My grandmother has always been afraid of water. She once told me that her father lost some relatives in a Lake Pepin disaster and from that point on he was afraid of water. He would fish from shore, never went in a boat, and didn’t have his children learn how to swim – in turn he passed his fear on to his daughter. It wasn’t until the 1970s when she found a letter in a drawer that she learned this relative of her father lost his wife and three children when the Sea Wing capsized on Lake Pepin. When I looked it up, I learned the story that had caused her fear of water was actually one of the largest domestic maritime disasters in U.S. History.
On July 13, 1890, the excursion steamer Sea Wing was working its way slowly down the Mississippi River with Captain Wethern at the helm. There were mixed feelings over the river-run on this sultry day, tornadoes had been occurring in the northwest since the previous Wednesday. In Fargo, North Dakota, nine people had died in a storm strong enough to knock a train off its tracks. To make matters worse, Lake Pepin, the destination point of the steamer, was well-known by riverboat captains for its abrupt weather changes. There was even a preacher who began warning travelers that the Sea Wing would be destroyed in a storm and that many lives would be lost. In the end though, the steamer was fully loaded with people who wanted to spend the day on the Mississippi River.
The ride to Lake City on the western side of Lake Pepin was successful. Riders left the boat and passed the day on shore. Later in the day, however, the weather turned bad. Some passengers ran for the 109-ton steamer while others sought protection from rains in the town. It is estimated that over 200 passengers were onboard the Sea Wing for its journey home. And unfortunately tornadoes were once again forming in the northwest.
It wasn’t long before the first hard waves of the storm hit. A few minutes later, a funnel cloud was seen coming straight for the riverboat. Muddled messages kept coming to passengers and most of the women and children huddled in the main cabin, trapping them when the Sea Wing eventually capsized. 57 women had been on the steamer and 50 of them perished, including Captain Wethern’s wife.
In total, 98 people died on board the Sea Wing that tragic July day in 1890, 77 of whom were from the town of Red Wing. Entire families were lost, 44 funerals were held on one day alone, and 5,000 people attended the mass memorial service. A plaque now stands in Red Wing commemorating this sad day in Minnesota history and the stories of the heartbreaking losses are overwhelming; it’s a wonder that such history can fade from memory so quickly even within a family it had directly touched. Thank goodness for that letter found in a drawer in 1972 and for the granddaughter who went to the library on a spring day in 1996 to see if she could learn more.