Sea captains! In Kendall County?

When I was a youngster, I was besotted with sailing ships. I built models of the  Sir Thomas Lipton International Fishing Challenge Cup racer Bluenose, the U.S.S. Constitution, and (my masterpiece) the famed clipper ship Cutty Sark.

My most prized possession, a 1958 Christmas present, was my well-thumbed copy of the National Geographic’s Men Ships and the Sea, a collection of true sea stories, the end papers of which featured a full-rigged clipper ship, with all the sails labeled.

We spent hours virtually every summer day on the river back in those days, polling our scows up and down the Fox’s muddy stream, fishing and landing on and exploring nearby islands. One summer, I saved every penny I could and bought 2” diameter poles at Alexander Lumber that I fashioned into a fore-and-aft sailing rig for my scow. I manufactured leeboards and somehow talked my mother into sewing a sail. My little catboat rig actually worked, though tacking across the shallow main channel of the Fox was a real challenge.

During those years I read everything I could that was sailing-related, including C.S. Forester’s wonderful Hornblower saga. Nowadays, what with arthritic fingers and hands, holding books has become a chore, so I rely more and more using the Kindle apps on both my iPhone and MacBook Pro. And imagine my joy when I discovered electronic versions of the Hornblower books! I’m reading them again, in chronological order, using the uBooks app on my iPhone with its nifty auto scroll feature. Every morning during my 21-minute cardio maintenance Nu-Step routine, I let uBooks scroll as I furiously pedal, which makes the time speed by.

So given my fascination with things nautical, I was not a little surprised to run across accounts of two captains with direct Kendall County connections during my epic transcription project. Back when I was editor of the Ledger-Sentinel here in Oswego, I transcribed interesting news items from the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column for our monthly “Yesteryear” feature. I also relied on a bunch of transcriptions Ford Lippold did during 1976, as he sat down at the Oswego Public Library with his portable typewriter transcribing from their microfilm collection. But those transcriptions were extremely incomplete. So when I retired from the news biz in 2008, I decided to fill in the gaps. Over the next five years, I transcribed thousands of news items, mostly dealing with Oswego, from microfilm in the Little White School Museum’s collections. As of this morning, the 70 or so pages of transcriptions Ford and I did prior to 2008 have ballooned to more than 4,700.

But I digress.

Two captains of Great Lakes ships either lived in or had direct connections to our small northern Illinois farming county of Kendall, Capt. John Raleigh and Capt. Frank Huyck. Capt. Raleigh actually owned a 155-acre farm near Yorkville in southwestern Oswego Township, along what is today Ill. Route 71, just south of Van Emmon Road. Every fall, when shipping on the lakes was interrupted by cold weather, Capt. Raleigh would leave his ship and head to his farm. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 10, 1897: “Captain John Raleigh came home Saturday for the winter.” The following April, the Record noted: “Captain Raleigh is away on the lakes for the summer.”

While skippering the steam propeller passenger and freight ship Iowa, Capt. John Raleigh rammed and sank the yacht schooner Hawthorne in August 1896. Photo courtesy

While skippering the steam propeller passenger and freight ship Iowa, Capt. John Raleigh rammed and sank the yacht schooner Hawthorne in August 1896. Photo courtesy

Capt. Raleigh was apparently not a flawless skipper. August 13, 1896, the Wayne Weekly Breeze reported that “The schooner yacht Hawthorne, owned by McConnell Bros., was sunk off the Government breakwater at the entrance to the Chicago harbor Wednesday night by the single screw propeller [steamer] Iowa of the Goodrich Transportation Line. Capt. Martin Henderson of the yacht and a crew of four were taken off the wreck by the tug Gardner. The big steamer, in charge of Capt. John Raleigh, was on her maiden trip, and proceeded on her way to Grand Haven.” But he must have been good enough, because he enjoyed a long, and relatively successful career.

