he said.
According to “Fredrickson’s Treasure Chart of Lost Ships and Cargos in the Frankfort, Michigan Area,” there were 202 maritime mishaps of one kind or another between Grand Traverse Bay and a little south of Ludington. Of those, 160 involved schooners or brigs – sailing vessels of the 1800s.
Many of the wrecks can be attributed to captains trying to make one last voyage before winter set in. “It was their living, and they wanted to make their last voyage and earn that last possible amount of money,” Wright observed.
According to Old Mission resident Bill Hyslop, all that remains of the Metropolis is a skeleton keel and ribs. On a clear, sunny day, she can be easily seen in her final resting place about 200 yards off shore.
Before it became illegal to rob pieces from sunken vessels, divers picked the schooner clean, using the materials to craft everything from coffee tables to lamps.
Wright once received a gift of a pen holder with a wooden base reputed to be from the Metropolis. Hyslop used white oak from the hull to make flooring in a log cabin he built in the woods. And a barn at the top of a nearby bluff [the Ridgewood] was reportedly built from the vessel’s cargo of rough-sewn pine boards shortly after it ran aground.
The remains of the once proud Metropolis now serve as a home for rock bass.
Here is a photo of the barn at the Ridgewood that’s reportedly built from Metropolis wood. I’m unsure, however, if it’s the building on the left or the red barn on the right. If you know, tell us in the comments section below.