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Mason County Memories


"You can't depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus" ~ Mark Twain


History Columns are arranged by year of publication in the Ludington Daily News



david k petersen

Did Gangsters sink the Milwaukee? History Column Dave Petersen October 22nd 1929 during the height of Prohibition a gale blew up on the Great Lakes, Captain Robert "Heavy Weather" McKay of the S.S. Milwaukee was known for his ability to manage rough weather headed out from the port of Milwaukee bound for Grand Haven Michigan and vanished into the history and lore of the Great Lakes. 52 Men lost their lives that night and much speculation ensued as to the cause of this tragic shipwreck, over the years many theories were brought forth and many man hours were spent in trying to locate the final resting place of this historic boat. Perseverance paid off in 1972 when the wreck was located 3 miles off shore 7 miles NE of Milwaukee. On October 27th 1929 the purser's last words were discovered a few days later in a case found on a Michigan Beach it read "The ship is taking water fast. We have turned around and headed for Milwaukee. Pumps are working but sea gate is bent in and can't keep the water out. Flicker is flooded. Seas are tremendous. Things look bad. Crew roll is about the same as on last pay day." The Grand Trunk Milwaukee Carferry Companies S.S. Milwaukee, a 338 foot steel boat was launched December 6th 1902 as the Manistique Marquette and Northern #1. Did you know that as the Manistique she was sunk once before? In 1908 she was damaged by heavy ice but made it to the lumber company docks before sinking. She was raised, repaired and later that year sold to the Grand Trunk. She was renamed the S.S. Milwaukee in 1908 and spent 21 years in the service of the Grand Trunk Carferry Company before she was lost. The common theory is that the freight cars pitched and pulled loose from their clamps, careened through the Seagate, damaging the propellers and allowing the water to rush into the boat, capsize and take her to the bottom. What about the uncommon theory though? One was put forth by Douglas J Ingells in the Coronet Magazine that linked the fate of the S.S. Milwaukee to that of a rival gang war over the distribution of whiskey during Prohibition. Ingells set the stage that in the weeks before the sinking of the S.S. Milwaukee a gang war had erupted because of the overflow of Al Capone's bootleg whiskey into Cleveland and that once the Cleveland Mob led by Big Joe Lonardo learned of the source of the "leak" that events were set in motion to level the playing field. The Cleveland mob learned that the whiskey was being canned and labeled as peas, the legitimate looking cargo was then placed on a boxcar and loaded onto a carferry called the S.S. Milwaukee and being shipped to Grand Haven and subsequently bound for Cleveland. The story goes on to say that five gunman led by Larry Lupo (head triggerman) boarded the ill fated boat in Milwaukee and once underway smashed her radio and held up the officers and crew while they began dumping their rivals whiskey into the lake. In order to speed up the process the gate was opened and box cars unclamped so that they could roll over board. (damaging the propellers in the process) Once finished with their work on the carferry these five men escaped in a lifeboat from the Milwaukee and according to the story were picked up by their cohorts near Grand Haven Michigan. Two lifeboats were found on the Michigan side of the lake, one near Holland with 4 dead crew members and an empty lifeboat near Grand Haven Michigan on the 27th of October. The S.S. Milwaukee did not have a radio to smash, Joe Lonardo was murdered in 1927 (not 1929) in Cleveland, Al Capone had set himself up to serve a short stint in jail on a weapons charge but he was able to run his operations from jail at the time. If there was a gang war over bootleg whiskey it would have been with Joe Porello who took over the Cleveland operation in 1927 after Lonardo was murdered. If you don't let the facts get in the way it makes for a good story. In any event the writer refers to a diary that surfaced during the Lonardo trials in Cleveland in which the following lines were written " I wonder what they would do to me if they knew the truth about the sinking of the City of Milwaukee." I wonder too. If you have any stories or photographs to share with our readers please feel free to contact me at 757-3240 or davep@blackcreekpress.com I am also working on some pieces related to Justus Stearns and am very interested in anything related to his family and business enterprises in Ludington.

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