Events

The night the Montrose sank in the Detroit River

The British freighter Montrose became the first major ship to sink in the Detroit River since the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

On a warm summer night in 1962, a gleaming white British freighter slipped its moorings at a Detroit dock and made for the upbound Detroit River channel for the long trip to Lake Superior.

On the bridge was the captain of the 444-foot ship, Captain Ralph Eyre-Walker, a third mate, and George Beatty, a Canadian Great Lakes pilot. Also on the river that night was the tugboat B.H. Becker pushing a 200-foot barge laden with clinker cement from Port Huron bound for the Peerless Cement plant on the Rouge River.

Suddenly the ghostly white visage of the Montrose appeared out of the dark directly in front of the barge. Wheelsman Alex McLean said the tugboat skipper blew a warning signal, reversed engines and threw a spotlight on the Montrose, but it was too late to avoid a collision.

The barge tore a huge hole in the Montrose’s forward hull, allowing the river to pour in. The ship began to list but Capt. Eyre-Walker decided to try to make it to the opposite side of the river where he could beach it in shallow Canadian waters. But the bow began to settle as water rushed into the port-side gash, raising the stern and the ship’s propeller out of the water and causing a complete loss of control.

The strong river currents caught the helpless Montrose, pushing it downstream until it went aground under the Ambassador Bridge.

The date was July 30. It was the first major collision and sinking in the Detroit River since foreign ships started using the St. Lawrence Seaway in large numbers in 1959.

Curious Detroiters line the bank of the Detroit River near the Ambasssador Bridge to view the Montrose lying on her side.

      The Detroit fireboat John Kendall immediately put out to aid the Montrose, circling the ship several times to check for fires. The J. W. Westcott mail boat also headed out to the Montrose to see if anyone was in need of rescue. Fortunately, no one was injured. The tugboat and barge continued downriver after calling the Coast Guard and making sure they could be of no further assistance.

Within an hour of the collision, 38 of the crewmen aboard the Montrose — many of them young Italian seamen — were brought to shore by the mail boat, a Coast Guard powerboat and a Detroit Police Harbormaster’s launch. Capt. Eyre-Walker and two officers stayed on board in an effort to protect the salvage rights of his company, the Montship-Cape Lines of Montreal.

Early the next morning, when it became apparent that the Montrose was sinking, the captain signaled he wanted to come off the ship. With the ship lying on its port side, they were able to walk upright on a ladder across the starboard side. The ship went down in 45 feet of water.

The tugboat B. H. Becker was not damaged but the barge suffered minor damage to the port bow. At the time of the crash, however, the crew grabbed life jackets and were preparing to cut the tug free from the barge if necessary. With the load of cement aboard the barge it would have sunk like a rock, taking the tug with it.

A view of the ship from a rescue boat.

      As word of the collision spread, thousands of curious spectators lined both shores of the Detroit River making it a summer tourist attraction. Traffic slowed on the Amabassador Bridge as motorists craned for a view of the ship far below. The BobLo boats reported a 20-percent increase in business as passengers sought a closer view of the wreck. The cruise boat Dee Cee, moored at the civic Center, made special trips around the wreck. Bridge officials barred pedestrians from the Ambassador Bridge after 8 p.m., fearing for their safety.

In the aftermath, there were differing versions of the events leading up to the crash.

Beatty, the Great Lakes pilot aboard the Montrose, had piloted 30 foreign ships through the Detroit River that season. He claimed he made the required security call to everyone in the vicinity before the Montrose left her dock. This call lets other vessels know of the ship’s intention — in this case, to cross the river into the upbound channel.

No one answered his call and there were no lights on downbound vessels except for pleasure boats. He said he saw only one red light, then noticed red and green lights. This turned out to be the tug pushing the barge. Beatty said the tug sounded the danger signal only seconds before the impact and it wasn’t until the tug’s searchlight came on that he recognized the craft as a barge.

Some spectaors combine rubber-necking with fishing.

      Capt. Eyre-Walker testified that he and the pilot had contacted the T. J. Mccarthy, a Detroit auto carrier bound for the same dock the Montrose was using. It was decided the Montrose should pull out first but the Captain, feeling they were not getting far enough ahead of the McCarthy, ordered full speed. Both Eyre-Walker and Beatty testified they saw many small craft on the river but nothing in the immediate vicinity of the Montrose. He thought he heard a weak mention of the Montrose on the radiotelephone. Eyre-Walker said his first clue to the presence of the tug and barge was when he heard the danger signal and the first mate yelled, “barge ahead.” He said he tried to steer away but it was too late.

The tugmen and other witnesses contradicted the Montrose captain and pilot, testifiying that the tug and barge were properly lighted and that the Montrose failed to answer a whistle signal, appeared to ignore a subsequent danger signal and did not respond to a radiophone call.

Capt. A. J. Chickonoski of the T. J. McCarthy auto carrier, which was nearest to the crash scene, testified that the Montrose did not sound an eight-second whistle blast required by law before leaving her berth. He said she failed to reverse her engines when the collision was imminent and that the lights on the tug Becker were clearly visible. He said that the Montrose did not sound its whistle until immediately before the impact. The tug had sounded two alarms, nearly two minutes apart, he testified. Chickonoski said the Montrose, the tug and barge were clearly visible to him. Although they could hear the tug’s engines roaring in reverse, they also saw the Montrose trying to cross the river ahead of the tug and barge at full speed.

Salvage workers prepare to right the Montrose.

      The Coast guard conducted an investigation and concluded that there was some blame on the part of each vessel.

The job of raising the Montrose was done by the Merritt-Chapman & Scott marine salvage firm at a cost of $750,000 over a period of two months. The collision had raked a hole 48 feet long and as wide as 24 feet in the port side. The ship was pulled sideways into shore by cables. At the same time, a giant crane lifted her upright and pumps emptied the water from her holds and engine rooms. She left Detroit on Nov. 9, towed by tugs to Ecorse, then on to Lorain, Ohio, for repairs and reconditioning. They wre able to save 200 tons of aluminum the Montrose had been carrying but a shipment of fine wines from Europe was a total loss.

A 1967 Detroit News article says she was sold and renamed the Concordia Lago, under the Norwegian flag, and underwent final reconditioning in Norway. As far as it is known, she never returned to Detroit.

Heavy ropes were used to drag the boat to shore in the salvage operation.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Kay Houston / The Detroit News