Saturday, April 16, 2016

ATI Wisdom Booklet Digression: Revenge of the Nerd

Ok, this one is badly out of order, but I could not wait to vindicate my region of the US.

In Wisdom Booklet 17, one of the history sections caught my attention.

Why did this catch my attention?  Well, I am a long-term shipwreck geek who lives in Michigan.  I know a lot about the major shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and I had never heard of this one.  Ever.  That surprised me because a major loss of life caused by a lazy lighthouse keeper that lead to a song being written would be in most books on Great Lakes shipwrecks.  I began searching.

I started by looking up Lorraine Lighthouse on Lake Erie.   There is no Lorraine Lighthouse on Lake Erie; there is a Lorain Lighthouse on Lake Erie.  Lorain Lighthouse has a detailed history available that only mentioned one light stationed on the Western pier.  Since the ATI article describes a "lower" shorelight, this means there would have been two lights at the station where the accident took place.  This seems to be a dead end.

I looked up the hymn "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning".  Several websites include the sermon given by D.L. Moody.  The sermon states that the lower light was out, but doesn't state what caused the light to be out. The sermon is very clear that the wreck happened near the harbor of Cleveland, OH, but doesn't name the lighthouse present.  Since Lorain is 30 miles west of Cleveland, that's a pretty good sign that "Lorraine" or Lorain Lighthouse isn't the right place.

I had one more option available to figure out what wreck the hymn was based on.  Assuming that the wreck happened near Cleveland, OH and that the date 1869 was correct, I could search the Great Lakes Shipwreck file for all wrecks that fit those criteria.   While I was digging through there, a few other concerns came to mind:
  • 1869 was after the Civil War.  Competition for lightkeeper jobs was fierce during that period and tended to attract the best of the best.  Lake Erie was quite populated during that time (especially compared to entire portions of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), so a lighthouse keeper who decided to "not fill the lights" would be directly under the eyes of his superiors.
  • Speaking of laziness, most lighthouse keepers had relatives who were sailors on freight vessels - sons, brothers, fathers, and nephews on the lakes.  You'd have to be a cold-hearted bastard to risk your own family members' lives because you didn't want to fill the lamps.  In fact, lighthouse lore is full of keepers who worked themselves to death  and the female family members who kept the light going after their death.
  • In fact, Harriet Colfax wrote some terrifying accounts of the insanity of having to row across a river or harbor to light the lower or range light.  

While there were a lot of shipwrecks in 1869 due to a severe storm event in November, there was only one entry that was near Cleveland and involved a storm.  I've included the entry below.

From BoatNerd:
Other names : none
Official no. : 16449
Type at loss : schooner, wood, 2-mast
Build info : 1847, W. Jones, Buffalo
Specs : 115x24x10, 252 t.
Date of loss : 1869, Jul 7
Place of loss : near Avon Pt., 18 miles W of Cleveland
Lake : Erie
Type of loss : storm
Loss of life : none
Carrying : light
Detail : She lost her way in heavy seas and poor visibility and went on the rocks, pounding to pieces a short time later. She had been engaged in the Cleveland to Buffalo petroleum trade.
Out of Detroit.
Also went ashore Jun 7, 1855 near the Grand R., Ont. Pulled off a week later by the U.S gunboat MICHIGAN.
Abandoned to her underwriters after wrecking in November, 1867.
Sources: nsp,hgl,mv,wl,rsl,mdwl

That's probably the closest that we'll get.  This account is pretty close to the account in Moody's sermon.  Yes, the sermon played up the "many lives were lost!" bit, but good public speakers of that time period used hyperbole.  If a light went out during a storm, ships were lost and people died.  Lightkeepers knew that and so kept the lights burning until they ran out of fuel or had the light broken by the storm.

So, as a recap, here's what's true about the ATI wisdom booklet lesson.

  • There was a storm in 1869 that caused shipwrecks.
  • A song was written about a shipwreck in 1869.
Interesting fact: If you replace 1869 with 1975, the statements above are still true - and someone will start humming "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" if you are in the right company.   

Here's what's false about that story in the ATI booklet:
  • The name of the lighthouse;
  • The location of the lighthouse the song was written about;
  • The number of lights at the actual Lorain Lighthouse;
  • The "lazy" lightkeeper;
  • How a lighthouse (or range light) actually works.  ("Oil lamps along the shore" - are you kidding me?  Try a freaking Fresnel lens with lard oil feed.....)
To all the future curriculum writers out there, this is why you fact-check before publishing.  If you don't, an army of nerds will descend on your curriculum like locust from the sky and will rip it into teeny, tiny pieces.


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only lighthouse nerd! I live in NC so I've always loved learning about the lighthouses of the Outer Banks and all the wrecks with the whole Graveyard of the Atlantic thing. Plus pirates. I'd love to go up North at some point and see the Great Lakes and the lighthouses!

    1. I am very fond of our lighthouses here. Most of them look quite similar to lighthouses out on the oceans, but we do have a few oddballs and a few fieldstone structures that are pretty fun!