Superior author chronicles maritime tragedy

Bob Abrahamson drew on traditional research for his new book, "Luck of the Draw --The Mataafa Story." The Superior man also left the libraries and archives to walk along the beaches and canals where ship crews fought to survive during the storm o...

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Bob Abrahamson drew on traditional research for his new book, "Luck of the Draw -The Mataafa Story."

The Superior man also left the libraries and archives to walk along the beaches and canals where ship crews fought to survive during the storm of Nov. 27-29, 1905.

He mentally sat himself down in the room where survivors gathered and spent hours gazing out over the waters near Canal Park where the Mataafa tragedy unfolded. The resulting book is a nonfiction story gently interwoven with Abrahamson’s imagination.

"It is hard to find an author that can be understood and appreciated by all who pick it up and he has captured the sights, sounds and emotion of the Twin Ports and what it was like to be a crew member on the Great Lakes," said Tony Tracy, executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society. "You can almost feel the icy spray on your face and the desperation in their hearts."

The storm was the worst ever recorded on Lake Superior at that time. At least 29 ships and barges sank with all hands, foundered, were damaged or run aground in fierce winds, blowing snow and freezing temperatures. Thirty-six sailors lost their lives.


"The decisions that were made that day would pit the vessel captain’s instincts against gadgets and weather maps," Abrahamson wrote in his preface. "As a result, men would die, ships would sink and there would be hell to pay."

Abrahamson focuses on the Mataafa, a steamship that made it past the Apostle Islands, then sought to return to the Duluth harbor. A huge wave lifted the vessel up as it was about to enter the canal. The Mataafa struck the north pier, caving in the bow. The current caught the ship, pinning her to the north pier then pushing her back out. Waves brought her to rest parallel to the shoreline only 230 yards from land. There, waves would split her in two, coat the decks with ice and dictate who would live and who would die. The resulting drama played out in front of more than 10,000 Duluth residents who gathered on the shore.

"There were no heroes, just 24 men fighting to survive," wrote Abrahamson.

A passion for maritime history runs in the family. Abrahamson’s great-uncle William Scott wrote a 40-page book on "The Wreck of the Lafayette," which foundered north of Two Harbors in the same storm. Abrahamson himself wrote the 100-word story on the Mataafa that adorns a plaque in Duluth’s Canal Park. A retired nurse, Abrahamson has a knack for creative writing. He’s written numerous poems, including two on the Edmund Fitzgerald, that were sparked by emotion.

Writing a book, however, was a very different experience. Abrahamson spent four years digging into the story of the Mataafa and the 1905 storm. In some sections, the sailors tell their own story through interviews. Newspaper articles and other material provided additional information for the book.

"In four years, I learned a few things," Abrahamson said, and debunked a number of myths surrounding the wreck. "I had to tell the truth."

As he traced the story of the Mataafa, key people fell into place like dominoes to offer access, insight and more.

"When I needed someone to talk to, they appeared," he said.


After walking the Northland beaches and piers, scanning photos and articles, the author added his own emotions and imaginings to the mix.

"I try to write so people can put themselves there," he said.

Not content to wait for a publishing house to snap the book up, Abrahamson chose to self-publish. On Sept. 29, the first copies arrived.

"It felt so good to have it in my hands after so long," he said.

It’s proven a page-turner for readers.

"I think his book is a factual and emotional walk through the lives of mariners and others involved in this tragic event," Tracy said. "I share the passion for discovering our past not only the events but how those events affected the lives of those involved and those who were witnesses."

Abrahamson will discuss his new book, read passages from it and autograph copies from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Douglas County Historical Society, 1101 John Ave. "Luck of the Draw - The Mataafa Story" is also available at Globe News in Superior, 1430 Tower Ave., and the Bookstore at Fitger’s, located at 600 E. Superior St., Duluth.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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