Wisconsin has more than 800 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. Since the early 19th century, Wisconsin’s maritime communities have routinely faced storms that destroyed communities and took lives. This lifesaving medal was awarded to one of the volunteers involved in saving the sailors aboard the barque, a three-masted ship, Tanner in 1875.
Bound for Buffalo with a full cargo of wheat, the Tanner left Chicago on the afternoon of September 9, 1875. A powerful storm off of Milwaukee stripped away most of the ship’s sails and left her unable to maneuver. The Tanner dropped anchor in Milwaukee’s outer harbor. As a gale from the northeast followed the squall, a tug boat went to her aid. Three times the tug attempted to tow her to safety between the long piers forming the entrance to Milwaukee’s inner harbor. Three times the tug failed and the crew aboard the Tanner were forced to drop anchor and wait.
The storm only grew worse in the night, pushing the Tanner southeast toward the remaining piers from the harbor’s original entrance. The boat struck the piers around 4AM, breaking the keel and sinking the boat to her deck in 20 feet of water. Another rescue attempt in the morning failed.
But some watermen on shore were looking on and devised an elaborate plan to rescue the crew. The six rescuers managed to position a scow as a breakwater that allowed the sailors to jump to safety in relatively calm waters. All six rescuers, all volunteers, were awarded lifesaving medals for their bravery from the U.S. Lifesaving Service.
The wreck and rescue of the Tanner was credited with bringing a professional lifesaving service to Milwaukee. This wasn’t strictly true as plans were already underway but the wreck did emphasize the need for fully equipped lifesaving stations along Wisconsin’s lakeshore.
This story was produced in partnership with Wisconsin 101, a collaborative effort to share Wisconsin’s story in objects. Have an object to share? Get in touch.