DIAMOND BLUFF, Wis. -- It was supposed to be an afternoon outing on the river, a chance to enjoy friends, music, and a boat ride. Then, tornado-strength winds crashed down on Lake Pepin and turned the event into the worst marine tragedy in Minnesota history.
Captain David Wethern, part owner of the Sea Wing, usually used his boat for moving timber on the river, but on occasion he arranged passenger outings. He had advertised that on the afternoon of July 13, 1890, he would be loading passengers on the Sea Wing and an attached barge called the Jim Grant, stopping in Diamond Bluff, Trenton, and Red Wing, before heading downriver to Lake City for festivities at the National Guard summer encampment just south of Lake City. Sunday afternoon activities would include a band concert, cannons firing, and soldiers marching in formation.
According to a small booklet commemorating the disaster, Wethern left Diamond Bluff about eight in the morning with a crew of 10 men. The Sea Wing and attached barge stopped in Trenton and picked up 22 passengers, then gained 165 more in Red Wing. They spent the day at the encampment and in the evening made ready to return upriver. As the steamer departed about 8 p.m., increasing winds and some rain sent many passengers inside the ship’s cabin.
Captain Wethern planned to stay close to the Minnesota shore. To do so, he knew he would have to go around two points, Central Point and Long Point (Sandpoint).
“The wind was blowing up the lake, a little off the Minnesota side, I think,” Wethern said in an article by Dean Crissinger in “The Ensign.” “I held her for Maiden Rock Point to get her under the bluff and follow the bend. We were not quite up to the Maiden Rock Point when I saw the squall coming off the Minnesota shore. I turned the boat so as to meet the squall head on. When I was making the turn to meet the storm, she listed some, but rode up again after she got square into the wind. We ran that way straight toward the Minnesota shore for several minutes.”
The Sea Wing rocked in the wind and strained against the ropes attaching it to the barge Jim Grant. Conflicting reports exist about whether the crew cut the barge loose before the Sea Wing rolled, or if the rolling snapped them, but in any case, 60 mile per hour winds capsized the Sea Wing, trapping many inside the cabin and throwing others into the waters of Lake Pepin.
The barge Jim Grant soon grounded and men jumped over the side and ran to Lake City where several boats were sent out in search of victims and to rescue anyone who was hanging onto the overturned Sea Wing. Rescue efforts continued through the night.
The Red Wing Republican for Monday, July 14, 1890, reported, “At first the water around them was dotted with people struggling for life, but in ten minutes there was nothing to see on the continuing high sea of waves.”
Some passengers were able to swim to shore, including a couple who made it to the Wisconsin side. Others were able to get into rescue boats, but nearly half did not survive. During the night, most of the bodies were pulled ashore, but for several days afterwards, bodies were still being dragged from Lake Pepin.
“The sudden and terrible end to the July excursion of the Sea Wing sent a wave of shock and revulsion reverberating through Minnesota and the nation,” wrote Frederick Johnson, author of the book “The Sea Wing Disaster: Tragedy on Lake Pepin” in an article in “Minnesota History.” “Ninety-eight were dead. Whole families had been killed. Of the 57 females on board, 50 had drowned.”
Seventy-seven of the dead were from Red Wing and church bells rang constantly over the next several days as 44 victims were buried on Tuesday alone.
Captain Wethern was able to escape when the Sea Wing overturned, but he lost his wife and youngest son. In the investigation that followed the accident, Wethern was found guilty of “unskillfulness” and of overloading the steamer. He lost his pilot’s license, although it was reinstated a few years later. He lived with his son Roy, also a river pilot, in Prescott, Wis., until his death in 1929 at age 74.
On Friday, July 25, 1890, a memorial service was held in what is now Central Park in Red Wing. Some 5,000 people attended to console each other and listen to speakers including Red Wing attorney and politician Osee Matson Hall and the Rev. W.C. Rice.
“Who can tell whence cometh the wind, or why the lightning?” asked Hall during his speech. “We realize the existence of such forces in nature, and name and use them, but why or how, or for what purpose they exist we know not. The accumulated knowledge of the centuries leaves us, like the first man, still standing upon the shores of the unknown.”
Eventually Red Wing was able to return to the business of daily living, but the Sea Wing disaster is a powerful part of local history and is forever marked on a memorial in Levee Park.