Loss of the Antelope, The
DESCRIPTION: The Antelope sails from Chicago; on the second day out a gale arises. The cook, in the fore-rigging, freezes to death; the ship springs a leak and is wrecked. The captain tries to save his brother, but drowns; all but the singer are lost
EARLIEST DATE: 1933 (collected from various informants by Walton)
KEYWORDS: death drowning ship shore work disaster storm wreck brother cook sailor worker
c. 1870: Antelope wrecked on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, probably near Point Betsey?
FOUND IN: Canada(Ont)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Walton/Grimm/Murdock, pp. 202-205, "The Shores of Michigan (The Antelope)" (1 composite text plus a fragment, 1 tune)
C. H. J. Snider, "The Loss of the 'Antelope'" (on GreatLakes1)
cf. "The Jam on Gerry's Rock" [Laws C1] (tune)
NOTES: Identifying the ship in this song is tricky. The relevant section of Berman (p. 234) lists *no* ships named Antelope were wrecked on the Great Lakes!
In this case, Berman is certainly wrong, since Wolff lists two Antelopes lost on Lake Superior alone. In 1879, a tug with that name was wrecked, probably near Marquette (Wolff, p. 29). A better candidate for this song would be the 187 foot schooner Antelope, built in 1861. On October 7, 1897, while carrying coal from Sandusky to Ashland, Wisconsin, she started taking on water (the guess is the seams of the old ship started to come apart). It was clear she would not survive, so the Henry W. Sibley, which was towing her, took off her crew (Wolff, pp. 77-78).
Keller, p. 55, has a chapter entitled "Antelope: A Name With A Curse." He notes that Antelope was a popular ship name, and claims that 13 Antelopes worked the Lakes in the 1890s: "seven schooners, two propellors, one brig, one scow, and one tug" -- but goes on to note that all of them capsized, foundered, burned, or was stranded.
Keller, who quotes a fragment of this song, describes the same 1897 wreck cited by Wolff above. He notes that this Antelope was originally built as a steamer but later converted to a schooner (although she still had a smokestack even after her engine was removed!). This increased her cargo capacity, but it can't have strengthened her structure. Keller has a picture on p. 56; it shows a typical 1860s design. It looks as if she would be very inefficient under sail. Keller, p. 57, does note that, although there was no storm, October 7, 1897 had featured rather high seas, and that the Sibley had been towing her at twelve miles per hour -- a high speed for a schooner, particularly an old one. And it is perfectly possible that there would be icy water in the Apostle Islands in October (Keller, p. 21, shows her going down just east of Michigan Island, on the eastern edge of the Apostles, almost due northeast of Ashland, Wisconsin).
Ratigan, p. 235, quotes the same version of this song as Keller. This version seems to be set on Lake Superior (as opposed to Lake Michigan in the Snyder and Walton version). On p. 236 he says that of the 13 ships named Antelope on the Great Lakes, two of them (both schooners) were lost in 1894. He therefore thinks the song should be associated with one of the 1894 wrecks.
Walton/Grimm/Murdock adds even more to the confusion. Their version, extremely composite (at least four informants contributed parts) is clearly a Lake Michigan song (the ship sets out from Chicago). They do not try to locate the relevant Antelope. It appears to me that at least part of their version is based on "The Banks of Newfoundland (II)."
Yet one of their verses is quite similar to the Keller/Ratigan fragment. Walton/Grimm/Murdock even quotes that same text as a fragment of a different song from Lake Superior!
My best guess is that, if there are in fact two songs (one presumably set on Lake Superior and one on Lake Michigan), Walton accidentally combined verses from both. But I suspect that the Walton/Grimm/Murdock hypothesis is wrong; this is really one song, which was perhaps localized to various events. Whether it was inspired by an actual Antelope is questionable. (It is truly unfortunate that no one really tried to collect songs of Lake Superior sailor....)
One of Walton's informants claimed that his father, Thomas Peckham, wrote the song. I suspect that, as with so many traditional singers, this means "modified and perhaps wrote down."
In trying to untangle the confusion, I note that, while ice storms occur on all the Great Lakes, they are much more likely on Lake Superior than on Lake Michigan, making it a better candidate for the disaster. It is most unfortunate that we don't have more versions. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Berman: Bruce D. Berman, Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks, Mariner's Press, 1972
- Keller: James M. Keller, The "Unholy Apostles: Shipwreck Tales of the Apostle Islands, 1984 (I use the 1989 Bookcrafters edition, which -- given the information on the spine and title page -- I suspect to be a private printing)
- Ratigan: William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals, revised edition, Eerdmans, 1977
- Wolff: Julius F. Wolff Jr., Lake Superior Shipwrecks,Lake Superior Port Cities Inc., Duluth, 1990
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