The Three Brothers

The Three Brothers was a traditional wooden hulled Great Lakes lumber hooker built in 1888 by the Milwaukee Shipyard Company at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was built for John Spry of the John Spry Lumber Company in Chicago, Illinois and was initially launched as the May Durr with official number 91998.

Her hull dimensions were 162.0 ft. x 31.4 ft. x 11.8 ft. Her gross tonnage was 583 and 444 net and she could hold 530,000 ft. of lumber. Her Steeple Comp. engine was built in 1888 by the Frontier Engine Works of Buffalo, New York with dimensions of 20 & 36 x 30 and could generate 280 horsepower at 96 revolutions. Her fire box boiler was built in 1888 by R. Davis at Milwaukee, Wisconsin with dimensions of 8d x 151 and generated 100 psi.

She was renamed the John Spry in 1892 and continued to serve the Spry interests in the Lake Michigan lumber trade. Sometime between 1905 and 1910 the Spry interests sold her to William H. White & Co. of Boyne City, Michigan. She was renamed for the three White Brothers from Charlevoix, William, James and Thomas, who collectively ran the lumber company. She was taken to the shipyards at Manitowoc where she was recaulked and repainted with the name Three Brothers. In this capacity, she was used to haul coarse lumber from Lake Charlevoix to the White Company's sawmill in Tonawanda, New York.

The Three Brothers met her fate on September 27th, 1911 while hauling $4200 worth of hardwood from Boyne City to Chicago. Just out of Boyne City, the vessel began to leak more than usual due to heavy weather and the water soon overwhelmed her pumps. The water quickly rose to a level of eight feet, flooding her hold and coal bunkers, which forced the firemen to fuel her with kerosene to keep her steam up. In this condition, Captain Sam Christopher chose to run her ashore on South Manitou Island. At full steam, the Three Brothers plowed ashore 200 yards east of the lifesaving station. Upon impact, she split her bow open and knocked her pilot house loose. However, her bow was still in 15 ft. of water, and she was in nearly 50 ft. of water aft. The waves began to scatter her deckload of lumber and she was soon spotted by Captain Kent and the crew of the lifesaving station who took off Captain Christopher and his 13 crewmen. The weather was such that the men chose to leave many of their personal effects on the ship. The crew lodged with the lifesavers until they were taken off by the wrecking tug Favorite. The Favorite was unable to dislodge the vessel from the beach and she was judged to be beyond salvage value. Some hardware was removed from the Three Brothers, but when salvagers returned for her boilers the next year she was already under water.

Over the next 50 years, a sand bar formed around the Three Brothers and eventaully enveloped her. She was covered so completely that wreck hunters who looked for her in the 70s and 80s found no sign of her. Then, in the winter of 95'/96', Lake Michigan decided to uncover her. When David Nagel and David Wilkins of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore returned to opn the park on April 30th, 1996, they discovered the Three Brothers lying under water where Sandy Point had previously been. Today, she can be seen from the surface and is usually buoyed. Her LON/LAT is 45.00'62" / 86.05'49".

The sand had preserved the Three Brothers remarkably well. State Archeologist John Halsey describes her in the Nov/Dec issue of Michigan History Magazine:

"The deck of the vessel is mostly missing forward of the main cargo hold, along with the pilothouse and upper cabins, possibly blown off by air pressure or washed off during or shortly after the wreck. The structural integrity of the upper portion of the hull is weakening by the fracture of deck beams near the hatches. Despite this damage, the stern, which is at a deeper depth and away from ice and wave action, is remarkably intact. A delicate window frame remains in the stren quarter and fire hoses dangle over the side to the lake bottom below. Remnants of a shoe, overalls and other small personal items on the site show the rapid abandonment of the ship in peril. The cylinder head of the engine prodrudes from the sand, leaving the diver to imagine what the rest of its bulk must look like."
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There is great concern that the vessel will begin to disintegrate now that the sand is no longer supporting the structure and protecting the wood from waves and ice. A request by the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve to remove more sand from the hull was denied by the State Dept. of Environmental Quality on the grounds that it would damage the site and further destabilize the structural and cultural remains.

Perhaps an even greater concern is the selfish artifact grubbing treasure hunters who are willing to risk fines and imprisonment to hide away a piece of the wreck in their garage. In general, it is illegal to remove anything from any Great Lakes Shipwreck. All bordering state and provinces claim legal ownership of historical and cultural artifacts in their waters. Michigan has taken a leading role by establishing underwater preserves to further protect its wrecks.

Unfortunately, only one year later, the Three Brothers had already been plundered and damaged. Boaters have dragged anchors across her trying to moor dive boats and have damaged her already fragile superstructure. Worse yet, the firehose nozzles, ornately carved wooden pillars and brass fittings on the steam engine have been stolen along with many personal items left by the crew. These artifacts quickly decay out of water and will probably never be seen again unless those who took them decide to put them back. Many Great Lakes divers have begun to return artifacts they took years ago, and a strong conservation ethic has begun to emerge. Hopefully, Lake Michigan will be kind to the Three Brothers and she'll remain in good shape. Let's hope divers treat her at least as well.


Herman G. Runge Collection, Milwaukee Public Library Marine Column, Milwaukee Sentinel, September - October, 1911 Chicago Inter-Ocean, September - October, 1911 Ports of Milwaukee & Chicago, Vessel Enrollment Master Index Wreck Report of the South Manitou US Lifesaving Station Michigan History Magazine, Nov/Dec 1996

Photos courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library Marine Collection

Copyright 1998 by Brendon Baillod and Great Lakes Shipwreck Research

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