The Wreck of the Caroline Howe

From The Summer of Second Chances: Here is the story of the wreck of  the Caroline Howe—the boat that sank in the icy waters of Lake Michigan in 1933, the boat where Papa Leo found the gold coins.

November 28, 1933

Captain Frank McGuire shivered, pulling his navy wool pea jacket closer and peering into the misty afternoon as he guided the Caroline Howe south along the western Michigan coast. The temperature was dropping. Grey clouds drooped low on the horizon. According to the brass thermometer outside the window of the bridge, the temperature had reached a balmy thirty-six degrees.

This was a fool’s errand—they should have stayed put in Harbor Springs. Nobody asked any questions. The men were comfortable at the pub on Bay Street, and upstairs . . . well, upstairs at the pub, Ruth lay in her warm bed. He sighed deeply with memory of the buxom blonde’s remarkable skills. Dammit, what’s the rush? It’s not like an extra day or two was going to make or break Todaro. Hell, the man had more money that he could ever spend in several lifetimes. Besides, it was probably the last trip he’d ever make if Roosevelt did as he promised and signed the Twenty-First Amendment next month. Maybe Todaro was worrying about losing this source of income, trying to get in a last-ditch run.

McGuire gazed around the elegant teak bridge. The 136-foot motor yacht was built in 1918 and originally named the Seasprite. She ran aground near Charlevoix in 1925 and was scrapped by the Buffalo shipping magnate that owned her. Three years later, multimillionaire Salvatore “Sonny” Todaro salvaged the boat, towed it to Chicago, and had it refitted as his own personal yacht. He renamed her Caroline Howe to honor his maternal grandmother. Now, she was luxurious again, with staterooms outfitted for the ultimate comfort of Todaro and his friends and family.

But the Caroline Howe had another mission—the refit had included state-of-the-art diesel engines that sent the boat moving swiftly over the Great Lakes, and for several years, she’d carried an illegal cargo tucked in secret compartments in the hold. McGuire hated being a part of Todaro’s nefarious activity, but money kept him quiet. It also kept his wife and two young sons safe and warm in a big home in Windsor. At a time when money was scarce and jobs were hard to find, McGuire was willing to take his chances with Todaro rather than stand around on the docks with several hundred others waiting for work on a fishing boat or cargo ship. And at least on the Caroline Howe, he was in charge.

“Temperature’s dropping fast, Captain.” First Officer Brent Woods came onto the bridge, his shoulders hunched against the wind that was buffeting around the ship. He handed McGuire a thick mug. “The men are grousing about the possibility of snow.”

“Yeah, I know.” McGuire accepted the coffee gratefully and jerked his head toward the window. “Those clouds don’t look too promising, do they?” He moved away from the wheel to turn on the ship-to-shore radio, but got nothing but static. Todaro had spent a fortune outfitting this boat with the best communications equipment available, but the damn thing didn’t work half the time. “Go down and tell Cook to make something hot and filling for dinner and to open that bottle of whiskey he’s got hidden for the men who aren’t in the engine room. And take some coffee below—maybe it’ll help keep them warmer.”

“Yes, sir.” Woods nodded, leaving the bridge on a blast of cold air.

Damn, it’s getting colder by the hour! McGuire slumped into the seat by the wheel and let his mind wander to the last of the cargo tucked behind the false wall in the bowels of the boat. He’d left the tiny port at the mouth of the Detroit River three days ago. The Caroline Howe had spent over a week docked there, ostensibly to take on supplies and fix an ailing engine before returning to Chicago. But the fact was McGuire had been collecting payments from Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and points south all week—payments for the cases of booze that he’d carried down from Canada. McGuire’s instructions were clear, stay with the boat and give crates only to the drivers who came with cash in hand. His ten-man crew had offloaded over fifteen hundred cases of expensive Canadian whiskey in the dark chill of the November nights, putting them on trucks bound for major cities all over the country. About fifty cases of whiskey and seventy cases of French wine were still in the cargo hold on their way to Todaro’s private cellar.

McGuire’s mind shifted to the trunk of cash that was hidden behind the wall of his cabin—over half a million dollars in twenties, fifties, and hundreds. It was the most money he’d ever collected for a run. Todaro was pushing it, running another boatload of booze this late in the year. McGuire had almost refused to man the helm, but the wily gangster has sweetened the deal with extra cash, which McGuire needed for Christmas. It was a lot of cash and the weather could catch up to them, but that wasn’t what was really bothering Captain McGuire. No, he’d handled plenty of Todaro’s ill-gotten money in the last five years and he’d traveled the Great Lakes in winter storms before, but this time . . . well, this time, there was the matter of the leather bag tucked under the money.

