90 perish as waves swamp Sea Wing

     Days of steamboats on the Mississippi were in their twilight in the late 1890s. Throughout the years the vessels had been plagued by mishaps.
     Boiler explosions were a chief cause of destruction. Fires which spread rapidly because of boats' wooden construction were another.
     A few capsized, but none of the other steamboat misfortunes on the Chippewa or upper Mississippi would match that of July 13, 1890, on the "Sea Wing."

Overflow on barge

     One-hundred and ninety persons were aboard the "Sea Wing," captained by its owner, D. W. Wethern of Diamond Bluff. Passengers were so numerous that Wethern had a barge attached to handle the overflow.
     When the day ended, 99 of them were dead.
      It began with a gala mood, for most passengers were returning from visiting relatives who were members of the Minnesota National Guard encamped two miles below Lake City, Minn.
      It was not uncommon to use steamers for excursions because railroads had all but eliminated such traffic to concentrate on carrying freight.
      The "Sea Wing" was about 90 feet long and not big by standards of other vessels. It was built by Wethern two years before at Wabasha, Minn.
      Wethern's wife and two sons were aboard on the fateful day.

Skies darken

     During the afternoon as the visitors were having their picnic lunches, skies clouded and a storm formed in the northwest.
     Wethern appeared concerned and was ready to postpone the trip until the next day, but the passengers insisted they wanted to leave. At 8 p.m. the "Sea Wing" started up into Lake Pepin.
     Reports vary, but either a cyclone or tornado was already moving along the valley and six lives had been lost upstream.
     Skies darkened and whitecaps appeared on the lake. Then, driving rain and sudden gusts of wind caught the boat and pushed it onto a sand bar. The crew cut away lines pulling the accompanying barge.

Action saved lives

     The 50 persons on the barge felt helpless as they drifted away from the steamer. Little did they know the action probably saved their own lives.
     Meanwhile, the "Sea Wing," now helpless, was battered by waves washing over the lower deck and the relentless rain soaked passengers on the unprotected top deck.
     After the wind freed the vessel, it started to drift toward the center of the lake and some persons attempted to swim to shore.
     Another gust caught the vessel and it overturned, flinging men, women, and children into the water or trapping them between decks. Many managed to escape, including Wethern who smashed the pilot house window to get out. His wife and one of his sons were not as lucky.

Clung to boat

     Some passengers managed to cling to the boat's keel while flashes of lightning hit the sky.
     There were stories of heroics, including one about Frank Way of Trenton, Minn., who tried to swim ashore with his young sister. But he was unable to save the girl; she perished in the lake.
     The boat was again tossed on its side and more survivors of the first tipping were thrown into the water.
     The barge was blown toward the shore near Lake City on the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin and some of its passengers swam to safety before the barge again drifted out into the lake. The rest were rescued several hours later.
     Word of the disaster was spread by the first survivors to reach safety. Skiffs piloted into the storm lake rescued a dozen persons.
     An inquest was held and 214 statements were taken by the Maritime Committee concerning overloading of the "Sea Wing." No criminal charges were filed.
     Wethern retired, a reportedly embittered man.

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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