The Strange Sixth Sense of Captain Mohr

“The Strange Sixth Sense of Captain Mohr”
By Don Farrant

Captain Charles A. Mohr didn’t just “happen upon” that battered old schooner in 1930. It stands as one of the strangest episodes in the history of the Great Lakes.

No, it was not a chance encounter when a steamer captain had a “sixth sense” and , following his urgings, was able to make a dramatic rescue.

The date was Sept. 26, 1930. Captain Mohr, commanding the self-unloading steamer William Nelson, was already something of a hero on the lakes. In four separate incidents, he had been the savior of vessels in distress and each time had saved lives. Now he was bringing his ship down Lake Michigan with a cargo of sand, bound for South Chicago.

Mohr, heading into a violent storm on his downlake course, might have done the prudent thing and anchored in the lee of Washington Island, near Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, to wait until the gale moderated. Instead, against all accepted rules of cautious seamanship and common sense, he ordered the ship to be steered down the eastern shore – the often dangerous Manitou Passage.

The captain was obeying a compulsive force which strangely directed him on what almost seemed a suicidal run down the more hazardous side of the lake. The men in his crew muttered among themselves that the old man was losing his mind.

Not far distant on the shore near Muskegon, a group of people stood talking as they watched the storm. One of them was Joseph A. Sadony, a friend of Captain Mohr’s and a man who often surprised his friends by predicting coming events with great accuracy.

On this occasion, Sadony talked of a sailing ship in big trouble out there in that gale. He described a schooner with sails tattered and a hold that was filling with water. He added that the ship, even though well out of normal shipping lanes, had a good chance of rescue because even now another vessel was drawing near.

Meanwhile, Captain Mohr had turned away from his southward course and was now heading westward in the direction of Sheboygan, still following his mysterious “promptings.” Around 3 p.m. he came upon an old wooden ship, bare-poled and helpless, wallowing in the huge seas. It was here that he knew – positively – why he had been urged to follow this strange course. The men on the schooner needed help – and he could save them!

The vessel was the Our Son, one of the last of the sailing schooners, with a cargo of pulpwood destined for Muskegon.

Built in 1875, the venerable old ship was 182 feet long, with a beam of 35 feet and a gross tonnage of 720. She had three masts, the highest of which stood 130 feet above the deck. With her 35-year heritage of noble service, she now drifted helplessly, at the mercy of mountainous waves.

The Our Son carried a crew of six under 73-year old Captain Fred Nelson, a veteran seafaring man who had spent 45 years on the lakes. He was proud of his old ship, which he had skippered for the past six years. The only “jinx” in the long life of the Our Son had occurred at her launching when the owner’s son had nearly drowned in an accident – this being the source of her name.

The aged schooner carried no radio. Nelson, a religious man, knew his ship was doomed in this storm and prayed with deep conviction that he would not have to give the order to abandon ship. The yawl, he was sure, would have no chance in that furious sea.

As conditions worsened, he ordered the flag lowered, then hoisted it upside down as a distress signal. He knew theOur Son’s only chance, a slim one at that, was that another ship would come upon them in this little traveled part of the lake.

As if preordained, a steamer loomed in sight, oddly bearing the same last name as the mast-er of the sailing ship. Captain Mohr flashed an SOS, hoping to draw another vessel to the spot. He might need help in his rescue attempt, and he figured it was a safeguard in case his own ship needed assistance, as well.

Mohr soon received as answer from Pere Marquette Car Ferry No. 22, saying she would come to help, making as much head-way as the giant, plunging seas would permit.

Captain Mohr waited until he could see the smoke of the approaching car ferry. Then he spread oil on the surface to round off the tops of the breakers and effectively calm the seas. He hoped to draw alongside the Our Son, standing by long enough to allow the men to jump. Care was needed to prevent the awful possibility that the two ships would crash together, and such a collision might prove fatal to both.

On the schooner, one crewman, the cook, refused to come out of the galley! It seems he thought the end was coming and he told himself that if he had to die, his galley was the very best place to stay.

Finally, with rescue imminent, Nelson talked him into joining the others on deck. Now the entire crew gathered in a knot on the port side, just aft of the foremast ….waiting….waiting. As the mercy ship closed in, men all leaped – and all seven landed safely.

A few minutes later on the bridge of the Nelson, the schooner captain, tears in his eyes, pumped the hand of the man who had done so much to save his crew. Meanwhile, the ferry, having witnessed the whole thing, signaled the story to the outside world.

So it was that when the Nelson docked at South Chicago the following afternoon, an excited crowd had gathered to meet the ship. Reporters sought to interview both captains, as well as the six crewmen of schooner.

For his heroism, Captain Mohr was given a congressional medal for what was termed “One of the most daring pieces of expert seamanship in the history of navigation.” this was reported to be the only such medal ever awarded to a Great Lakes mariner.

The next time Joseph Sadony met his old friend, Captain Mohr, the two had plenty to talk about. Sadony told of psychic urgings on that day of storm — and Mohr, far from disbelieving, could only smile and affirm that certain promptings had indeed beckoned him to the exact spot on the wild lake where he was needed.

It was later revealed that Mohr and Sadony had previously held a conversation in which each agreed they would pay attention to their own hunches, then some-day get together to compare notes. This they did, at length, as they re-lived their experiences of September 26, 1930.

One thing is certain: but for the extra-sensory impulses that were somehow transmitted (from Sadony on shore?) To Captain Mohr, aided by the Almighty Ruler of the waves, the schooner would have gone down with all hands. It would have been another unexplained Great Lakes shipping disaster.

This article originally appeared at The Great Lakes Pilot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *