KEWEENAW COUNTY, Mich. (WLUC) - Thirty years ago, December 4, 1989, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite ran aground off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula while servicing a buoy, which marked the very reef on which she ran aground.
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite grounded off the Keweenaw Peninsula in December 1989. (USCG Photo)
TV6 spoke with local maritime historian, Fred Stonehouse about the incident.
"To my immediate knowledge this was probably the last shipwreck of any size on Lake Superior."
Former Marquette Mayor, Fred Stonehouse wrote the book on the Mesquite in 1991 after having extensively studied the events of the morning of December 4, 1989 and the subsequent Coast Guard investigation.
"The Keweenaw Point Buoy was about 8 foot in diameter and about 20 foot in length, weighing in at about 18,000 pounds. It was anchored to the bottom and of course it was a lighted buoy so it had a flashing light on it," Stonehouse described.
Stonehouse says the Mesquite's 53 crew members had just removed the buoy for the winter to prevent ice and storm damage.
"What they did at 1 o'clock in the morning on the 4th of December was pull up very carefully to the buoy and haul it aboard,” Stonehouse said.
Securing a 9 ton buoy on the deck of the Mesquite would have been tough work under calm conditions…
“But weather was getting worse as we were working it. We finally got it done and it was pretty late and we were on the mess desk, eating before we had to go up on watches and just we hit the reef,” said Mesquite crewmember, SN Josiah Davey, USCG, in the Superior Destiny WNMU documentary.
"At 2 o'clock in the morning, they smacked directly into the reef they had just picked the buoy up from,” said Stonehouse. “They were literally high and dry. The bottom of the boat was torn out."
Chaos ensued, according to Stonehouse.
"The damage control crews were not well organized,” Stonehouse said. “And some of that deficiency was laid, certainly, at the feet of the captain.”
"Obviously it was a tragic event when the cutter Mesquite ran aground,” said Eric Smith, executive producer of Superior Destiny
Smith says the acts of heroism that took place that night are remarkable.
"Actions of the crew to try and salvage the ship. They did some rather heroic things to protect their fellow crew-mates,” Smith said.
After several tense hours, Lieutenant Commander John Lynch reluctantly gave the order to abandon ship.
"The fact that the captain was the last person to leave the ship. All those things show the efforts that the Coast Guard went through in order to make the best out of a bad situation,” Smith said.
As tragic as it was, thankfully, no lives were lost. But all mariners would do well to remember the lessons of that night and appreciate the public service the United States Coast Guard provides every day.
“You can't speak highly enough of the small boat stations, what they do and how they do it every day of the week,” Stonehouse said. “The argument has often been made they do so much, with so little, for so long, that they can now do anything with nothing. You will find no group of men and women more professional, more willing to do their job than these folks and they certainly deserve our commendation."
On your TV6 Early News on Thursday, Dec. 5, we’ll have part two of this series on the Mesquite where we look at the final fate of the Mesquite Coast Guard Cutter.