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Remembering the Sea Wing

The steamboat Sea Wing capsized in a storm on Lake Pepin on July 13, 1890, killing 98 people.1 / 3
Author Fred Johnson’s expanded “Sea Wing Disaster” contains many new images, research details and stories he uncovered since originally writing about the event in the 1980s, plus the book offers information that gives context to the story.2 / 3
The Sea Wing “marriage jug” was made at Red Wing Potteries to honor an engaged couple, Annie Schneider and Fred Hattemer, who died in the disaster. It is on display at the Goodhue County History Center in Red Wing.3 / 3

Lurid headlines in Twin Cities newspapers announced the tragedy on Lake Pepin that claimed 98 lives, including dozens of women and children from Red Wing and nearby communities.

But for local residents, the Sea Wing disaster that occurred 124 years ago was a cause for mourning and anguish. On one awful day, 44 funerals were held in Red Wing alone.

A new, expanded book by Red Wing native Fred Johnson tells the story of the event which, despite the magnitude of the tragedy, has been largely forgotten in the annals of Minnesota history.

Published by the Goodhue County Historical Society, “The Sea Wing Disaster: Tragedy on Lake Pepin” is being released this month as part of a weekend commemorating all who died on July 13, 1890. A book signing event, a concert and cruises to the site of the disaster all are open to the public.

•Johnson will autograph copies of his new book at a launch party from 4 to 6 p.m. July 8 at the Goodhue County History Center, 1166 Oak St. He will speak briefly.

•The historical society, which is sponsoring the commemorative weekend, is featuring an expanded Sea Wing exhibit in the museum lobby. It includes stories, photos, memorabilia that survived the disaster, and the one-of-a-kind Sea Wing “marriage jug” made at Red Wing Pottery to honor Annie Schneider and her fiancé, Fred Hattemer, who were among the victims.

•Red Wing’s Lauren Pelon will lead a quartet performing her original “Ballad of the Sea Wing” and other regional music at the History Center on July 12.

•On July 13, the 124th anniversary of the disaster, there will be two separate three-hour cruises revisiting the Sea Wing’s route aboard Capt. Rusty’s Sight Sea-er II. Johnson will be on board to tell the story. Cruises leave at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. from Red Wing Levee Park. Cost is $50, which includes a copy of the new book.

The Sea Wing, a sternwheel steamboat, was packed with 215 passengers that fateful day for a Sunday cruise to a National Guard encampment in Lake City.

The steamer and an attached barge were about five miles north of Lake City, heading back to Red Wing, when a frontal thunderstorm hit, according to Johnson. Straight-line winds flipped the boat, and 98 passengers drowned.

The media trumpeted the dreadful news.   

“Whole Families Forced into the Darkness of Another World Clasped in Each Others Arms,” one newspaper headline read. “Tornado on Pepin’s Treacherous Bosom the Crowning Calamity of all Minnesota Annals,” another paper wrote.

“For four days,” Johnson said, “Minnesotans and the nation followed the horrific story.” They dubbed Red Wing the “City of the Dead.”

The people of Lake City rushed to help, though the storm also struck their community hard. Many victims were still in the lake, prompting the National Guardsmen to take over recovery operations. They cannonaded and dynamited the lake in unsuccessful attempts to raise bodies. Days later the drowned victims began to surface.

Local residents waiting to see whether their loved ones had survived the accident — 144 of the passengers were from Red Wing — waited at the levee until a boat carrying dozens of bodies reached shore.

Only seven of the 57 women and girls on board survived. The victims had taken shelter in the Sea Wing’s main cabin and were trapped there when the boat capsized. Other tragic vignettes emerged as well, Johnson said.

Capt. David Wethern of Diamond Bluff, whose wife and son were among the drowned, came under harsh criticism, Johnson said. An investigation found him guilty of “unskillfulness” and overloading his vessel, which had started the morning in Diamond Bluff. That community and neighboring Trenton each suffered 10 dead.

Johnson, who now lives in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, initially wrote about the disaster in 1986. He has since done considerable more research, so that the new book — a hardcover — tells more tragic stories and offers considerable new research and photos. The book also gives context to the disaster.

Although the Sea Wing story was well publicized at the time, the story has slowly disappeared from memory outside the communities that were most affected by it — Red Wing, Lake City and Diamond Bluff.

“I have yet to meet someone in the Twin Cities area or greater Minnesota who has heard of the Sea Wing disaster,” said Johnson, who has written 10 books and numerous magazine articles about Minnesota history.

“My great-grandfather, a teamster, drove the first wagonload of Sea Wing victims from the Red Wing levee to local funeral parlors. Two sisters who would have become my wife’s grand-aunts also died.”

A Lake City videographer, Ben Threinen, is producing a documentary film on the Sea Wing that also is expected to be released this summer.

For more information about the commemorative weekend, to order a book or to get reservations for the concert or a cruise, contact Director Dustin Heckman at the Goodhue County History Center, 651-388-6024, or go online to Availability is limited.