The Wreck of the Madeira

In late November 1905, one of the worst storms still on record overtook Lake Superior in what became known as the “Mataafa Blow.” Just north of Split Rock, the steamer William Edenborn struggled along the North Shore on its way to Duluth, towing behind it the Madeira, a massive 436-foot schooner-barge. As the winds swelled to sixty miles an hour, the two ships were pounded closer and closer to the dangerous rocks along the coast. Hoping to save his own ship, A.J. Talbot, the Edenborn’s captain, decided to cut the Madeira free, leaving it to drop anchor and ride out the storm on its own. The tow line was cut, at 3:30 in the morning of November 28, but it was too late for the Madeira to cast its anchors. Within minutes the ship began to reel about in the thirty-foot waves until it was smashed into the steep cliff walls of Gold Rock, an outcropping a few miles north of Split Rock.

Immediately, the violent deluge began to tear the ship apart and threatened to engulf the ten men aboard. But one young crewman named Fred Benson leapt from the heaving ship onto a rocky ledge with a lifeline attached to his belt. In below-zero temperatures, and with towering waves smashing at his back, Benson somehow managed to climb the sixty-foot cliff. He secured his rope and cast it back to the three men trapped on the bow of the ship. Then Benson scrambled along the cliff edge to toss a second line to four sailors holding on at the stern. All seven were able to climb to safety. Only one man, the first mate, was drowned as the ship was dragged down into the icy depths.

In all, thirty-six seamen were lost in the Mataafa storm, with twenty-nine ships wrecked or damaged. Benson was hailed as a hero in the regional press. To avoid costly improvements to ship construction or the burden of insuring their vessels, the leaders of the Great Lakes shipping industry—-one third of the ships damaged were owned by U.S. Steel—clamored for the government to install more lighthouses along the North Shore. In 1907, Congress appropriated the funds to erect Minnesota’s landmark Split Rock Lighthouse. For years the Madeira remained largely forgotten, until a Duluth diving club, “The Frigid Frogs,” rediscovered it in 1955. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Today, the Minnesota Historical Society estimates the Madeira to be one of Lake Superior’s most popular underwater sites, with about 1,000 divers visiting each year.