McGuire’s gut tightened as he remembered Leon Case, the slimy little character who’d brought him the parcel. He was a small man, well-dressed in a nice suit and a heavy overcoat, but an aura of bad emanated from him. The cocky son of a bitch was grinning like a monkey when he’d pulled a large pouch from the pocket of his coat and dangled it in front of McGuire.

“Take good care of this, Captain,” he’d said, making no effort to hide his scorn. “If this gets lost, you can kiss your ass . . . hell, you can kiss your entire family goodbye.” When McGuire didn’t take it from him, he’d dropped it with a heavy chink onto the teak table between them.

“You’ve been paid for your services, I assume?” McGuire didn’t touch the bag. He rose from his chair as he gave the odious man his most imperious look.

“I’ve been paid, McGuire, very well paid.” The man shoved his chair back and stood too; his squinty little eyes put McGuire in mind of the rats that scurried along the docks. “And you can stop pretending you’re any better than me—that uniform doesn’t mean shit—you’re just as much Todaro’s lackey as I am.”

McGuire didn’t reply. Instead he came around the table, brushed past Case, and opened his cabin door. “First Officer Woods? Please escort this gentleman off my boat, won’t you?”

Your boat?” The man laughed, an ugly harsh sound, and shook his head as he stepped out into the passageway. “If you were truly as smart as you think you are, McGuire, you’ll realize this business is over and get out—just like I am. Feds’ll still be all over us, even when booze is legal again. I’ve made my last score for Sonny Todaro. I’m getting as far away as I can—heading for year-round summer and white sandy beaches.”

“Bon voyage, Mr. Case.” Captain McGuire turned his back on the little man and shut his door quietly, locking it. Todaro had told him that Case would be delivering a package and to keep it safe. As he stood staring at the leather pouch, a chill passed through him. He reached for it, tugged on the laces around the top, and peered inside. Gold glinted in the dim light of the cabin. He dumped the contents onto the table. Coins. At least twenty newly minted Double Eagle twenty-dollar gold pieces. He picked one up and examined it. 1933. Jeezus God!

These coins were probably stolen straight from the Mint. Hell, they’d never even been circulated. Hadn’t Roosevelt ordered all privately owned gold surrendered back to the government last spring? Owning these coins was illegal now. The newspapers said he was going to melt down the newly struck gold coins. Todaro must have had someone on the inside, how else would he have gotten a hold of this many new pieces of the precious metal?

What kind of a shit storm would transporting them bring down on his head if anyone discovered the contraband aboard? Once again, Sonny Todaro believed he was above the law. Scooping them up, the captain stuffed the coins back into the leather sack, then shook his head. Like the sonuvabitch didn’t already have more money than God, now he’s stealing from the U.S. government.

McGuire pressed the edge of a panel behind his bunk and the wall slid back. He reached inside with both hands and pulled out a leather-bound trunk. It was heavy. McGuire grunted as he dropped it on his bunk. The key to the big brass lock was on a chain around his neck. Fumbling with the buttons on his stiff uniform jacket, he finally retrieved it. He opened the trunk and pulled aside the oilcloth that covered the treasure inside.

The cash was all there, stacks of bills bundled neatly with rubber bands, but the money meant nothing to him—he wasn’t in the slightest tempted to skim some off the top. He’d seen what happened to men who crossed Sonny Todaro—they ended up at the bottom of Lake Michigan with a sack of heavy rocks tied around their necks or lying in a Chicago alley with a bullet in the back of their heads. McGuire shoved the stacks aside and put the bag in the center of the trunk full of cash, put all the money back in place, and tucked the oilcloth back around it. Slamming the lid, he snapped the big brass lock closed. The sooner they got to Chicago, the sooner he could hand this all over to Todaro and head back to Windsor. It took all his strength to wrestle the heavy trunk back into hiding, but he breathed a sigh of relief when the wall slid into place.