Capt. Raleigh eventually retired from the lakes, and moved to Yorkville, turning the farm over to his son Ray. He died in 1915 in Chicago at the age of 70 and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery beside his wife, Melissa.

Captain Huyck with his cigar (Betty Cornwell collection)

Undated photograph of Capt. Frank Huyck. (Betty Cornwell collection)

Capt. Frank Huyck, on the other hand, apparently never lived in Kendall County, although he visited here frequently after marrying a local girl.

On Feb. 13, 1889, the Kendall County Record reported in its “Oswego” column that “The marriage of Miss Helen Samse to a Mr. Frank Huyck of Sheridan, N.Y. will take place Wednesday at the residence of her parents, Chas. Samse. Helen marries a seafaring man, the mate of a Lake steamer.”

Although busy as first an officer and then as a captain aboard steamers on the lakes, Capt. Huyck managed to get back to visit friends and family once in a while. The Record reported on Sept. 2, 1891 that “Capt. F.B. Huyck came from off the lakes one day to make his wife and baby, who are summering here, a visit.”

By 1903, Capt. Huyck was in command of the Chemung, a passenger and freight steamship owned by the Union Steamship Companies. But in September of that year, the American Association of Masters and Pilots struck against several shipping companies, including the Union Steamship Companies. The companies managed to break the strike a month later and all of the strikers were blackballed from further employment—the captain of the Chemung among them. It would be three years until Huyck would find another job with a Great Lakes shipping company.

In 1906, thanks to his friend, Capt. William Reed, Huyck was offered a job as first mate aboard the steamship Amasa Stone, an ore freighter hauling iron ore from Minnesota’s Messabi Range to steel mills in Ohio. The ore freighter, only a year old, was owned by the newly formed Mesaba Steamship fleet, which was operating under the management of Pickands, Mather & Company. After serving aboard the Stone for a year, Huyck was given command of the brand new freighter Cyprus, whose job it would be to haul coal and iron ore. The 7,400 ton Cyprus, launched on Aug. 17, 1907 at the American Shipbuilding Company, Lorain, Ohio, measured 420 feet in length and was 52 feet wide on the beam.

Louis Pesha photo of the brand new Cyprus, under the command of Capt. Frank Huyck,  in the St. Clair River, upbound for Lake Superior,  on September 22, 1907. (William Forsythe collection)

Louis Pesha photo of the brand new Cyprus, under the command of Capt. Frank Huyck, in the St. Clair River, upbound for Lake Superior, on September 22, 1907. (William Forsythe collection)

One of three sister ships, the Cyprus’s cargo hatches were covered with brand new, recently patented, mechanical covers. Unlike the old wooden hatch covers, the new patent Brousseau telescoping hatch covers could be mechanically retracted using small on-board steam engines much faster and more economically than the old hatch covers. The new hatch covers were considered so superior to the old wooden ones, that the ships with them were not issued canvas tarpaulins used to securely seal the old wooden hatch covers.

But it apparently didn’t take long before the crews of ships with the Brousseau covers became concerned about them. Cyprus made her first voyage on Sept. 7, 1907, up to Lake Superior to load iron ore, and then back down the lakes to Fairport, Ohio. She loaded with coal and headed back upbound to Duluth, Minn., where she delivered the coal before steaming farther north to load with Mesabi iron ore.

While loading ore at Superior, Wis., Huyck was overheard to declare to the Cyprus’s first mate, John Smith, that “I’ll never make another trip without tarps!” Huyck reportedly complained the patent hatch covers did not seal completely around the hatch coamings, which could be dangerous during one of Lake Superior’s frequent strong storms.

