university of wisconsin sea grant wisconsin historical society
Explore Shipwrecks Explorer's Tools Diver's Area Ask The Experts
  Final Voyage


It was the fall of the 26th year
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.

a The Cana Island lighthouse, from which keeper Oscar Knudson spotted the burning Frank O'Connor.

The 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.

The 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.



Copyright © 2003 University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute
If you have trouble accessing this page or wish to request a
reasonable accommodation because of a disability, contact us.