Now three days later, he was scanning the horizon, watching the last feeble rays of the sun trying to break through the cloud cover. Sonuvabitch, it’s snowing! And not light, lacy snowflakes of snow—icy nuggets mixed with huge flakes that struck the window with little tapping sounds. McGuire poked his head out the door of the bridge. The wind blew the freezing mess against his face—he expelled a frustrated breath and ducked back in. Consulting his charts, he realized the route he’d chosen earlier had taken him far west of Michigan—the closest coastal harbor was Betsie Bay at Frankfort—but he was either going to have double back to get to the relative safety of the Manitou Passage or continue south around the Manitou Islands.

McGuire peered east through the thickening snowfall—damn, no sign of the light station on South Manitou Island. The wind was picking up, the waves were getting bigger, but the sturdy yacht held her own against the pounding water. Maybe I should try to make it to the harbor on South Manitou before things get too bad.

He turned the wheel to the left and watched the compass needle move slowly as he headed south and east for the smaller island. He knew the bay near the lighthouse was deep and there was plenty of sandy shore—hadn’t he just read about a captain who’d beached his passenger steamer there during the Big Storm of 1913? Hell, the guy basically tied up to a tree and with his engines running, waited out the storm for over two days. Then just put her in reverse and backed off the beach. He could make the harbor and they could wait out the worst of the storm. Todaro was just going to have to hold tight for a few more days.

A snow-covered First Officer Woods pulled open the pocket door of the bridge and slipped in. “What’s the plan?”

“We’re heading for South Manitou. I’m not going to try to fight this storm,” Captain McGuire replied tersely. “Tell the crew to man their stations. We’re in for some rough travel for a while, so lifejackets are mandatory.”

“Captain!” A scream from the foredeck sent Woods rocketing out the door. “Man overboard! Sound the alarm!”

“Oh, fuck . . .” McGuire pulled back the engines and shouted into the tube for the men below to halt the big boat as someone hit the alarm siren. Stopping the boat in wind and heavy waves was a bad idea, but he had no choice.

“Davies was fixin’ a portside lifeboat davit—it’d come loose again. A gust caught him and pitched him in!” McGuire caught the last of skinny Pete Jeffries’s explanation to Woods as they headed toward the bridge, both of them hunched against the howling wind. “He weren’t wearin’ no life jacket—I was fixin’ to bring him this one.” Pete held up a lifejacket as tears streamed down his face, either from distress or the cold or both, McGuire wasn’t sure.

The boat tossed in the high waves and several crew members, swathed in heavy canvas life jackets, appeared on deck, clutching the brass rail for support. Captain McGuire grabbed his binoculars and scanned the gray lake behind them. He knew for certain that without a life jacket Davies was probably already lost to the icy cold water of Lake Michigan, and trying to find him in this storm was going to be like looking for a cork in the ocean. But he had to go back. Shouting instructions, he buckled a life vest over his wool jacket and tugged on his wool knit cap. Woods went to the wheelhouse and began steering the big boat around. McGuire paced the deck with his binoculars, watching for any sign of the lost sailor in the churning lake.

It was soon evident they weren’t going to find Davies in the huge waves, so the captain sent the crew back down below and then joined Woods on the bridge, both of them quiet and sober as Woods steered them back on course for the harbor at South Manitou. McGuire just wanted to land, dock, and get his men safely off the boat. There was a boarding house on the island that could probably accommodate them, and McGuire allowed the thought of a hot meal and a warm bed to comfort him. He took over the helm as the wind picked up and the waves grew larger, crashing against the wooden structure of the yacht, causing it to pitch precariously.

The snow came down even heavier and McGuire couldn’t see more that ten feet in front of his bow. Woods stood by, gripping the binoculars and watching for the light at South Manitou. A wall of water hit the windows of the bridge, a huge wave swamping the foredeck. McGuire struggled with the wheel as the yacht pitched and rolled into a yawning canyon between two more huge waves. Foaming water battered the starboard side and the Caroline Howe rotated 180 degrees before she rolled onto her side into the churning lake. McGuire and Woods were tossed around in the bridge like rag dolls and water poured into the broken windows.

McGuire reached for Woods, who was bleeding from a jagged cut above his hairline, caught him by the life vest, and swam desperately toward the now-open window. Holding his breath and keeping a tight grip on Woods, the captain thrashed against the rushing water. The boat was sinking fast. The icy water began to penetrate his wool coat and his grip on Woods loosened as the cold made his stiff fingers weak. He blew out the last of his breath and water filled his lungs as he released the first officer to the dark abyss of the freezing lake. Captain McGuire’s last thoughts weren’t of his wife or his sons; his last clear thought was, God damn your soul to hell for all eternity, Sonny Todaro!