In the winter of 1926, 29 men struggled to survive a blizzard and the near-sinking of their ship, the City of Bangor, in the harsh waters of Lake Superior. While their story of survival is remarkable, even more so is the cargo they carried and how it survived: 200 1926 Chrysler automobiles, most of which were salvaged and made an arduous journey back to civilization.
The City of Bangor was a 444-foot long steamer headed for Duluth with a cargo of Chrysler automobiles when it got caught in a fierce snowstorm not far from Eagle River on the night of November 30. Lake Superior is famous for its rough weather, particularly for how fast it can sneak up on boats, and the captain of the Bangor decided he would backtrack and hide on the "lee side" of the peninsula. He never made it. Just outside of Copper Harbor, not far from the point of the peninsula, the ship's steering failed and soon the ship was at the mercy of the seas. Shortly after, she was smashed into the rocks not far from shore. The waves continued pounding the vessel and soon water was pouring through the hull. The engines were swamped and the ship was doomed. A dozen or more cars which had been on the deck were washed overboard. The captain decided to abandon the ship and told his crew of 28 to head to shore.
It was pitch dark and there was little to shelter the men – who were not dressed for a northern Michigan winter – from the elements. They thought they might be able to hike to Copper Harbor in the morning. Struggling against snow which was 4 feet deep – but had drifted to 14 feet in places – the men quickly gave up on going anywhere and hunkered down where they were. They began considering life's deeper questions. Then, a miracle. Another ship had been stricken by the storm and had managed to get ashore and call for help not far from the Bangor; the Coast Guard sent help and on their way back, the Guard saw the Bangor's crew on shore, in rough shape. Help was sent and the crew was picked up and brought to the hospital in Calumet. Many of the men were stricken with frostbite but they would survive.
But what of the cars? It was determined that they would be saved. Operations commenced once the ice had frozen between the ship and shore. A ramp of snow and ice was built to allow the cars to be driven off the ship. According to the newspaper, "Bitter cold caused a 10 foot layer of ice to en-sheath the decks.  It was necessary to actually hew the cars out of solid ice." Some thought had been given to plowing a road through the woods but the effort would have been monumental and it might not have even worked. Instead, the cars were simply driven carefully along the shoreline to Copper Harbor. The ones which had been washed off the deck could not be saved but were said to have washed ashore in the spring.
The story of the remarkable rescue of the men and the cars made headlines around the country. The Milwaukee Journal told of how "giant rotary plows progress a mile a day in opening the roads from here [Calumet] to Copper Harbor to salvage 200 shipwrecked automobiles."
The 200 cars were marshaled in Copper Harbor and then driven to Calumet when the road was open. There, they were shipped back to Detroit by rail. Eventually, the cars were reconditioned and then sold. The City of Bangor was partially scrapped in 1929 and the bulk of it was removed in 1944 in an effort to make use of the iron.
We do not know if the future owners of the Chryslers were told of the ordeals the cars had gone through to find their way to the dealer. Stories abound in the Copper Country that not all of the cars from the Bangor left the area.Of course it is possible that some of the cars which were sold after being reconditioned found their way to northern Michigan but the legends always hinted that some of the locals had just "found" cars on the shore and taken them home without bothering to see who they might belong to. "A 1926 Chrysler just sitting on the shore! Now how did you get here? Let's take you home and get you into a nice warm garage."
According to the caption on the back of this photograph (Courtesy of the Michigan Tech Archives) "Paddy Slusarzyk of the Calumet District stands beside his famed Chrysler which goes back to the beaching of the City of Bangor in a Lake Superior storm on November 30, 1926. The car is now 45 years of age. Paddy so values the car that he says he even now would not take $1,000 for it despite its age. He runs it every day in the summer but in winter he merely turns the engine over to keep it 'easy'." No mention of whether he bought it or "found" it. But if it did really come from the City of Bangor, its story was worth remembering.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, specializing in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device.
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All photos (except for the two news clippings) courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives.