Dig into the historical society’s ‘shipwreck files’ and uncover a treasure trove of information.

July 28, 2021

Dig into the historical society’s ‘shipwreck files’ and uncover a treasure trove of information.

By Betty Driscoll, Oceana County Historical and Genealogical Society.

It happened in fog so thick that land lubbers couldn’t see the nearly 600-foot-long ships as they passed near the Straits of Mackinac.  

Loaded with calcite or ore, their May 7, 1965 voyage was just another delivery, passing under the largest bridge in Michigan.  

Ordinary, it was, until the under-50-foot visibility allowed them to get too close to one another. Captain Martin Joppich of the Cedarville sounded the first ‘May Day.’ His vessel was so badly damaged he couldn’t reach shore.

 Wailing sirens screaming “distress” alerted civilians on land to a disaster they could not see. The Michigan State Police loaded several small boats into the lake in a rescue attempt and encouraged civilian vessels to help. 

The Cedarville sank. Eleven crew members were missing. By the time the Muskegon Chronicle printed the story the same day as the 9:50 a.m. collision, 23 others had been rescued and two bodies recovered.  

At 420 feet, the Norwegian merchant ship Topdalsfjord was the smallest of the ships involved in the disaster. It suffered extensive bow damage, but was able to make it to a nearby port for repairs.  

Workers on the Mackinac Bridge, whose vantage point should have given them more clarity, said visibility there was limited to just 500 feet. No one onshore witnessed the collision between the Cedarville and the Topdalsfjord, the latter called at Port of Muskegon several times in past seasons. 

The 42-year-old Captain May of the Weissenburg radioed both the Topdalsfjord and the Cedarville, announcing the Weissenburg was answering the May Day call. He ordered his sailors to man the lifeboats as he followed a radar signal to the scene.

Captain May would later testify he only saw the shadow of a ship. He heard a hissing sound as it sank and the screams of the Cedarville crew as the ship floundered in near-freezing water. It would eventually come to rest on its side, 80-90 feet below sea level. 

The Cedarville sank within 25 minutes of impact.

Who was at fault? What caused the accident? How many were lost? Were all the bodies recovered? What rule changes were called for, following the mishap? Was the ship raised? What was the outcome of the official US Coast Guard inquest?

The answers can be found in the “Shipwreck” files of the Oceana County Historical Society located on Dryden Street in Hart, across from the Oceana County Sheriff’s Office. We’re open Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

We also have files on mills, railroads, farming…well, actually the list is longer than this story. Stop in some time and check it out. www.OceanaHistory.org. 231-873-2600.

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