since the Frank O'Connor
began working the lakes. The massive old workhorse had left
Buffalo, New York, on September 29, 1919, loaded with 3,000
tons of coal and bound for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Three days
later she steamed through the Straits of Mackinac, intending
to follow Lake Michigan's western shore down to Milwaukee.
The boat made good time in the favorable weather, and the
crew expected to make port ahead of schedule.
Cana Island lighthouse, from which keeper Oscar Knudson
spotted the burning Frank O'Connor.
O'Connor was several miles off the east coast of Door County
at 4:00 p.m. on October 3, 1919, when fire broke out in the
bow . Captain William Hayes, James O'Connor's son-in-law,
immediately ordered the helmsman to steer directly toward
shore, ten miles away. Roughly an hour later, the steering
gear burned away, leaving the ship helpless about two miles
from Cana Island. Captain Hays ordered all hands to board
the lifeboats. Fortunately, the billowing smoke had attracted
the attention of Cana Island lighthouse keeper Oscar Knudson. With
his assistant, Louis Pecon, Knusdon met the retreating crew
with a power boat and took their lifeboats in tow. Some time
later Coast Guardsmen picked up the tow and pulled it into
Baileys Harbor. The Frank O'Connor was seen burning well into
the night and eventually sank in about sixty feet of water.
cause of the fire remains unknown. The two most flammable
areas in the bow, the oil room and paint locker, were housed
in steel compartments. Suspicion centered on a discarded match
or cigarette butt. The ship had been carrying grain all season,
and the grain dust caked in the hold reportedly "burned like
tinder." The United States Steamboat Inspectors at Milwaukee
investigated the incident and, in a trial the following spring,
declared Capt. Hayes blameless in the incident.