By Curt Brown
It’s late November, so when talk turns to Minnesota shipwrecks, Lake Superior quickly comes to mind. The Edmund Fitzgerald vanishing in a 1975 gale with 29 aboard. The frozen bodies chipped from the icy deck of the Mataafa just off Duluth’s piers in 1905. And so on.
But Minnesota’s largest maritime disaster went down some 200 miles south of Duluth Harbor in Lake Pepin, that rodent-in-the-snake widening of the Mississippi River.
On July 13, 1890, 215 people in Red Wing piled on to the Sea Wing, a wooden paddle-wheeler less than three years old, and its barge cohort, the Jim Grant.
The people, decked out in Victorian Sunday finery, were on an excursion to Lake City — where Gov. William Rush Merriam and other dignitaries gathered for a weekend exhibition at the Minnesota National Guard’s summertime encampment.
Cannons would be fired, bands would play, soldiers would march in formation and a grand time would be had by all.
It was hot, humid and sticky. So many people wanted to take the pleasure cruise — perhaps hoping it would be cooler out on the water — that the barge was tied on to the Sea Wing to accommodate about 70 of the 215 passengers.
Scattered showers and some squalls foretold the trouble to come. At 5 p.m. in St. Paul, a tornado spun across Lake Gervais, killing six and injuring 11.
David Niles Wethern, the storekeeper skippering the Sea Wing, wouldn’t have known about the lethal twister in St. Paul, but he sensed conditions were growing ominous. He blasted the Sea Wing’s whistle at 7:30 p.m. and sailed north for Red Wing at 8 p.m.
Passengers were crammed shoulder to shoulder in the cabin on the skinny boat — 135 feet long but only 16 feet wide with a 22-foot-high pilot house. Straight-line winds began to whip Lake Pepin, with waves swelling from six to eight feet.