On Oct. 10 1907, the Cyprus with Capt. Huyck on the bridge, steamed out of Superior on her way downbound to the southern lakes with 7,100 tons of Mesabi iron ore in her holds. By 10 the next morning, the weather was worsening. The Cyprus was sighted 10 miles south of Stannard Light, west northwest of Whitefish Bay, where she was observed to be rolling in the light swells. When the Cyprus passed the steamer George Stephenson towing the barge Magna through worsening weather conditions about noon, the Stephenson’s Capt. Harbottle, noticed the discharge from the Cyprus‘s bilge pumps was stained red, suggesting that by then the increasingly rough seas were washing over the ship’s decks, over the Brousseau hatches’ low 6” coamings, and into the cargo holds, where the water mixed with some of the soft iron ore before being pumped overboard.

The surface conditions continued to deteriorate, with ships seeking shelter wherever they could. Huyck apparently decided to try to get to the shelter of Whitefish Bay. But like another ore freighter some 60 years in the future—named the Edmund Fitzgerald—the Cyprus wasn’t able to “put 15 more miles behind her” to reach the bay’s shelter. At 7 p.m., Huyck ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship as she continued to take on water as waves crashed across her deck. At 7:45 p.m., the Cyprus slowly rolled over into the cold waters of Lake Superior and sank in 460 feet of water.

Wreckage of the only Cyprus liferaft to reach shore with the ship's sole survivor, Second Mate Charles Pitz. Capt. Huyck and two other crewmen clung to the raft until overcome by hypothermia in Lake Superior's frigid waters.

Wreckage of the only Cyprus liferaft to reach shore with the ship’s sole survivor, Second Mate Charles Pitz. Capt. Huyck and two other crewmen clung to the storm-tossed raft until overcome by hypothermia in Lake Superior’s frigid waters.

By about 2 a.m. on Oct. 12, the Cyprus’s only surviving life raft, carrying Huyck, First Mate John C. Smith, Second Mate Charles Pitz, and Wheelsman George Thorne, was within sight of the rocky Lake Superior shoreline, despite being flipped over four times by the high waves. Each time, the increasingly exhausted men had managed to clamber back aboard the raft, but when it overturned a fifth time, hypothermia and exhaustion took their toll and only Pitz was able to get back aboard and ride the raft to shore near the Deer Park Life Saving Station, located a little over 16 miles east of Grand Marais, Mich., where he was rescued. Pitz was the only survivor of the Cyprus.

Lake Superior kept Capt. Huyck’s body until finally giving it up a day later when it washed up at the Two Hearted River Life Saving Station at the mouth of Michigan’s Two Hearted River.

After the sinking other ships with Brousseau’s patented hatch covers were all issued tarps. The covers were soon replaced by other telescoping hatch covers invented by Capt. Joseph Kidd. Kidd noted that his hatch covers, as opposed to the Brousseau covers, were “practically water-tight or as nearly so as possible when in place.” In contrast to Brousseau’s hatches, which featured only 6” coamings, Kidd’s hatches had 9″ to 12” coamings, another feature designed to keep water from washing into ore ships’ cargo holds. Kidd’s hatches, though somewhat modified, are still in use today.

Capt. Huyck’s body was taken back to his hometown of Sheridan, N.Y. for burial, where his wife, the former Helen Samse, moved with her children, thus ending one of Kendall County’s more colorful encounters with sea stories.

In a fascinating historical sidelight on the wreck of the Cyprus and Capt. Frank Huyck provided by William Forsythe,

“In August 2007, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) sent its research vessel David Boyd to perform a side-scan sonar search near Deer Park, Mich., in Lake Superior. They found a solid target and expected it to be the D. M. Clemson, a mystery ship since her sinking in 1908. Everyone was surprised one week later, on August 18, 2007, when the Shipwreck Society’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) swam down to film the stern and found the words “CYPRUS FAIRPORT.” The ROV’s dive occurred 100 years and one day after the Cyprus’ launching at the American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio.”

For more on the story of the Cyprus and her skipper, go to


1 Comment

Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Technology, Transportation

One response to “Sea captains! In Kendall County?

  1. Bert Gray

    great story!!!!

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