The unwritten code of the lakes dictates that seamen come to the aid of anyone in peril. In this regard the fishermen of Port Washington time and again showed their mettle.
At the time of the September equinox, 1895 a furious gale was blowing on Lake Michigan. The storm raged through the night and into the next day. Delos Smith and his brother Herbert were living and fishing north of Port Washington at Sacker Brook. At first light, they hurried to the beach. Just off shore lay the schooner MARY LUDWIG with its canvas in shreds and one mast gone. To the dismay of the experienced fishermen, the two man crew was trying to launch a small boat. Delos tied his wife's red calico apron to a long oar and waved it to signal the seamen of the danger. The men ignored the warning and tried making their way to shore. The small boat was violently tossed about and overturned, leaving the men clinging to the shell. The Smiths repeatedly tried to launch their own boat, but the storm kept pushing them back. At this juncture Delos yelled to the others, "Get that Frank horse" (a big bay coach horse, owned by the Franks, and used to haul the boats and pile driver along the beach). Oscar Guenther, the lightest of the Smith crew, mounted her. A light buoy was tied to his waist. Without benefit of harness, bridle or saddle, Guenther and the bay plunged into the surf. Breakers pounded them as the horse swam to the desperate seamen. The man at the stern lost his grip and disappeared. The other managed to grab the horse's tail and hold on as the trio made their way back to shore. So was born the tale of the horse's tail and the heroic efforts of the Smiths and Guenther.
On March 18, 1906 the wooden hulled propeller boat ATLANTA left Sheboygan and was downbound on the lake when fire broke out. Blazing out of control, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. Delos Smith, aboard his fish tug TESSLER, working some twelve miles north of Port Washington, saw that the ATLANTA wasn't making headway. Sensing trouble, the TESSLER's crew marked their nets and quickly went to her aid. As they neared the passenger/freighter they could see she was afire. Lines were tossed to the hurricane deck and the terrified crew and passengers slid down the lines or jumped onto the deck of the tug. All but one of the 65 aboard the ATLANTA were rescued. The heavily laden TESSLER set a southerly course for Port Washington. A northbound steamer, the GEORGIA, met the fishing tug and transported the survivors back to Sheboygan.
On October 31, 1929 Captain Earl Godersky and the crew of the DELOS SMITH were working their nets in fog so thick "you could cut it with a knife." They heard a loud, grinding crash not far off. Immediately recognizing the sound of a collision, they tied off their nets and went searching. They soon came across an appalling scene. The car carrier SENATOR had been struck by the ore boat MARQUETTE and gone to the bottom in minutes. Captain Godersky and his crew maneuvered through the wreckage and managed to save 15 of the SENATOR's crew. Having rescued all they could find they headed for Port Washington heavily overloaded. Godersky and his crew were awarded medals for their dangerous rescue.
In July, 1950 heavy seas were breaking over the north breakwater. One of the worst storms of the year had trapped a resolute perch fisherman and left him clinging for his life to a ladder on the lee side. The harbormaster and police, notified of the impending tragedy, had no way of aiding the man. Risking his own life, commercial fisherman Orlando "Butzie" Decker volunteered to attempt a rescue and headed out in his small open fishing boat. He succeeded in his mission in weather "fit for no man or boat."
The Fishermen saved many lives, but the lake also took its toll. The waters off Port Washington have claimed the lives of at least eight local fishermen. July 2, 1882 Charles French, Gabriel Hollander and John Soule drowned when a tornado swept over the bluffs and capsized their open boat as they were fishing some four miles north of the city. One body eventually washed ashore in Mequon. The other two fishermen were never found.
Gerald Bossler drowned October 30, 1951. He had gone out in an open boat to lift perch nets just outside the harbor entrance and was returning with his catch when waves apparently swamped his boat. A late October storm had whipped the lake into a frenzy and the harbor provided no refuge. The coal bridge operator at the Electric Co. witnessed the tragedy. Gerald was seen standing in the small boat throwing his equipment into the water to lighten the load. He then jumped or was thrown into the water and managed to swim about 50 feet before the raging waters claimed him. Local fishermen and coast guard personnel searched for the next four days to no avail. Five weeks later Gerald's body was found on the north beach near Mile Rock.
Captain Joe Cayner lost his life February 14, 1962. It was Wednesday morning when Cayner and Eugene Bay left port on a trawling run that would take them about four miles southeast of the city. By mid-afternoon the trawler MAR-SU had netted about 900 pounds of fish and was set on course for the Port Washington harbor. The boat had to make its way through an ice field, not unusual for that time of the year. A light easterly wind had moved the ice towards the shore. Ordinarily Captain Crayner would be at helm, but on that day he left the steering to Bay and stayed back in the open stern to mend nets. The MAR-SU afforded little visibility for the helmsman to see aft, so Bay had no idea the captain was lost overboard. Nearing the harbor, Bay realized Cayner was missing. He swung the tug around and headed back out to look for the captain. The OLIVER H. SMITH and other local fishermen joined the search. They were aided by Coast Guard boats and Army and Air Force helicopters. The hope was that Cayner had managed to climb onto an ice flow. The search continued through the night, brilliant flares lighting the calm waters. The massive effort continued for days but yielded nothing.
By 1998 only Leif Weborg and his two crewmen, Scott Matta and Warren Olsen, fished out of our harbor. Leif owned two fish tugs, the OLIVER H. SMITH and the LINDA E. As the second week of December unfolded, the OLIVER was returned to Milwaukee and the LINDA E. brought to her winter mooring in our west slip. Friday morning, December 11, 1998 dawned cold and bright. The lake was almost tranquil. The men set out to lift gill nets laying in about 300 feet of water. The tug and crew reached their destination, lifted and set back nets. Around 10 a.m. Leif called Smith Bros. via cell phone and reported they were heading back to Port. That was the last contact with the LINDA E. By early evening the tug's absence was realized and the Coast Guart summoned. As was often the case in the past, a fish tug was first on the scene. Coast Guard boats, planes and helicopters combed the waters and shores for anything that might point to the fate of the LINDA E. The official search stopped after three days, but volunteers continued scouring the waters and beaches. The location of the LINDA E.'s watery grave is still unknown.
Exhibits Designed and Compiled by Linda M. Nenn, Richard D. Smith and Lloyd Smith, September, 1999
Donations from families and friends of Port Washington Commercial Fishermen made these exhibits possible. (Marker Number 7.)